When Les Berryhill saw beaded knife cases in a Santa Fe art gallery, he thought, “I could do that.” A longtime knife collector, embellished cases seemed the perfect complement to the antique blades. Berryhill consulted books and started talking to people about beading techniques. “My initial goal was to make twenty cases for my own knives,” he said. Nearly 25 years later, he is still doing beadwork but not just on knife cases. He uses beads to decorate antique kitchen utensils like wooden spoons and to replicate the designs found in rugs and beaded chiefs’ blankets.
“My wife, Pat, suggested I could enter my work in shows and sell them,” Berryhill said. A Creek artist, he participated in his first Red Earth Festival in 1990 and had already exhibited work in the Gallery of the Plains Indian in Colony. Around that time, Justice Kauger saw a medal with beading on the ribbon and immediately knew it would be a perfect addition to the Sovereignty Symposium medals. Familiar with Berryhill’s bead work, she thought, “Les could do that better.” Berryhill uses a straight-line stitch to secure the seed beads to the ribbons and is able to place several on the needle at once.
The technique used for the bison skull is much more tedious. “I put one bead on the needle, tack it down and move the next bead,” Berryhill said. The process is extremely labor-intensive and can take as long as six months for a large piece like the bison skull. The red crosses in the design are directional emblems representing the cardinal compass points: north, south, east and west. The form on which the beads are mounted is an actual bison skull. The bare bones were a common sight on the Oklahoma prairie a century ago. Berryhill sees the beauty in those disregarded objects. “I take old things and give them new life.”
Berryhill spent thirty years coaching basketball in Oklahoma for both high school and colleges, including Oklahoma State University, his alma mater. As a student, he played basketball for the legendary coach Henry Iba on a team that won the Big 8 Championship, but that may not have been the most memorable chapter of his college experience. His good Samaritan actions in 1964 led to an Oklahoma medical first. At the time, he was living in rooms at Lewis Field with laundry facilities. One of his roommates, Bob Swaffer got his right arm caught in a spin dryer that amputated his arm between the shoulder and elbow. Swaffer’s roommates packed his arm in ice and rushed it to the hospital with him. Surgeons at Oklahoma City’s University Hospital were able to reattach the limb, the first time such an operation was performed in Oklahoma. “Bob’s still doing well, and still has both his arms.”
Both the Bison Skull and Ribbons were purchased for the Oklahoma Judicial Center collection.