Artist Leah Mata Fragua was already thinking about alternative ways to sell her place based, handmade, abalone earrings and other work even before the pandemic canceled all of her in-person shows and markets where she normally does most of her business.
"I'm Leah Mata Fragua, and I am from the northern Chumash Tribal Community in Central Coast, California," she said. "I feel like everything I do is out of some sort of crisis and needing to pivot literally from that 2008 09 recession. Until now, life has been pretty unstable for a lot of people, you know, with the pandemic and climate change."
Fragua isn't the only Indigenous artist that has had to get creative with their business to sell and reach audiences during the pandemic.
Many have turned to Instagram. More and more Indigenous beadwork artists have seen an increase in followers and sales as people look for more handmade items and a connection with the person making the work. For Fragua, the approach is working. She'll announce a drop on Instagram and then she says "usually my drops sell out within 15 minutes."
Followers of different beadwork artists on Instagram will set alarms to remind them of the next drop so they don't miss a chance to scoop up a pair of earrings, a necklace, or other pieces of jewelry.
Fragua says artists and sell online this way because of the time and commitment it takes to make the jewelry. They can only do so much product at a time and it's labor intensive.
"You're working in in cold water, you're working with power tools, you're working in the studio that's, you know, heated by wood so I have to make sure the woods chopped," she said. "So usually a typical day is getting up early. Yeah, chopping wood, getting fire built ."
The community Fragua lives in — Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico — is still on full lockdown. That's made it even more critical that she rely on social media to sell her work.
She's not sure what life will be like when things go "back to normal" but she definitely thinks some things, like her business model, have been permanently altered by the pandemic. That means less in person shows and still selling online and social media.
"My goal would be to do just a few smaller shows, a few shows a year and then combine that with continuing to do online e-commerce sales," Fragua said. "And then I've also been using TikTok as a medium as well. It seems to be a great platform for storytelling. "
That's what makes her and other makers so popular and in demand-the story behind the work.