Every now and again Métis artist Jessie Pruden pinches herself to make sure it isn’t just a dream.
As the founder of Bead N Butter, a jewelry line that combines traditional, Métis-style beadwork with contemporary designs and colour schemes, Pruden regularly ships her hand-woven earrings to customers across Canada, and as far away as France and Australia
That, despite the fact that as recently as 18 months ago she could barely thread a needle to save her life.
"It’s not a lie to say that before all this I’d never so much as sewn a button on a shirt," Pruden, 38, says with a chuckle, seated in the Grant Park-area abode she shares with her partner and their menagerie of four-legged friends — three felines and two pooches. "On the other hand, all my aunties were beaders, my Auntie Doods was particularly talented, so I guess it was hidden deep down in my DNA somewhere."
Pruden, a restaurant server for most of her adult life, found herself hardly able to walk, never mind work, in the summer of 2019 owing to a debilitating knee injury caused by years of shlepping heavy trays of food and drinks back and forth.
She enrolled in university that fall with the goal of embarking on a new career path, taking Indigenous studies together with a few women’s and gender courses. COVID-19 put a wrench in that plan, however, when she was forced to attend class remotely, which for her proved less than ideal from a learning perspective, so much so that she ultimately called it a day.
If those factors alone weren’t enough to make her throw her arms up in despair, she was also having trouble netting a pair of earrings she desperately wanted.
"There’s an amazing beader in the city named Bronwyn Butterfield whose earrings would sell out as fast as she could make them, pretty much," Pruden explains, referring to the 25-year-old Cree-Métis artisan whose handiwork was featured in the Free Press last summer. "I was frustrated that I could never get a pair so in the end I decided to teach myself how to make my own."
In the spring of 2020, by which point she had temporarily moved back in with her parents after undergoing knee surgery, Pruden spent a couple weeks studying the same, five how-to videos on YouTube, over and over. Convinced she was ready to give it a shot, she devoted close to 20 hours over two days sewing a pair of earrings that were meant to resemble a butterfly’s wings.
That they ended up looking more like an octopus with its legs shooting this way and that — "Let’s just say I didn’t understand tension and threading, yet," she says with a wink — failed to discourage her. Rather, she started from scratch and gave it another shot... and another, and another until she was satisfied.
In time, hers weren’t the only lobes boasting her designs. The moment she started posting pics of her earrings on her personal Instagram feed, her followers began badgering her for a pair of their own.
“I never fashioned myself an entrepreneur; before my injury I would have told you I was a restaurant lifer." — Jessie Pruden
"I never fashioned myself an entrepreneur; before my injury I would have told you I was a restaurant lifer," she says. "But as people kept telling me they loved what I was doing, and asking why I wasn’t selling them, I started thinking maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea, after all. I mean, it wasn’t like I was doing much of anything else at the time."
Initially, Pruden, who credits a close pal for coming up with the punny tag Bead N Butter during a group brainstorming session, offered custom designs only. Somebody would send her a photo of a sunset at their cottage, for example, and she would do her best to recreate the scene utilizing different shades of orange and red beads.
One time a person asked her to make a pair of earrings mimicking her dog’s brown-and-white coat. On another occasion she was tasked with — she’s still not sure why — turning out a pair approximating Bigfoot.
She enjoyed the challenge. Except after poring through a number of art books filled with Métis imagery — gifts from her father, a retired teacher who worked hand-in-hand with the provincial government to develop a curriculum that included Indigenous perspectives — she changed direction by conjuring her own styles and patterns exclusively, based partially on what she spots in her dad’s tomes, and partially on colour combos dancing around in her head.
"People ask if I sketch things out ahead of time, and every once in a while I do, but mostly it’s me seeing arrangements in my brain that I think will look cool. Luckily, most of the time they do," she says, noting everything she turns out — close to 25 varieties at any one time in a mix of sizes — is named for friends or family members, which explains why one can choose from a pair of Brianna, Kat or Jemma earrings.
Pruden, who hosts a sale on her website (www.beadnbutter.ca) every Friday beginning at 6 p.m., bills her clientele as "guys, gals and everybody in between." Non-Indigenous people concerned about cultural appropriateness have inquired whether it’s acceptable for them to wear her earrings, too, to which she replies, "Of course."
“My Instagram is very queer-friendly and I sell to people from all walks of life. To me, anybody who goes out of their way to support an Indigenous-run business is absolutely awesome.” — Jessie Pruden
"Some have gotten called on it, having been told it wasn’t OK for them to be wearing beaded jewelry and I was like, whoever said that is wrong," she says. "My Instagram is very queer-friendly and I sell to people from all walks of life. To me, anybody who goes out of their way to support an Indigenous-run business is absolutely awesome."
Besides an online shop, Bead N Butter products are also available at 10 retail outlets spread evenly across the country and, as of last week, a store in Wyoming. Closer to home, you can peruse Pruden’s output at dconstruct jewelry, at The Forks Market.
"I was a big fan of her work, being a jewelry designer myself, (and) started following her on social media before realizing we are related through marriage; small world," says Lisa Pointon-Reico, who owns dconstruct with her husband Sean.
"Our store carries some other brands and her esthetic really fit our style and design. We were really wanting to promote more Indigenous artists and she was able to wholesale, so it was a win-win. She is such a lovely, super-talented person and her pieces sell very well and very quickly for us."
Earlier this year Pruden was approached by representatives from the Manitoba Crafts Museum and MAWA (Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art). Both organizations wanted to know if she was interested in teaching beading classes to anybody interested in the art. She readily agreed, but only after asking, "Are you sure you have the right beader?" She has also taught her brother Noel how to bead, though that was for more selfish reasons: simply put, she needed a second pair of hands to keep up with demand.
"His girlfriend Molly helps, too, which to me is just surreal," she says, running her hand through a mop of pink-tinged hair. "Like I said, I always worked for somebody else — I wanted no part of managing people — but now that I’m my own boss, I love it. Not having to answer to anybody is the best."
One more thing; if Pruden has a holiday wish for the upcoming, festive season, it’s to land one of those robot vacuum cleaners that are all the rage.
"Oh my God, you have no idea, there are beads fricking everywhere in my workspace," she says, when asked if being a beader means forever bending down to scoop up pellets that erroneously fall to the floor.
"Not just that, but any time one of our cats wanders into the room and spots a long thread with beads attached hanging down from the desk, it automatically becomes playtime, leading to an even bigger mess."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.