Photography: Courtesy Marcus Amerman
Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull, 2006. Photography: Courtesy Marcus Amerman

With his special beading powers, Marcus Amerman is something of a cultural superhero.

Every morning, Marcus Amerman takes his coffee with him and sits down on the far right side of the sofa in the living room to go to work. The light is best there, and it’s directly across from the television, which is also important, so he can refocus his eyes from time to time to avoid eyestrain. All day long, he watches action movies — “something that keeps the blood going and neurons firing,” he says.

Over and over again, he threads tiny No. 13 beads onto his “canvas,” usually a photocopy of an image or collage of images over a piece of Pellon (a fabric used for fusing and interfacing). He picks up a few beads from round, clear plastic cases arranged by hue and kept in Frisbees (one for blues, another for greens, etc.), threads them, and sews them on three at a time with a simple embroidery stitch. His beads are all made from faceted glass; many of them are antique beads he’s found at trading posts in Santa Fe or Clinton, Oklahoma. The facets catch light, so the final beaded product will sparkle and shine. As he attaches the beads, blocks of vibrant color come to life. Faces appear. Images form. It goes on like this sometimes for 10 hours straight.

My Santa Fe.
My Santa Fe, 2007.

Amerman’s beaded pieces require a lot of time and a lot of beads. His 11-by-17-inch My Santa Fe, a kitschy vintage-postcard-inspired piece with images of various Native Americans in the letters that spell “Santa Fe,” took about 80,000 beads and nearly three months to complete.

“It’s almost like I’m addicted to it,” he says from the home he shares with his aging parents in Kooskia, Idaho (pop. 607), on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. “I have to do it to maintain my peace of mind. Any sort of tedious, repetitive work like this is meditation. You experience a calmness when you’re doing this work.”

His beaded images, though, are anything but meditative. Amerman’s unique style of beadwork exploded onto the Indian art scene in 1983, when he beaded a portrait of Brooke Shields in a bikini on the back of his leather motorcycle jacket. Since then, he has featured images of Wonder Woman, Val Kilmer, and Winona Ryder on cuff bracelets, and he has re-created realistic portraits of Chief Joseph, Geronimo, Quanah Parker, and Sitting Bull. In some of his works, there’s a mashup of historical and contemporary, such as a depiction of the burning Twin Towers on 9/11 with Native Americans on horseback in the foreground or an image of soldiers jumping from a helicopter in a war zone with a portrait of Crazy Horse in the center (both of those are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., where an Amerman bracelet featuring Chief Joseph is also on display).

If he’s making a social commentary, it comes out organically. “I have this bank of images and all of a sudden, two will decide they belong together,” Amerman says. “Or something in the news sparks a connection — it could be anything.”
He’s not unaware of the strength of contrasting images and the power of pulling from the headlines and putting a personal twist on them. “As artists, we’re supposed to be sensitive, to be aware of the truth. My social-political side can’t help but come out. It comes out in my beadwork and seeps out of my pores.”

Take a Chance on a Lucky Blanket, 2006.
Take a Chance on a Lucky Blanket, 2006.

Amerman, who is Choctaw, comes to beading naturally. His family and extended family — in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Oregon — were into powwow culture. “They were singers, dancers, drummers, composers,” he says. “We made the whole outfit — the feather bustles in the back and all of the beadwork for the dancing outfits — moccasins, leggings, everything.”

He sold his first beadwork at the Pendleton Round-Up Indian Village in Pendleton, Oregon. “We put out a card table, and I sold beaded bracelets, like the loom-beaded soft cuffs you would tie on, for $5.” Today Amerman’s bracelets sell for $1,200.

His collectors include celebrities Sylvester Stallone, Elton John, and Goldie Hawn, and his works are in the permanent collections of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, American Museum of Natural History in New York, Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, and the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon.

Whether his work is realized in a bracelet or a framed piece, whether it’s displayed on an arm or a gallery wall, Amerman is known for his arresting realistic images. There’s even a name for the unique style that has made him a superhero in the beading world. “I started this ‘photobeadalism,’ ” he says. “I was the first to originate this style, and it’s caught on in Indian country.”

Widely imitated by many other — mostly Native American —beaders, Amerman sees the emulation as a cultural opportunity. “I wanted to share it with my people,” he says. “I like ideas that are shared and become a whole movement, and this has become an evolution in the Indian world.”

From the August/September 2016 issue.