Native Arts | Marcus Amerman

By Dottie Indyke

Bead artist Marcus Amerman sits in a comfortable chair in his Santa Fe home working on a commissioned piece. A portrait in the form of a photograph is adhered to a slim piece of cotton, which is dyed black and stiffened with Elmer’s Glue. Once the photograph is completely obscured with beads, it will become a bracelet.
Portraiture is difficult enough in any media, but Amerman’s ability to capture a precise likeness with nothing more than thousands of multicolored beads strikes many of his collectors as extraordinary. The skill involved in re-creating the visages of celebrities such as the Beatles, Madonna, and Elvis Presley has clinched Amerman’s reputation.“I combine the pictorial beadwork of the Plateau tribes with the graduated peyote imagery of Oklahoma tribes into a style with which I can capture shadow, light, and form,” Amerman says of his technique.

Watching him work, the observer is confounded by Amerman’s ability to place one tiny silver bead next to another to produce just the right effect in the glimmer of the hair. Mistakes cannot be rectified, so from the outset the artist must conceptualize the entire piece in his mind.

“I have to trust it will turn out correctly,” Amerman says. “And I don’t know that it will until near the end. Before that, it’s bead by bead, assigning beads to spaces, like a computer scanning. People sometimes think I do this on a computer—but I’m the computer.”Of Choctaw and Hopi descent, Amerman grew up in a beading family. His aunt taught him his first stitches, and his brother Roger, an award-winning beader, provided inspiration. When he was 10, Marcus thought a beaded belt made by his brother was “so cool” he went off and made his own belt buckle bedecked with an Arizona state flag. Later his sharp observation of the world yielded beaded sunset scenes of the desert, complete with glittering mountains, cactus, and flowers.

In his pre-college years in Pendleton, OR, Amerman sold some of his pieces at the Pendleton Round-up, the second largest rodeo at the time, but his career focus was math and science. Until he took a sculpture class at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, he thought he’d become an engineer.

“My first class project was a 10-foot-tall sculpture of a bug made with steel, resin, fiberglass, and paint,” Amerman says. “I impressed myself with the scale of it. I found I could put everything I was into art. It seemed so liberating and expressive I was ready to declare art as my major.”

After graduation he moved to Santa Fe, where he had previously spent summers living with his cousin, contemporary painter Linda Lomahaftewa, and where he felt part of a community of Indian artists. He enrolled at the Institute of American Indian Arts and studied documentary filmmaking. In the intervening years he has worked on a few films and says one day he’d like to make his own movie.

Amerman’s first beaded movie star was Brooke Shields, who emerged in 1982 on the back of a motorcycle jacket. Since then he has crafted wall pieces, belt buckles, jackets, wallets, purses, tuxedo lapels, and many bracelets with portraits of celebrities and Indian chiefs.“Before I beaded, I used to paint chiefs from photos,” Amerman says. “I love old photos. And I love the chiefs’ courage and way of life. I always feel I am honoring them by depicting them this way.”

Only a student when his work first captured public attention, Amerman was featured in the IAIA Museum shop and later in exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Mingei Museum in San Diego, the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, and Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. His pieces have been showcased on “Good Morning America” and “Oprah” and purchased by the very luminaries he illustrates, people such as Sylvester Stallone and Goldie Hawn.

Still, the artist’s rise to fame and fortune has been slow, perhaps in part because beading is often viewed as a “second-class citizen” in the fine-art world. “Appreciation of my work has grown gradually,” Amerman says. “There have been no overnight successes, just a lot of beads under the bridge.”

But the good news, he says, is that he finds many ways to express his creativity. “I do what I could only imagine before—sculpt with light, paint, do performance art. I don’t see any boundaries.”Amerman’s work can be seen in Santa Fe at the Case Trading Post at the Wheelwright Museum and the Institute of Indian Arts Museum gift shop and at the Raven and Dove Gallery in Wilmette, IL.

Featured in “Native Arts” January 2008