I have been admiring beadwork by Brenda Mahan for the past few years. She is Koyukon Athabascan with roots from Galena, Alaska and now lives in Nevada. Brenda was raised in Cordova, Alaska and is a shareholder of Chugach Alaska Corporation. Although she has a day job as a child support supervisor, she spends her free time beading. I consider her a master artist in beading.
Brenda’s adoptive parents are Pete and Marlene Laplante. Her birth grandparents were Johnson and Lilly Henry from Galena, Alaska. Brenda’s birth mother is Madeline Henry. Madeline is a beader, and collaborated with her late mother, Lilly Henry, to make several large coasters for the Governor’s Awards in Alaska in the 1982. Madeline and late Lilly also have a piece featured in Kate C. Duncan’s book, Some Warmer Tone Alaska Athabascan Bead Embroidery.
Brenda says, “Being adopted, I learned bead embroidery from books.” One such book was, Ann’s Creations: Designs & Instructions for Making Your Own Athabascan Beadwork by Ann Goessel, where she learned some of the basics to beading. In 2001, she ventured to make her first beaded barrette. In 2004, Brenda took a beading class taught by Athabascan bead artist, Delores Sloan, held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. In 2009, Brenda decided to create floral beadwork with moose hide with a goal to sell it at Alaska Native Medical Center’s Gift Shop in Anchorage, Alaska. The ANMC Gift Shop is known for selling high quality traditional Alaska Native arts and crafts. Brenda said, “This was an honor for me to have my items accepted in this gift shop as it meant that my beadwork had met a high standard.”
Brenda was always drawn to beadwork and sewing and especially loves floral beadwork. She finds inspiration from nature. She grew up enjoying the wonders of Alaska, like beach combing, berry picking, hiking, skiing, snow machining, trapping, hunting and fishing. Brenda’s preferred materials include size 11 Japanese seed beads, nymo thread, porcupine quills, moose hide, dentallium shells and Ultra suede. Brenda uses the two-needle method which she believes makes her lines straighter and more controlled curves. This method came naturally to her, but designing has been more of a challenge.
“I love to work with the soft moose hide and the smell of smoked hide conjures up many feelings of happiness for me. There are not many people who bead on moose hide anymore due to the rising cost.” Brenda Mahan, Koyukon Athabascan
Beadwork brings Brenda closer to her Athabascan and Alaska Native people. She often shares her beadwork on a Facebook group, called Athabascan Showcase. Brenda enjoys connecting with people, and has even discovered some are distant relatives.
Brenda was honored to receive with several pages of floral patterns and a zipper pull mukluk pattern (signature piece) from Madeline. Brenda wishes she lived closer to Madeline so they could bead together. Brenda only met her late grandmother, Lilly Henry, once and treasures looking at pictures of her beadwork. Brenda adds an edge technique to some of her beadwork in honor of Lilly’s style of beadwork.
Although, I am no expert at beading or determining if someone is a master bead artist, I feel Brenda’s artwork is exemplary. Her work reflects her extensive research on the style and technique of Athabascan beadwork. One of Brenda’s latest projects is a moose hide octopus bag. It is approximately 11” x 15” with beadwork on one side. Her center flower is her attempted to re-create using an older book called, Northern Athabascan Art, A Beadwork Tradition by Kate C. Duncan. Brenda says, “Sometimes I feel like I am connecting to that person when I try to re-create their old flower pattern. The patterns are more difficult than ones that I’ve done in the past. I’ve learned about color and contrast working with these more difficult patterns. I feel like the past speaks to me through my beadwork.”
Brenda studied several octopus bags in museums. However, she has never been able to handle one. The bag is going to be lined. The shape of the bag with the tentacles fascinates her, and she has enjoyed making it. Brenda has been careful in planning and creating the bag using old traditional flower patterns and moose hide throughout.
Brenda sells some of her beadwork at the Alaska Native Medical Center gift shop in Anchorage, Alaska and the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe Fox Peak in Fallon, Nevada. You can view some of Brenda’s work on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
Brenda is grateful to friends and mentors, like Emma Forsberg and Glenda McKay, for assistance during the process of learning to bead. Brenda’s dream is to bead an Athabascan baby belt. Although, she knows it will be a large, costly and time-consuming project, she’s looking forward to creating one with full moose hide. One day, Brenda also like to create moccasins, mittens and different types of traditional Athabascan bags. She would love to make these items with moose hide and in the traditional manner as it seems to be becoming a lost tradition (creating them entirely out of moose hide).
I recently met her in Anchorage. Her face lights up when she talks about her work and the process. If I know one thing about artists, it is the fact that they love discussing process. She brought three pieces of artwork with her, and I enjoyed seeing the detail of her work. Brenda’s beadwork almost looks 3D, and I thought some beads were raised. She assured me that it was not raised.
As you can see, Brenda is very talented Athabascan bead working and artist. I admire how much she invests into the planning and creation of each of her pieces. Ana basee’ Brenda for sharing your work and passion!