Beautiful little chunks of glass have taken Karen Ann Hoffman around the world to many places and people. I am very fortunate that they recently brought us together over the phone for a conversation exploring art and activism.
Karen Ann is an Haudenosaunee Raised Beadwork artist from the Oneida Nation and a beadwork student of Samuel Thomas and his late mom, Lorna Hill. Based in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, she was selected as a 2020 NEA National Heritage Fellow. This distinction is given by the federal government recognizing outstanding achievement and contribution to our nation’s traditional arts heritage.
Raised beadwork is an Iroquoian technique developed in the early 1800’s where beads are sewn to create three-dimensional pieces. This technique reached Wisconsin in July of 1998 when the Oneida Nation Arts Program presented Samuel Thomas and Lorna Hill to Oneida to teach their style of raised beadwork. Karen Ann drove two hours to attend the workshop thinking that she would attend this class and it would be done. She immediately fell in love with this art form and her life would be forever changed. Through the years, she acquired fundamental skills in stitching, beading, design work, and patterns.
It was the personal work that Samuel and Lorna did outside the workshops that would inspire Karen Ann to walk in the same realm as her teachers. She was raised in a community of artists and felt that it had prepared her to step up and step into this opportunity.
“Artists must know their materials and what they want to communicate,” she shares with me. She approaches her work by asking what tradition/what teaching/what aspect of the Haudenosaunee culture can be attempted to be explained and supported in the whole so that in 200 years, a piece of culture can be understood. “I get to make one choice. What is that tradition? The choices about colors, style, patterns for objects… all of that is out of my hands. I’m just the conduit,” she says. In this work, the ancestral components cannot be separated. And she adds, “I have the responsibility to really know what those before me held for us. I am responsible to sew that together so that people down the road will also have the opportunity to know what our ancestors held up, and the function of the piece of art.” To Karen Ann, it is important that the voices of her community—the art—are in places where they are strong and cared for. The continuation of the cultural context is important and as events go on in this world, Karen Ann thinks about them through the lens of the teachings that have come down to her. And she responds.
Most recently, she has been working to honor a burial ground of natives that died of a Scarlet fever epidemic in the 1860’s. This burial ground is found underneath the UW-Steven’s Point Campus where a permanent marker, memorial and acknowledgement is currently missing. Working alongside an archeologist, in 2016, they got that area declared by the state of Wisconsin as an uncatalogued burial site. This past December, a temporary marker was erected but Karen Ann continues to advocate so that the university, the UW System, city, and/or the county make this acknowledgement permanent. “Here we are in the middle of another pandemic. These diseases hit communities of color and under-resourced communities in very different ways,” she continues “I really feel like these lessons, those experiences, that those people in that 1860’s outbreak want us to think about the chance we have right now to do something different.”
As a native artists Karen Ann has affirmed that existing in the now of her community, the past of her ancestors and in the future of her community can happen all at once. She’s been thinking alot about her understanding of native time and shared the following with me, “I think about it like a soap bubble, when you watch that soap bubble float in the air, there’s different colors, iridescence, movement and shifts towards and away from one another. That is all these three frames of time— morphing, moving and shifting in those soap bubbles.” It is through her unique beadwork that Karen Ann takes the legacy of her ancestors and honors the past, present and future—reaffirming the life and legacy that each creation carries.
Click here to learn more about raised beadwork
Click here to learn more about Karen Ann Hoffman
About Xela Garcia
Marcela “Xela” Garcia is a Xicana artist, innovator and cultural warrior that currently serves as the Executive Director at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, WI. She brings broad experience in arts and culture administration, education, philanthropy and organizational sustainability. She earned her BA in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing & Chicanx/Latinx Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also holds a certification in Nonprofit Leadership. Xela was awarded Board Sources’ National Emerging Non-Profit Leader Award in 2012, was recognized as Wisconsin’s Most Powerful Latinos in 2018, was selected to the 2020 class of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Award, and the 2020-2021 Arts + Culture Leaders of Color Fellowship with Americans for the Arts.