Teri Greeves’ beadwork resonates with a wide array of people, whether they wear one of her pieces on their wrist, display it in their home, or view it in a museum or gallery. We recently interviewed Teri about her history and start in beadworking, the sometimes confining definitions of art and craft, and our ability to communicate through art when we look beyond the medium.
Beadworker. And still when people ask me what I do, I answer “beadworker”. Then when I get a confused, puzzled look, I tell them, “artist”. When I’m in the rest of the (non-Native) world, they ask me what I do and I say I’m a beadworker, and that’s where the confusion comes – that’s where I found I needed to make a distinction and explain that I am an artist with something to say. And I think with that piece [Indian Parade] I realized that I could speak through that medium. Every single stitch I did on there I did with purpose. That’s something I can say 15 years later. At the time, I was struggling with the identifiers, the language that was put upon Native artists. And I was struggling because I wanted to be known as a beadworker because to me, beadworking is like saying, “I’m a painter”. You’ve mentioned in interviews that when you made your piece Indian Parade on an umbrella, it was the first time you’ve considered yourself an artist. What made that mental shift for you – and what did you consider yourself before?
I started to see the nuances in how it was being talked about. I realized through PBS and the other craftspeople featured that this is something that all craftspeople struggle with. Somebody that does hand work, where the hand of the artist is required to finish the work from beginning to end – that’s the work that’s kind of been looked down upon- and that’s part of larger art definitions and all that.
I should make a distinction – I have basically two things that I do: jewelry and art pieces. And I didn’t realize this until Jamie and Jed at Shiprock did this crazy photograph… an ad in the paper where they had all these amazing Native jewelers and they also included one of my beaded pieces. When Jamie sent it to me, it was the first time I had ever thought of myself as a jeweler. I had always made jewelry, from the get-go I made jewelry, but in my head I had always thought of it as “Those are my little beaded trinkets.” I never thought my jewelry could stand toe-to-toe with all those jewelers, even though I was getting good money for my pieces.
I had always thought more about my artwork. For me – this is how I’ve always done it – I get really intense on a piece or a series of pieces, whatever it is that I’m working on artwork-wise – my heart and soul goes into it, and I feel like they’re babies once their born. My baby is done, I completed it and then I’ll switch to doing jewelry because to me the jewelry is fun, it doesn’t have as much intense thought. Although some of it does have meaning, it’s not quite the same.
I don’t ever mean to say that jewelry is not art – just for me, in terms of commitment to an idea and intensity involved in the project, my jewelry making is a much lighter process.
But the idea of decorating the human form as a part of feeling beautiful and admired is important to me. When I was growing up, my mother [Jeri Ah-be-hill] had a trading post – my sister [Keri Ataumbi] and I had jewelry since the moment we were born. We came out of the hospital and she put a bracelet on our wrist. Jewelry is a universal form all humans can relate to. I love the idea of creating pieces so people can decorate themselves with meaning and beauty. That is my main goal in making jewelry.
At the same time, I have these other things I want to say, and they can only be said in a certain way with certain objects. When I do the artwork it is oftentimes something that has been rolling around in my head, almost like a thorn in a shoe. It bugs me until I have to deal with it. I have to think about it. I have to research it. And then I have to figure out how I am going to tell that story visually.