Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The beadwork swirls into imaginary flowers, birds and leaves in a dazzling riot of pattern and color.
Some cascade down straps into bags, others center onto the miniature accessories of dolls, trailing into snug moccasins hugging tiny feet.
Hollis Chitto (Choctaw/Laguna Pueblo) attended his first Santa Fe Indian Market when he was 5 years old, selling clay masks next to his father Randy Chitto’s clay turtles and bears.
“They hung on the wall and they were kind of cute,” he said from his Santa Fe home. “My favorite part was decorating them with beads.”
Today he embellishes bags and dolls with a dizzying palette of 100-year-old micro beads, some as fine as a grain of sugar.
Chitto’s work hangs in the Santa Fe gallery Hecho a Mano at hechoamano.org through Aug. 23.
It all started when a young Chitto discovered a cache of his mother’s old beads in the family garage. His Choctaw grandmother had been a beadworker. Although she died when he was very young, the family believes he draws his facility with hair-thin needles and microscopic glass from her.
“I taught myself quill work,” Chitto said; “my Dad had a book. It was French Canadian; I taught myself from the diagrams. After that, I learned beadwork.”
He loved the saturated color glowing from antique beads. Soon, he was sketching out his own designs.
Beadwork is like coloring to him.
“I always tell people I do abstract flowers because I can’t draw,” he said. “They’re all my designs; I have a whole shoebox full of doodles and random ideas.”
A scarlet Bandelier bag is the largest piece he’s made; about 6 inches wide and 3 feet long descending from the top to the fringe. He calls it “Chata Anumpa in My Accent.” English is his first language, while Chata Anumpa is his father’s. Although he is learning his native language, he knows he will always speak it with an accent. The design embraces historic Choctaw beadwork, while reflecting his own patterns.
Chitto collected antique purse frames in brass, sterling and pewter as starting points for his bags.
“I got inspired by Art Deco and Art Nouveau flowers,” he said.
“Bloodwork Number 2” is a commissioned piece exploring the impact of HIV on Native communities.
“There’s still a lot of stigma around it,” Chitto said. “It’s the most significant event in queer history. It’s in the back of every queer person’s mind.”
A red streak of dripping blood interrupts his white bag across a floral design. “It changes everything, but it doesn’t ruin the design,” he said.
A woman’s cornmeal bag titled “Resplendent Quetzal” is a stunning display of color and design. The bird is from South America; Chitto first saw one in a display at Chicago’s Field Museum.
“If the pueblos weren’t contacted by the Europeans, what would their artwork be like?” he mused. “I thought it would be more naturalistic depictions of birds.”
The piece features antique micro beads, brain-tanned buckskin, sterling silver beads and drops, garnet beads and wampum beads.
“Adeline” is a doll dressed in contemporary Native clothing, including a ribbon skirt, denim vest, a tiny beaded bag and moccasins.
“It was a three-month project and I did it in a month and a half,” Chitto said.
“I started with her skirt because that’s what Native girls are wearing now,” he added. “I added sequins to the bottom.”
“She has her moccasins and her leggings,” he continued. “Under the skirt, I made jeans; they’re rolled up. Her nails are painted to match her skirt.”
A garnet necklace dangles beneath her neck, complete with gold drops.
The artist always names his dolls, but he couldn’t think of one for this latest creation. His best friend was about to give birth to a baby boy. She said she had always wanted to name a girl Adeline, Chitto said. It stuck.
“I looked it up and it means royal.”
In 2018, Chitto took first place at the Santa Fe Indian Market for a beaded evening bag.