Sherry Farrell Racette connects community through beading

January 23, 2017 by Michael Collins - A&S News

Blood, sweat and tears. This misquote, attributed to Winston Churchill (and name of a band), is a well-worn cliché to describe the effort and incredible hard work it takes to accomplish something.

But it’s not cliché when it’s the truth.

Just ask artist Sherry Farrell Racette about ornate and intricate Indigenous beadwork. Farrell Racette is an associate professor of Native Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of Manitoba who is the spending the 2016-17 academic year at the University of Toronto as the Jackman Humanities Institute’s (JHI) first Indigenous Faculty Scholar.

An artist in many forms, Farrell Racette says, “I enjoy all the media I work with — lately I’ve gotten really interested in sound — and also very old techniques of bookmaking. I love painting.”

“But beadwork is something special,” she said. “I learned to bead in northern Manitoba from the late Kathleen Delaronde in The Pas, and later from the late Margaret McCauley from Cumberland House in northern Saskatchewan.”

“Beading is extremely time-consuming, especially with more ambitious pieces,” she says. “It cannot be rushed. You sit in one spot for hours. Your back gets sore and your shoulders get tense and my fingers sometimes cramp. It’s also very hard on the eyes. I fuss a lot with lights. The needle cuts on fingers are the worst.”

Needle cuts are an understatement. Farrell Racette says for the longest time everything she beaded would have at least one blood blotch on it.

“Unseen, covered up, but there nonetheless,” she says.

Those who bead, bleed

Scissors and other materials on Sherry Farrell Racette’s beading table
Sherry Farrell Racette’s beading table at the JHI. She began working on the little flower at a Métis art gathering in Michigan and has since worked on the piece with OCADU’s Indigenous arts program and the Indigenous literature research group at the JHI. “I have no idea what it’s for, but I’m sure it will let me know.” Photo courtesy of Sherry Farrell Racette.

She’s not alone. Universally it can be said that those who bead, bleed.

“When beading artist Jamie Okuma posted pictures of her hand — with every finger wrapped in a band aid — and the cuts and marks obvious, it opened things up for me,” says Farrell Racette. “I realized there was no easy place at that level. There was only working through discomfort, putting in the long hours, and just getting it done.”

Farrell Racette and others have bonded and connected through these shared experiences.

“When Jamie Okuma and Charlene Holy Bear started posting pictures of their messy tables, spilled beads, and their pitiful hands, it looked like my table, my mess, my hands,” says Farrell Racette. “I was greatly heartened by the fact that I struggled as they did — although my results are much more modest. Among a small group of artist friends, sharing our mishaps and struggles is a way to bead together.”

Farrell Racette researches Métis and First Nations women’s history. “My work seeks to pull back the blanket of anonymity that cloaks so many isolated pieces in museum collections; to claim space for these women in the canon of Canadian art history.”

She has edited, written and illustrated books, and this year is preparing her doctoral dissertation for publication. She says, “I’ve got something that is roughly the size of the New York phone book. Now I’m pulling from that work and writing a fresh manuscript. It takes time to mull things over before you write. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the community I am writing about, so I want to get it right.”

Farrell Racette links past and present Indigenous culture through beading. For example, in one of her talks she remarks that new versions of traditional medallions are now worn by Indigenous hip hop artists and urban youth.

“Beadwork connects me and stitches me into a lineage of women artists that I strive to stand among,” she says. “There is a magic in beading — that doesn’t always happen, but when you get a good rhythm going, its meditative and therapeutic.”

“Beading complex motifs from works in museum collections helps me understand their process and the kinds of techniques and aesthetic decisions artists made,” she says. “It’s like having a conversation with the woman who made the piece. Putting my hands where her hands have been is a way of learning. How can I write about something if I don’t truly understand it? Beadwork is multi-dimensional, it isn’t just a pretty surface.”

Beading for a greater purpose

One powerful notion that she talks about is ‘beading for a greater purpose.’ This idea is perhaps best represented by the artwork, Walking With Our Sisters, where Farrell Racette served as both an installation advisor and contributor.

Walking With Our Sisters consists of over 1,750 beaded moccasin vamps, or uppers. These are intentionally not sewn into moccasins so each one represents the unfinished life of one murdered or missing indigenous woman or girl. The vamps were created by over 1,000 volunteers, a large percentage of whom were first-time beaders.

“Just installing the vamps takes at least three days,” says Farrell Racette. “Physically hard work too, since you lay every pair on the floor. It is emotionally hard, as each pair represents a woman. You alternate between awe at the beautiful beadwork, and tears at a child’s ‘Miss You’.”

Farrell Racette says people’s response to seeing Walking With Our Sisters is what you would imagine: quiet, hushed, grief, but also hope.

“For people from outside the Indigenous community — the extent of the loss is often overwhelming. The enormity of it,” she says. “For people from within, we are remembering our own losses. Walking through is not as hard as installing. Only the people who install the vamps know what is written on the backs. Reading the dedications, especially from children, is heartbreaking. These women were so loved, and are so missed.”

It is in this way that beadwork serves a greater purpose, says Farrell Racette.

“Every bead you sew when you are beading for a loved one stitches a thought, a wish,” she says. “It can also be playful, but that is also therapeutic. There are times when life feels beyond our control. Sometimes I think, well there’s nothing I can do about that, but I can manage this little row of beads. I can create something beautiful out of difficulty and pain.”

Farrell Racette says her collective beading will focus on the communities she’ll be part of while she’s in Toronto. She has already beaded with both the Indigenous arts program from OCAD University and the Indigenous literature research group from the Jackman Humanities Institute.

“I’ll do another with any interested Jackman fellows,” she says. “I will also be beading with a small group at Massey College where I am a visiting resident scholar. Once I start beading my big project for the art exhibition, I’ll be hunched over the table in my beautiful office at the Jackman Humanities Institute with natural light flooding in.”