Woman in studio
Lisa Apangalook, ivory carving artist, in her art studio in Spenard. (Alice Glenn/Alaska Public Media)

A year ago, as the pandemic drove everybody inside, Delaney Thiele turned her focus to making earrings.  She owns a business called Cloudberry, selling Indigenous beaded earrings, mostly on Instagram.

“I just had such a good time just like beading and doing, like, all of these fun designs and most of them I never sold or it never came to anything but it was so fun to explore that side of things,” Thiele said.

But, soon things started picking up online far more than she expected. Her social media following doubled. She had her biggest sale ever during the holidays last December.

Thiele is among a number of Alaska Native earring artists who found sudden success throughout the pandemic selling earrings on Instagram. Beaded earrings have always been a staple in Native fashion, but the big uptick in business shows how they’ve become in-demand more broadly. Some say it helps that they are an easy way to be stylish in Zoom meetings.

For the artists themselves, Thiele said, making and sharing the earrings has also become a way to connect to community, identity and culture during a time of isolation.

“I’m a blond-haired, blue-eyed, very pale skin, Native girl that doesn’t look Native. And so I think Cloudberry is just kind of like an expression of that. And it was just so influential, me trying to figure out who I am as an indigenous person and so I guess I try to reflect that in my beadwork as best as I can.” said Thiele, who is Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik from Anchorage.

The sudden increase in business has also brought unexpected complications for some artists.

For Lisa Apangalook, who is most known for being an ivory-carving artist, the last year has been up and down. Before the pandemic, her jewelry business called Piitkaq Jewelry was growing steadily, but the pandemic super-charged demand. As soon as she posted her pictures to social media page, customers snatched up her earrings in seconds.

hands holding cross section of ivory
Lisa Apangalook sands and carves jewelry out of walrus ivory sourced from her home in Saint Lawrence Island. (Alice Glenn/Alaska Public Media)

There were problems, too. For one thing, she caught the virus, which brought her work and sales to a complete halt for at least two weeks. On top of that, the demand of her pieces prompted others to copy her signature pieces.

“For someone to have reached out to my followers and say, ‘Yeah, I can make that for cheaper.’ That felt a little dirty and violating to my work,” Apangalook said.

She’s learning to deal with some of the setbacks that come with increased popularity, she said. And business continues to grow. 

Kawahine Danner, an Iñupiaq and Hawaiian artist and jewelry-maker, is based out of Utqiaġvik. She recently moved from Hawaii and used art to cope during her relocation. She used to sell in-person with her business Kawahine Creations, but the pandemic canceled that. She found a robust market online, but there are unique complications conducting business in rural Alaska.

“You know, when we run out of supplies, we don’t have a Walmart, or Michaels, or a huge store to go down the street, we have to order our supplies, wait a month, and shut down our shop for that month. Another issue is, our internet bills for conducting online sales are like $300 to $800 a month,” Danner said. 

Despite the expenses, social media serves as an essential connector, making the earrings she crafts in a 5000-person community on the Arctic Ocean accessible to a global market. 

“I have been able to sell earrings and prints all across the world, which is super cool. I get orders from everywhere, Australia, different countries. And it’s been a process learning how to make a living this way. But it’s been awesome,” Danner said.

Although the pandemic has brought on unique challenges for many, all three artists feel that it has helped them to grow their online businesses. They say that they look forward to creating quality work and supporting any other budding artists throughout the rest of the year.

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