Chickasaw artist Isabella Falashoka’s beaded works are a recollection of shared artistry and intimate exploration. Within there is an expression of a connection to the natural world as well as childhood memory and visitation. This is artistic practice that involves intricate months-long crafting of singular images that fluidly represent a collection of narratives.
If Falashoka’s story begins as a series of interwoven images and experiences it is because this sense of the nonlinear is intrinsic to her practice, embodied in two recent complex beaded images that speak with many voices –Nashoba and the Beader Talk About History and Noktiipa: Mask for the Infected. These are three dimensional objects which seem to exist between oral tradition, history, lived experience and artistic imagination. Of this admixture there is a powerful beauty and graphic simplicity that draws the viewer in, and wraps her into the layers of storytelling. Here we find a dialogue between nature, the voices of ancestors, artist and lived history.
Falashoka shares that her creative beginnings were of respite, she lived in the bush with her parents whose paranoia about the cold war led to collecting weapons and in creating she sought out a place “where the sky would not explode.”
In making art she addressed a “longing for safety and the hope that I would live to grow up through drawing and making. There were other possible worlds out there, and I was going to find them.” While the artist notes her mother made work of leather, beads, paint, paper mâché, stained glass, and regalia for her brother, it was the intricacy of private contemplative objects that drove Falashoka to develop her own visual language that focuses on systems of symbols, inherited language and storytelling. “As a child, I drew a lot of what I called ‘mouse houses’ which were intricate rooms underground where mice lived cozy lives doing regular boring things. I also made a little town, kind of like the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, dug out of the side of a big clay dirt pile. I worked on that thing for weeks and was quite proud of it.”
Today Falashoka is recognized for her contemporary beading work such as Nashoba and the Beader Talk about History -a piece that contains over 7,000 vintage and contemporary Czech 13/0 seed beads.
The artist notes that work such as this can take around three months and while others may create beaded work more quickly she finds this studied process to be one of constant experimentation, and as such – a learning opportunity for new techniques.
Falashoka begins her process as a sketch on paper followed by a photograph and refined in Procreate. She colors in her image and bastes it onto the wool felt, leaving her paper layered between the beads and felt to guide her beading. She beads using a two needle flat stitch (bead needle and tacking needle).
The bead needle comes up from the back side of the felt on a line on the paper pattern and she strings enough beads on it to cover a few inches of the line. “The string of beads is positioned on the line with one hand, and the other hand brings the tacking needle up from the back of the felt right beside the gap between the second and third bead and jumps over the thread between them and through to the back of the felt.” This is continued for every second bead and is as a general rule both intensive and time consuming.
The beaded work Nashoba and the Beader Talk About History is made of wool felt, contemporary and vintage glass seed beads, and cotton fill. The wolf’s face is complemented by the hand of the beader, a symbol for the continuation and intersection of artist, memory and tradition. In the act of creating the beader interrogates the history of making and the story of her people.
This image of a wolf comes from a moment in childhood -Isabella was eight and playing in a sandbox and was visited by a wolf. She notes no one believed her but she continued to draw and paint the wolf. In this work Nashoba brings the gift of beading from the artist’s ancestors and they are here as she works the needle. In this act her ancestors remain present. Indeed, after making the work Falashoka discovered she is Wolf clan.
Falashoka’s recent work Noktiipa: Mask for the Infected is also made of wool felt and incorporates contemporary glass seed beads, shisha mirrors, metal bells, red cotton cloth, pony beads, and brass jingle cones.
The artist shares: “This mask offers no protection because there was no protection for Indigenous people from smallpox. The fatality rate was 80 – 90%. Entire villages were wiped out, and bodies lay where they fell because there was nobody alive to bury them.”
The indigo beads symbolize the colonists who brought smallpox and the wealth accumulated by Europeans through colonization. The mirrors are smallpox pustules. So often these pustules were found over the eyes of disease survivors rendering them blind and their faces “as unrecognizable and fragmented as the desolate new world of the rare survivor where everyone and everything they knew was dying or dead. The encircling gold beads represent “the insatiable European greed for gold through massacre and conquest and later gold rushes that sent thousands invading tribal lands with no regard for treaties or Indigenous sovereignty.”
The Indigo, gold, and blood red fringes represent feeling buried, suffocated by the unrelenting and unstoppable waves of Europeans bringing death and disease for hundreds of years. This is a mask for the already infected, trying to make sense of the unimaginable.”
Of this journey through realms of memory, narrative and artistry we come to creative energy that remains connected to ancestors and a poem by the artist whose work and practice sustain and preserve a living history breathing through the image of a wolf and an enigmatic mask.