SAUK RAPIDS, MINN. – At a cabin on Rainy Lake's Seine Bay, just north of the Canadian border, among black bears and white pines and secret beaches, Madison Holler learned an important lesson about art: to let go.
As a child, her father would teach Holler and her sister to create using what the great outdoors provided — birch bark, charcoal from the fire pit, the beach.
"He'd have us draw pictures in the sand and watch it wash away," Holler recalls, sitting in her home studio in Sauk Rapids. Decades later, as an established bead artist, the lesson still serves her.
"You have to be OK with putting eight hours into a piece and one bead breaking in the wrong spot and then you can't use it," she says.
In 2012, Holler founded Rubinski Works, a company specializing in one-of-a-kind bead art and jewelry inspired by her Anishinaabe, Scandinavian and Dutch heritage. In 2017, Walker Art Center's Jewelry & Accessory Makers Mart invited Holler to show and the business took off.
Using glass and metal seed beads, Holler creates intricate tapestries in peaches and creams and caramels, blacks and reds and sea-foam greens. The beads may take the shape of a sawtooth star quilt, tulips and roots, or caribou, ducks and fish — imagery often inspired by folklore. She calls them heirloom pieces, and they sell out on her website, often within seconds of Holler dropping a new collection.
"Her stuff sells incredibly fast — every single thing she makes," says her friend and creative collaborator Arianna Caggiano, the designer behind the Minneapolis-based QuiltQueen Studio. "That's how incredible her work is: They just want a piece of it."
To Holler's surprise, her work has become so well known that she was recently recognized by a fan while on a trip to Washington state — even though she was wearing a mask. The woman recognized her from Holler's signature orange eye shadow, she says, laughing.
Holler learned her craft, and many others, as a child during her time spent on Seine Bay at her mother's family cabin.
"My mom always says as soon as I could hold a needle and thread I was beading," she recalls. Holler goes dreamy-eyed when she talks about her visits there, likening it to a hippie commune with a sauna and skinny dipping, a place where her parents' families would intermingle and swap skills.
"My best beadwork happens at that cabin," Holler says.
Her mother's side is Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish and full of craftspeople. They taught her how to woodwork, quilt and knit. Her father's side is Anishinaabe Chippewa, Polish and German, and full of entrepreneurs and artists. They taught her how to start a business, moccasin-making and beadwork.
Then again, Holler isn't so sure. Aunties on one side taught aunties on the other side, and so on, and so on. "It would go back and forth and sometimes I don't even know where it started."
In her home and studio, her assistant — Potato the tabby cat — rests on a tray of beads and her husband, Mike Thienes, edits video (the couple also run a wedding photography and video business). Holler holds in her hand the first peyote-stitch bead pouches she made, around second grade.
She recalls growing up witnessing the "positive cultural exchange" between her maternal and paternal families that so informs her making today. A rarity, she explains; before her parents moved to Sauk Rapids, a Mississippi River town just north of St. Cloud, they met and lived in and around International Falls, where tensions were high between Native and white communities.
With her family, Holler remembers attending powwows; they called her Yellow Feather as she danced in regalia with her blond hair. The family would also call her Ruby, short for Rubinski, a name from her Polish roots.
"The joke is that I only look Polish," Holler said.
While Holler draws on her Anishinaabe heritage for inspiration, she also is quick to protect it, acutely aware of what she describes as "her proximity to whiteness."
She calls herself a white Native. None of her family were ever enrolled reservation members. Making her relationship to her heritage more complex is an estrangement with her paternal family caused in part, she says, by her father's ongoing struggle with chemical dependency. Her parents divorced when she was 15, and at 18, she and her sister became adult guardians to their dad.
Now 30, Holler said she is trying to strike a balance of celebrating her heritage, while trying to be a good ally.
"Being a white Native returning to your culture, you have more responsibility," Holler says. "I don't face discrimination. I try to decenter myself."
Holler will not make any sacred pieces such as medicine pouches or regalia for the public. Her Native heritage shows up in her work in the same way her Scandinavian and Dutch heritage does, through the craft itself, and in her color palette and patterns. The influence of floral paintings by the 17th- and 18th-century Dutch masters and traditional Scandinavian embroidery appears frequently, as well.
Today, her craft is taking on a new sense of urgency. While Holler wears many hats — ceramicist, illustrator, painter, designer, wedding photographer — over the next year she wants to narrow her focus to beadwork, to Rubinski Works.
A major reason is her health. She's diabetic, has survived thyroid cancer, and suffers from idiopathic intracranial hypertension, a rare disorder that causes high pressure in the brain, for which she must undergo spinal taps and monthly eye injections. This disorder has already caused her to go partly colorblind in one eye and her vision will severely deteriorate in the next 10 years. She is considering teaching herself to bead blind.
"I've never been so creative as since I've had this eye thing happen," Holler said.
After the 2020 closing of Quench Jewelry Arts in northeast Minneapolis, where Holler had done metalwork for two years, she set up a home soldering and welding station. She's about to embark on her second collaboration with Portland, Ore.-based illustrator Brett Stenson. Last year, she crafted colorful abstract shapes, fish and bird pieces based on Stenson's art, which of course sold out almost instantly.
"When she's passionate about something, she doesn't stop," Stenson said. "People can feel that her heart is in the work."
Throughout her life, Holler says, beadwork has helped her health. As a child with ADHD, the craft helped ground her.
"It was the one thing I could do where my brain shut down and everything went slower," she says. "My grandmother always called it bead medicine."
Alex V. Cipolle is a Minneapolis-based arts and culture journalist.