Mona Cliff evokes the subtle beauty of Kansas hills and sunsets with millions of tiny beads
The Indigenous artist is among 19 local artists creating work for the new Kansas City airport, scheduled to open next year. For her piece, Cliff has spent months attaching millions of tiny beads to several pieces of raw-edge wood. The final work will be 17 feet long.
Artist Mona Cliff sits on the floor in her home studio in Lawrence, Kansas. Bold patterns of grain stretch across several panels of cherry wood with a rough bark edge. Around the edges she’s built a rippling layer of beeswax, copal resin and pine rosin.
She heats the wax with a small blowtorch to soften it before sticking on strings of tiny beads in bands of warm lavender, ivory and rose.
“I did want to allude to the Kansas landscape, especially the Flint Hills — the way that the hills kind of come together and overlap,” Cliff says. “Sometimes when we have those beautiful, hazy days and you get parts of the hills that are darker or lighter between each other.”
Cliff grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but has spent the last 17 years raising a family and living in Lawrence. Lately, her work with beads has received local and national acclaim, and she is among 19 artists in the area selected to create work for the new Kansas City International Airport terminal, slated to open in early 2023.
Her commissioned piece for the airport is a massive, organic abstraction, inspired by the Kansas prairie.
Cliff says there are special challenges to creating artwork for an airport.
“When you're traveling, you're like, ‘I’m just trying to get to my gate. I don't have time to stop and look at art,’” Cliff jokes. “But then there's times when you're at the airport forever, and you're like, ‘You know what? I got a lot of time look at art.’ I think with this piece I'm able to check all of those boxes.”
Cliff’s grandmother Ramona inspired her to learn traditional beading. She was a member of the Aaniiih tribe and, as an elder, gave Cliff a special name: HanukGahNé. It means "Spotted Cloud" in the Aaniiih language.
When arthritis put an end to her grandmother’s bead work, Ramona gave Cliff the beads she had collected for 40 years.
“It was all these vintage beads,” Cliff remembers. “I think that it made her happy, you know, to be able to pass those on to me.”
The earliest beads were made from jade, gold, turquoise, bone and hand-polished shell. Later, glass beads from Venice and Bohemia were widely used in trade between Europeans and Native American tribes, and integrated into a rich culture of using beads for decoration.
When Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri River in the early 1800s, the expedition carried 33 pounds of small trade beads. A white-dotted blue bead proved to be such a popular item of trade that it was named a Lewis and Clark bead.
In her work, Cliff uses one the smallest glass beads, known as seed beads. Placed together by the thousands, they shimmer in the light.
“I usually try to add highlights by using, like, translucent beads or something that has what's called an aurora borealis finish,” Cliff explains. “What's great about that is it has a rainbow glint to it, so you get blues, you get hints of reds, but you're not really having to use all of those colors.”
For Cliff, beads have a deeper meaning, beyond decoration.
“Within our own culture, we have a practice of honoring people,” Cliff says. "If you honor and respect someone, you usually give them beadwork or some kind of gift."
Cliff says she’ll spend hundreds of hours adding beads to the wood panels. She says it is her way of honoring nature.
“By themselves beads are not necessarily a precious material, but because of the time and intention that you put into using the beads and creating something and then gifting it to them,” Cliff says, “that's where that high honor comes from.”
Though she wants anyone to be able to connect with her artwork, there’s a particular audience Cliff hopes will notice.
“What really has been driving me through this project (is) for there to be other Natives in the airport. They'll be like, 'Oh, that's beadwork,’ and really resonate with that and feel a sense of, like, place,” Cliff says with a gentle laugh. “While these are our homelands, I feel like we don't have a sense of place a lot of times.”
Cliff’s work is currently featured at Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. The exhibit “A New World: Women to Watch 2024” highlights women artists living and working within 150 miles of Kansas City. It’s a collaboration with the National Museum of Women Artists.
“When I think about Mona, I always think of like past, present, and future,” says Erin Dziedzic, director of curatorial affairs at the Kemper Museum. “This work, I think, is really special because it speaks to that. And it also has a sense of beauty about it. I think she's really acknowledging the beauty of generations, the beauty of nature and how she makes her mark an imprint on that.”
Dziedzic says Cliff incorporates traditional beadwork in a modern way.
“Objects like these are made with materials like beads, which are designed to honor and show love for someone or something, and it just feels very warm in this case,” Dziedzic says. “You're really seeing the kind of texture of the beads and having an opportunity to really look close and see a little bit about how she got that in there. But at the same time, there's a bit of a mystery.”
Cliff says she is looking forward to sharing her seed bead creation with travelers from around the world. Cliff will install her work in the airport later this fall.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Cliff says. “I am really honored and grateful to have this opportunity. It’s really important for me to bring communities together the best way that I can, and I can do that through art.”
As part of the exhibit “A New World: Women to Watch 2024”, Cliff will demonstrate her art from noon-2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16 at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri 64111.