When she started beading in 2014, Kaylyn Baker hated it. She only picked up the needle because she wanted a friend, Heather Dickson, to make regalia for her daughter. And Dickson had a rule.
“She said she could do it but only if I contributed to the dress somehow, so OK, plan was, I’d do the flowers on the belt,” says Baker over the phone. “I really super hated it.”
She didn’t like how time-consuming it was, or how difficult it was to choose colours, or how her beading looked compared to Dickson’s. But when it was all done and the dress was assembled, Baker felt something else.
“That feeling of accomplishment,” says Baker, who is Northern Tutchone and Tlingit and a citizen of Selkirk First Nation. “It was really great.”
She’s honed her practice in the decade since, to the point where Baker is currently one of six Yukon artists shortlisted for the $20,000 Yukon Prize for Visual Arts. She has also received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts. She’s been featured at the Circumpolar Incubator in Montreal and the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina. Closer to home, she’s exhibited at the Yukon Arts Centre and has work in the Yukon Permanent Art Collection. Even further afield, she created mukluks this year for Quannah Chasinghorse, an Indigenous model and activist who wore Baker’s design to the Green Carpet Awards.
Baker says the path here was a long one. After that first experience with Dickson, Baker worked for Dickson Designs, helping with granny hanky headbands — headbands made from the colourful floral fabric — and some beading. After a while, Baker started building her own client base, though she still didn’t feel like she had her own style.
She watched her mother bead and asked about her technique. Her mother changed bead sizes and colours, seemingly on a whim. Baker asked about it.
“She told me she just didn’t feel like doing it, that she was getting bored of the colours and of doing the same thing,” Baker says. “So she just did something that made her feel good.”
Baker tried that in her own work for a while, but it never felt right. It was either too random or too uniform. She never felt like she could land on something in-between that made her designs work. Not until 2016, when her cousin, Raine, passed away.
There was an age gap between the pair, but Baker says they were raised like siblings. She was deep in her grief while she sat with her family after his death.
“I wanted to keep my hands busy at least to try to listen to what everybody was saying. We were all talking, having a meeting and I was thinking about him,” she says. “I was thinking about how, as a person, he was like a storm.”
She thought about the light and dark parts of a cloud — how light comes through, but doesn’t last forever. As she thought, her hands reached for turquoise, black, gold and white beads. When she was done, the pattern was all over the place in a way that made sense to her.
“It really opened up something for me as an artist,” she says. “Just being able to channel that grief into art was something that I didn’t know was going to unlock something else entirely.”
It’s informed her approach to what she calls beaded storytelling. Baker has always been interested in writing, both reading it and producing it in the form of poems. Now, a lot of the time, when she beads, she ruminates on memories or pieces of poetry, threading those connections into her work. Her thoughts often feel packed into her head, she says. This is a way of getting them out. Her work isn’t a literal visual interpretation. You might not know just by looking, what a piece is saying. But the stories are in there, Baker says.
“When I tell people and when they see it, they just think it’s beautiful, but when I tell them why I did that and then they look at it again and it means something else?” she says. “There’s all these different depths to it and then it’s like looking at the land.”
The Yukon Prize will be announced September 16. For tickets to the gala, visit YukonPrize.ca
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org