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December 19, 2016

A gifted loom turns into full-time hobby for Potawatomi beadwork artist

Gift giving is a longstanding tradition in Native American culture. Communities view it as a means of sharing and survival, a practice that still holds importance to this day. For Bourassa family- descendant Laura Hewuse, a simple gift from a family friend sparked a passion and led her to become an artist.

Hewuse was gifted a loom about 12 years ago and decided to bring it to CPN Legislator Roy Slavin’s District 1 meeting in Kansas City, which happened to be hosting a craft night. She credits that evening as being when her passion for bead working began.

“My cousin Peggy Kinder once told me that our family needed a beadwork artist,” said Hewuse. “Some of the aspects that drive my passion for beading are creating unique pieces, pushing the envelope and bringing the pieces to life through color and tradition.”

The first piece she made was a beaded sash for her father, which she gifted to him on Father’s Day. The pattern is an old eastern woodlands design which she was inspired to mimic after seeing it in an old photo. Altogether Laura has made about 15 to 20 different pieces including hat bands, hair accessories, storytellers and bandolier bags. All the pieces are custom-made to fit the personality of the person they will belong to.

Out of all those she’s made, the women’s storytellers are her favorite.

“I love being able to make something beautiful for dancers that helps express who they are,” said Hewuse. “I’m currently working on the third storyteller as of now.”

A storyteller is a long and elaborately beaded accessory that drapes behind the dancers back and tells a story about them. CPN education director and southern cloth dancer, Tesia Zientek, reached out to Laura in 2014 to have one made. 

“What we did was matched her storyteller colors to her regalia,” said Hewuse. “The pattern is based off who she is, her life story, and something special that happened in her life.”

The process to start a storyteller for Laura begins by meeting with the person she is making it for and finding out the specifics of the story they want tell.

“I find out their passions in life, who has helped them along the way, pretty much anything about them helps decide what will go into it,” said Hewuse.

Laura gives the recipient options and helps them decide what will go into the design so that it’s a truly deep and meaningful piece. The next step is to figure out what specific story they want their storyteller to portray. 

“It’s a really hard process; it will take about a month to get the full and final pattern figured out for each one,” said Hewuse.

After the final pattern is created, she inputs the design into a computer program on her laptop called BeadTool 4. The program takes the design and develops a row by row pattern that she can follow bead by bead. There are times, however, that she will need to hand-draw a specific part in. Storytellers are long and elaborate, which makes creating one a tedious and time-consuming process. Each row can take up to 10 minutes, which includes loading the beads on the needle, tightening and running it through the loom.

“If I’m having a bad day, I won’t work on my bead work,” said Hewuse. “I don’t want to put that bad energy into a piece, so there’s a lot of love that goes into it. If I see a color I don’t like, I’ll back up 20 rows and change the whole piece because I want it to be done right. It’s frustrating at times but the final product is well worth it.”

Her clientele has grown through word of mouth and social media. Currently Laura is involved in four different projects. Her advice for those interested in having a piece made is to not wait until the last minute.

“Start thinking ahead as much as possible and gather up your ideas and expect it be a long and thorough process,” said Hewuse. “I like to have at least eight months to create a piece.”

Bandolier bags take up to eight months to one year, depending on how long the strap is, and a storyteller can take six to nine months, depending on the length.

As Hewuse grows as an artist, she continues learning to bead different ways and on different types of material.

“Seeing the two aspects of traditional ways mesh together with modern styles fuels my passion to continue to create,” said Hewuse. “My father always told me to always do the best I can and make a name for myself. I think I’ve accomplished that and can’t wait to see where it takes me.”