Hollis Chitto lives his legacy through beadwork
Words by Paige Townley
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for Native American beadworker Hollis Chitto, he finds beauty in the simplest of things: flowers in the spring, a Santa Fe sunrise, or simply a color. “I can get inspiration anywhere,” he says. “It’s funny because sometimes I’m not even immediately aware of being inspired—I just see something and my mind quickly goes to how it could impact the design of a bag or a pendant. It’s like a snowball effect sometimes where I take inspiration and run with it.”
Hollis was just 10 years old when he found a shoebox of beads and porcupine quills in his family’s garage (his mother had at one time tried to teach herself the age-old craft) and decided to try it out himself. With an illustration book in hand, he first taught himself quillwork—an ancient native American artform that uses porcupine quills as aesthetic elements—and then beadwork, which is also deeply rooted in Native American history and tradition. Native American tribes first used quills hundreds of years ago to decorate clothing, moccasins, and jewelry. Eventually, as beads were introduced, they also began using beads of various sizes and styles. “For me, it was trial by fire,” Hollis says. “I like to learn everything about everything, so once I got started, it kept my attention and I wanted to learn everything about it. There’s so many ways to learn about beadwork and grow in the artform to find your own voice, and that was really appealing to me.”
That dedication to learning the craft could also be because artistic ability flows in his blood. Hollis’ father is a potter and sculptor, and his grandmother was a beadworker as well, though she passed away when Hollis was just 3 years old. “I grew up never seeing art as something I couldn’t or shouldn’t do,” Hollis says. “I was really fortunate that my parents exposed me to art at such a young age.”
Hollis and his family were constant attendees and participants at various Native American art markets in Santa Fe—his parents were friends with many beadworkers, including Maynard White Owl Lavadour, a renowned Native American beadworker—and some of his earliest memories include being at the markets, perusing the beadworker booths and analyzing the uniqueness of the pieces. Now, he’s regularly showing his work at galleries and markets across the country, from True West Gallery in Santa Fe to the Heard Museum art market in Phoenix, Arizona, to the Cherokee Art Market in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Hollis has become known for his unique style, which often incorporates bright, bold colors in highly stylized motifs. “I like bright colors and putting together colors that people typically don’t think work together,” he adds. “People often tell me I have a good eye for colors, and I’m always proud of how I put them together.” Elevating Hollis’ style is his intricate ability to incorporate Art Nouveau and Art Deco-inspired elements into one motif—while using his own background contouring that creates a lot of movement within the piece. “I really like to create
a lot of different angles in a piece,” Hollis explains. “It creates a lot of movement, but at the same time reigns it in so it’s more definite.”
While Hollis has no shortage of design inspiration, he often gives a nod to his Native American heritage with subtle details. Born and raised in Santa Fe, in addition to being half Laguna Pueblo, Hollis is also half Mississippi Choctaw. His father was born in Mississippi and then made his way to New Mexico to attend college. On one particular bag, he included diamonds as a reference to how Choctaws historically appliquéd diamonds on all of their clothing to represent a diamondback rattlesnake. To highlight his Pueblo side on another bag, he used all pottery designs but configured them to look like flowers, for which his pieces are so well known.
In addition to drawing from his heritage, Hollis strives to explore social issues affecting Native American communities. One recent bag he made, which was exhibited at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida, brought awareness of HIV in the Native American community. Titled “Bloodwork #2,” the beaded bag was white with streaks of red disturbing the design. Marrying the beauty of his designs with his platform to shed light upon important social issues is one of the motivating factors that drive Hollis. “In its own way, that piece exists in its own beauty in that it allows us to have the discussion without the stigma that’s typically attached to it that often turns people off,” he says. “That’s my idea of beauty. Although the topic isn’t beautiful, the design is doing its job. And I think that’s what art is: it accomplishes a task that someone wants for it. The superficiality of beauty isn’t always superficial.”