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Maggie Thompson’s Sharing Honors and Burdens Installation Celebrates the Lives We Lead After Grief

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Studio assistant Mary LeGarde works on a loom for the piece “I Get Mad Because I Love You.” Photo Maggie Thompson

When Maggie Thompson calls, the Twin Cities answer.

Last February, Thompson put a call out on social media for volunteers to help her create beaded works that would be displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Volunteers were welcome in Thompson’s studio anytime from sunrise to sunset. No beading experience was needed; participants were taught the stitch and loom techniques when they arrived. The only requirement was to show up and give what you could to the project.

More than 50 people across the Twin Cities, ages 11 to 80, answered the call. Over the course of three months, they logged hundreds of hours of beadwork for the show’s final pieces.

Thompson might be best known for her knitwear, cowls and hats with bold linework, sold under her Makwa Studio brand. Born and raised in Minneapolis, Thompson has been working locally as a textile and multimedia artist for over a decade. After receiving a bachelor of fine arts in textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2013, she returned home and debuted her first solo show at All My Relations Gallery. Since then, her fine-arts work has been shown across the country, and her knitwear brand has gained national popularity.

Thompson, who is a citizen of the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa, was one of six indigenous artists invited to exhibit multimedia pieces for the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery invitational last year. Curated by Lara M. Evans (Cherokee Nation), Sharing Honors and Burdens was an exploration of the responsibility of representation, tradition, and innovation that indigenous artists hold in their communities.

“It wasn’t feeling right to be working on [the pieces] on my own,” Thompson says. “I think it was always meant to be built within the community.”

Photo Maggie Thompson

Contemplative Beading

One of the two pieces, “On Loving,” is a trio of vinyl body bags, each adorned with an eight-point-star quilt pattern at the center. Volunteers and assistants hand-stitched rows of copper beads around each of the stars in the months leading up to the exhibit.

The idea for the body bags “came from thinking about Covid and collective loss” and its impacts on indigenous communities, Thompson says.

“I Get Mad Because I Love You” required a custom loom that could seat up to three people at a time. The final piece, standing four feet wide and six feet tall, was painstakingly assembled with rows of opaque and translucent white beads repeating the title words. Meant to convey the verbal manipulations used within psychologically abusive relationships, the piece is an optical illusion — the words “I love you” are clearly visible in white beadwork, as the translucent beads that spell out “I get mad because” almost slip away into the background.

Meticulously creating these tributes to personal and collective grief created a space of healing for indigenous and non-indigenous volunteers.

When the pandemic first hit, volunteer Lauren Beuckman had just moved her family back to the U.S. “I had been feeling quite isolated and disconnected when this project started up, and it created a beautiful third place [outside of home and work] for me to interact with friends, acquaintances, and strangers.”

Visitor looks at “On Loving” at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo Pixel Me Studio

Even in a city that is well-known for its indigenous arts community, a space where up-and-coming indigenous artists create a shared project while expanding their craft can be rare. For studio worker Renee Belanger (Red Cliff Band of Chippewa), the project provided a place where she could build connections within the Twin Cities indigenous community while deepening her beadwork skills. As the owner of a small beadwork business, she had experience with loom beading and stitch beadwork — but the scale of this project was new.

“There was a physicality to it that I couldn’t have predicted,” Belanger says. “At times we were literally shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee inside of the loom while creating this intensely personal and beautiful piece.”

Studio assistant Mary LeGarde (Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa direct descendant, Fort William First Nation) saw how beading created intimacy among beaders. “It was this beautiful time of being open [with others],” she says. “Beadwork gets you into this really mellow state, and it’s easier to share. You’re working with your hands, and it becomes meditative.”

As one of the younger people working on the project, LeGarde also found guidance in the stories and advice people shared with her during the work. “It just felt like I was surrounded by relatives who just wanted what was best for me.”

Photo Maggie Thompson

While there are different cultural traditions around beadwork, some indigenous cultures teach the inclusion of a spirit bead in a work that deviates from the overall pattern. This is the beader’s way of stitching humility and imperfection into a final piece. There was a spirit bead in one of the body bags, but Thompson says the larger act of humility was allowing the imperfections that come with collaborating to weave throughout the works.

The different techniques people used to stitch throughout the work became “one of the most beautiful parts,” Thompson says. “I found that the stories hidden behind the work were just as, if not more, important than the end product.”

“People really loved being a part of something that felt ‘big’,” says Belanger. “Working on a project that is now displayed at the Smithsonian isn’t something that most of us will have an opportunity to do again in our lifetime.”

When LeGarde arrived at the exhibit opening, she was taken aback by the feeling of being in the gallery with the finished pieces. “You know that, being Native, these pieces are alive,” said LeGarde. “They’re not just artwork for people to look at, they’re like our relatives.”