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Experimentation & invention: Artist LeJeune Chavez combines beadwork with stones and silver to craft intricate jewelry

This piece I call “the reimagined thunderbird necklace,” LeJeune Chavez said. “I used tiny cut beads, size 13 and 15, to get the detail of the thunderbird. I used colors that represent the stones that were used back in the 1920s and ’30s on the Santo Domingo Pueblo thunderbird necklaces.” (Courtesy of Lejeune Chavez )

LeJeune Chavez paints with beads.

The Santo Domingo Pueblo (Kewa) artist combines beads, stones and silver to create miniature tapestries of needlework in glass.

Chavez is one of 450 artists who juried into the Santa Fe Indian Market-turned-virtual because of the pandemic at swaia.org.

In her work, hundreds of tiny beads may circle a turquoise stone in a rainbow of colors atop silver overlay. Thousands may transform into a traditional thunderbird necklace or hundreds into a buckskin cuff. Others flit into the wings of a dragonfly. Chavez dips her needle and thread into the beads; her husband Joe performs the silver work.

Chavez used the isolated time in quarantine to experiment with designs she had never attempted before.

“It was always in my mind to make (a thunderbird) with beadwork,” she said. “I thought, this is the time I’m going to do it. I used those tiny beads, size 13 to 15. The bigger the number, the smaller the beads.”

This beaded cuff by LeJeune Chavez is designed after the Santo Domingo Pueblo thunderbird symbol. “I used tiny size 13 and 15 cut beads to design the thunderbird and cloud and dragonfly on both sides of the beaded cuff,” she said. The cuff is traditional “smoke hide” buckskin.

Santo Domingo artists created traditional thunderbird necklaces from old battery casings and record albums during the Depression. Chavez strung hers using the traditional primary color palette with glass beads as small as a grain of kosher salt.

That kind of invention is nothing new to her.

She began working with beads as early as 7 years old.

“I remember making some little bracelets out of cotton twine and those big beads,” she said. “I put them in a shoebox and went around to my neighbors and tried to sell them.”

She continued that marketing when she attended a California boarding school. She sold pieces to the staff, as well as the school museum.

“I used to sell my parents’ work under the portal at the Palace of the Governors,” she said.

Detail shot of LeJeune Chavez beading.

After high school, Chavez got a job working for the phone company in Santa Fe. Then it was time to commit.

“I just decided to quit my job and do beadwork for a living,” she said. “That was 30 years ago.”

Her husband left his job as a contractor to do silver work. It was Chavez who came up with the idea of combining the two art forms.

“That’s a little secret recipe,” she said.

She calls a pendant featuring a turquoise stone orbited by beads atop a silver overlay bezel “Beads on Silver.”

LeJeune Chavez beading at Santo Domingo Pueblo.

“I like to call these our signature pieces because nobody’s doing that kind of work,” she said.

A beaded turquoise necklace pairs Chavez’s intricate patterns with a single Kingman turquoise stone.

“My husband does the stone cutting, so I get dibs on the stones,” she said with a laugh. The piece also includes a single nugget of jet and a removable loop so that it can be used as a pendant. She also incorporated gold Swarovski crystal beads.

“I don’t draw out my designs,” Chavez said. “I see it in my mind and it’s like painting with beads.”

Chavez juried into Indian Market about 30 years ago; it comprises about half her income.

“This piece I designed using natural stones and beading around each stone,” LeJeune Chavez said.

“I was a little bit shocked at first,” she said of the pandemic closing, “the way everybody was.

“But since we’re both self-employed artists, we were able to fall into our routine. It was kind of our therapy.

“I miss the visitors who come to Santa Fe,” she continued. “I miss the holding, touching and feeling our jewelry. But for now, it’s the way we have to go.”

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