Stackable plastic drawers filled with her “stash”—beads in every hue known to man—dominate the studio of Teri Greeves (b. 1970). Adorning the walls are some of the Kiowa artist’s favorite 2-D pieces that she’s kept for herself and a bevy of award ribbons. One shelf is dedicated specifically to boxes of Chuck Taylors in several stages of completion, and in a corner, a container holds smoked deer hides tanned traditionally, using the animal’s brains and liver. “It’s an amazing thing to me when I think about it. I mean, this is ancient, right?” she says of the antediluvian preservation method.
When were you first captivated by beading?
I started beading when I was 8 years old. Like with a lot of other traditional mediums, kids start real early. My mother highly encouraged me throughout it. She did trading post at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where she sold beads and materials. She allowed my sister and I to buy them from her at wholesale cost [laughs], because she said nothing in life is free, and we used those materials and experimented and played with them. So I've been beading my entire lifetime. I beaded my way through college—it helped me pay for my books, my board and all of that—but I never thought of it in terms of it being a path or career. I graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz in '95, and then after I graduated, I came here to Santa Fe. I was planning on going to law school at UNM, because they have the best Native law program in the nation over there, and then I did my very first Indian art show. It was the Eight Northern Pueblos show, which is now defunct, and I did really well; I sold out, and I was shocked. I told my mother I wanted to do Indian Market, and she said, 'Just know that you probably won't get in…you won't have your own booth'; it was really tight back then. I applied, I got in, got my own booth, and then the second year that I did market, I won Best of Show.
What was that like?
Literally, my thought process was,
Cool, now I can make enough money so I can start a family
. It wasn’t really about defining myself as an artist, it was that I had been doing beadwork my entire life; it was so much a part of my identity. Even if I went to law school, I’d still be beading, you know what I mean? It’s just something that I do—I have to make stuff with my hands. It took me about two or three years after I won before I even called myself an artist. When people ask me what I do, to this day, I respond, ‘I’m a beadworker’ first, and then, when they give me that puzzled look because most people don’t know what that is, then I say I’m an artist and then I have to explain what beadwork is. I feel that by me calling myself a beadworker, it legitimizes my medium—which has always been problematic as it is—the same way that a sculptor would say, ‘I’m a sculptor’ or a painter would say they’re a painter.
In those instances, what is that explanation of a beadworker that you give?
Beadwork is craft. It's defined by the art world as craft. Fine craft at a certain level, otherwise, just craft. So there is that tension between craft and fine art that plays out in the broader art world, and there is where beadwork sits. I don't know how many times at my booth at Indian Market, I've heard, 'Oh, wow. How much is that?' I give them the price. 'Oh, my God, I can do that.' I mean, you would never go up to a painter—or maybe certain people would—they'd look at an abstract piece of art and go, 'I can do that at home,' you know? It's not as accepted as ceramics or textiles, in terms of collecting and all of that. The old stuff is, the antiquities are valuable, but contemporary beadwork isn't. That's changing, I was a part of that change when I came to Indian Market in the late '90s. I can feel the change, but you have to be actively engaged in it. For me, I have the need to create, tell stories, and I choose beadwork as my medium to do that. This is a historical, generational medium for me that is embedded with the history of America. Beads are not Native American, they are trade objects; we took these European materials and made them into what is really…when you think of Native America, what do you think of? War bonnet with beadwork on it, war shirt with beadwork on it. Iconically, Native America is beadwork, but it's European, and it's been rehandled in these Native hands.
When did that switch flip and you decided to do beadwork on completely different objects?
I started off doing traditional objects, just like any other Indian kid out there. I beaded plenty of lighters and earrings and all that other kind of tchotchke stuff. The very first thing I actually ever beaded was a pair of baby moccasins. When I was at college, it was my mother who told me to expand what I was beading. She said, ‘Why don’t you try to bead a pair of Converse?’ Beading Converse tennis shoes was not my idea. When my mom had her trading post in Wyoming, beaded tennis shoes came through when I was a teenager—I thought they were the coolest things ever. They were very traditional, the beadwork on them looked like a pair of moccasins, they were amazing. I was just a kid, and I’d only beaded little tiny things—belt buckles, whatever—so to bead a big object was crazy. The second pair I did were pictorial, and it was with the pictorial work that I realized that I could tell stories, picture stories, and it came together. I’d allowed myself the restrictions of what is traditionally expected from the traditional objects, but in my own work, I’m able to kind of go, sky’s the limit.
Appreciate it firsthand: Find her during Indian Market at booth 327-FRN by the La Fonda Hotel. Sunday morning on the Plaza gazebo, the Jeri Ah-be-hill Contemporary Clothing Award, named in honor of Greeves' late mother, who for a long time ran the Native American Clothing Contest, will be awarded.