ST. PAUL, Minnesota — With a needle and thread and painstaking attention, Jessica Gokey “paints” images of flora and fauna, two tiny beads at a time.
As she has developed her art over the past decade, her elaborate work has earned her a Minnesota Historical Society fellowship and attracted private collectors.
Now it’s garnered its highest accolade yet: a place in the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
“It’s the highest honor,” said Gokey, 36, who lives and works in Inver Grove Heights, a suburb of the Twin Cities. “It’s so awesome. … The pope as a leader, he might actually lay eyes on my artwork.”
The piece that will be displayed at the embassy is called “A Dance with Florals,” and it features a blue waterlily surrounded by other blooms and juniper.
She created it specifically for the embassy, after U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Joe Donnelly, whom the U.S. Senate confirmed for the post in January, expressed interest in a similar piece on her website that she had already sold, she said.
Donnelly officially began his duties April 11, presenting his letters of credential to Pope Francis.
Gokey, who is from the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe near Hayward, Wisconsin, roots her art in traditional Ojibwe beadwork.
A lifelong artist, she began working with beads a decade ago. A 2013 fellowship at the Minnesota Historical Society was pivotal for her art, she said. For six months, she studied traditional beadwork in the historical society’s collection.
“I’m a self-taught beader,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “Everything was research online, museum collections, studying photos, studying historic photos, talking to elders, talking to mentors, to try to figure out how to bead, how to do the traditional designs.”
The fellowship’s deep dive into traditional beadwork inspired new techniques in her own work, she said, as she shifted from simple, “flat” images to more realistic designs with color gradation and iridescence. She moved to the Twin Cities following the fellowship.
A former game warden in Hayward for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Gokey draws on her knowledge of plants and animals and behavior she’s observed. One of her works, “Companions,” was inspired by a male and female otter she once watched play.
She began beading when she was a game warden as a “creative outlet,” she said. “I was protecting nature and I’ve always had an interest in florals and plants.”
Now it’s her full-time work. She wakes at 3 a.m. to begin beading, often for 10 hours a day. One piece takes weeks to months to complete. She uses Czech seed beads and, for most of her works, a high-quality wool from Teton Trade Cloth, a company that specializes in Native American textiles.
She first draws the design on stitch-and-tear paper, which guides her beading and is removed when the piece is finished.
When she began beading, most of her work was for Ojibwe regalia, bags or other utilitarian items people could wear, she said. Now she works on pieces that are meant to be framed for the wall.
She has sold most of her work to private collectors. Her piece “Native Food Table Accent” is on exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society and is part of its permanent collection. She’s also exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Among the Ojibwe people, “there’s a lot of beaders,” Gokey said, “but not a lot of beaders do what I do. I consider my beadwork a fine art.”
One of her works in progress, “Generational Memories,” aims to express her belief that her talent has been handed down through her ancestors through DNA.
Gokey announced May 23 on her website, jessicaleighgokey.com, that “A Dance with Florals” had been selected for display at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See through “Art in the Embassies,” a cultural program of the U.S. State Department.
“U.S. Ambassador Joe Donnelly and Mrs. Donnelly chose Jessica’s work to be displayed in the embassy in Rome for the duration of his tenure as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican,” the news release stated.
The artwork was shipped in late May and is expected to be on display in an embassy reception room.
It will be on loan for two to three years, Gokey said. She plans to visit the Vatican to see it, and she said it’s especially meaningful that her art was chosen for the U.S. Embassy because of its proximity to the Vatican Museums’ world renowned art collection.
“I strive to show the world that traditional Ojibwe beadwork or just traditional Native American beadwork should be held as high as any other type of art today. Most people look at it as a craft or folk art, but I consider it a fine art,” she said.
“To have it in a place like the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican, to actually be there and have world leaders and everyone see my art is just amazing — not to mention all the history of art in the Vatican,” she added. “I just want to cry. I can’t wait to go see it.”
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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.