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Grandmother’s lessons lead woman to a love of beading

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YUMA, Ariz. (MCT) – The artist inside Cecilia Bersola was born on the day her grandmother first sat her down for a lesson at the loom.

That’s when Bersola’s elder introduced her to the ancient tradition of beading. It’s when those colorful little beads first worked their magic on Bersola’s young heart and set into motion a creative love affair that guides her hands to this day.

“What fascinated me was the beads themselves. There were so many colors,” the artist said. “Then my grandmother showed me her work and that really sparked my brains up. I thought: ‘Oh, this is neat.’ The bead work was just beautiful and I fell in love with it.”

Bersola grew up in Yuma and learned how to weave the beads together to create beautiful necklaces and earrings, which she jokes might have been a bit of a miracle for her grandmother, Leonara Regalado.

“I was into crafts before – but no girly stuff,” she said, laughing. “I was a little tomboy. The beads were as girly as it got.”

Today, the bead artist’s work is sold at the Fort Yuma Indian Art Marketplace, which is operated by artists within the Quechan Tribe. Although Bersola herself actually claims ancestry to other tribes, she stressed how welcome she feels at the Quechan marketplace, where she also teaches the craft to others.

“I just like to come up here,” Bersola said, adding that her heritage boasts a mix of the Hopi and Chemehuevi tribes, as well as Mexican and Filipino ancestry. “I know a lot of Quechan and my grandfather was raised here. Besides, I love beading, so I figure why not come over here and show people my way of beading.”

In the early days, Bersola didn’t sell her artwork at the bus station or railroad depot like many Quechan artists.

“I just sold it everywhere, just out in the street or in people’s homes,” she said. “People hear about my work and they come over to my house and ask me to do their bead work.”

In the past, the artist created mostly traditional beaded jewelry, but she now specializes in making special beaded walking sticks.

For her walking sticks, Bersola wraps colorful bands of beads around certain portions of the stick, leaving the rest showing the bare wood.

“They can sell up to $1,500. It all depends on how much you want on the stick.”

Bersola learned stick beading from her friend Julie Thin Elk, a Lakota artist.

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At each point in the stick’s thickness, Bersola must determine how many beads will be needed to go around and then she creates a ring of beads. Those rings are then pushed together to form a dense pattern.

But how long does it take to finish one?

“Oh, that,” Bersola said, laughing. “Some of them will take me three to four months. I’m pretty fast, even going one bead at a time, even though I was taught how to do two beads at a time.”

Bersola pointed to a design she was creating and explained that there’s always a story being told.

“This is a little story about the gourds. The gourds are playing while the people are dancing.”

Bersola retired from Yuma Elementary School District 1 a few years ago, after working behind the wheel of school buses for 14 years.

Now she focuses much of her time on her colorful expression, with most of her customers being American Indians. Most people want jewelry and a few ask for ceremonial wear.

“Sometimes they would rather I show them how to do it,” Bersola said, stressing that she’s more than happy to take on the role of teacher. “It makes me feel good to be one of the teachers, to be honored in that way.”

Most of her students are young Quechan artists struggling to find their own creative path.

“Even the men come,” Bersola said. “They are liking beading, too.”

She added how she would love to pass her creative joy on to her own grandchildren, but they live far off in Flint, Mich.

Bersola stressed, though, that she simply receives great pleasure knowing that she’s helping keep Native traditions alive.

“To help keep the work going is important. To me, everything has a meaning in life and this is one of them that you keep.”

<i>Copyright (c) 2006, The Sun, Yuma, Ariz. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.</i>