It was my first community sewing circle. I couldn’t have chosen a better introduction than the one I received from Marie Watt, a Portland, Oregon-based artist whose storied circles bring creative ideas to life.
A half-dozen tables bisected the Great Hall of the National Galley of Canada, arranged beneath the canopy of glass and steel that frames the finest views in Ottawa. The low winter sun wove deep shadows over the participants, heads bowed to their handwork. Needles and thread moved in and out, a rhythm punctuated by laughter and frequent pauses to admire another’s handiwork or welcome a stranger to the group.
Watt moved patiently and expertly amongst the women – and a few men – explaining her approach to creating communal art pieces. Individual reclaimed blanket pieces, measuring maybe 18 by 24 inches, some patterned by ribbons of removable tape, some nearly naked and open to freeform design, provided a loose map for the many hands working towards creative unity. Numbered drawings corresponding to each blanket piece offered clues to its final form.
Watt, a multidisciplinary artist, identifies herself as “half Cowboy and half Indian.” Born to the son of Wyoming ranchers and a daughter of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation (Iroquois/Haudenosaunee) her work “draws from indigenous design principles, oral tradition, personal experience, and Western art history,” shaped “by the proto-feminism of Iroquois matrilineal custom, political work by Native artists in the 60s, a discourse on multiculturalism, as well as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
“I am interested in human stories and rituals implicit in everyday objects.”
She is best known for Blanket Stories, the stacking of secondhand and donated blankets to create towering installations that reference “…linen closets, architectural braces, memorials (The Trajan Column), sculpture…, the great totem poles of the Northwest and the conifer trees around which I grew up.”1
At her lecture leading up to the sewing circle, I was astonished by the powerful stories behind the donated blankets. While there are thrift store finds, many of the blankets are the most significant family heirlooms one can imagine: Often handmade and frequently re-made by necessity, passed down through generations, brought across time and place, they are amulets to protect and cloaks to make invisible, devices to cover, shelter, carry, store and amuse, and pneumonics to remember, witness, and instruct. How much is demanded of such a common object! I wonder about the people who offer them up: How much is closure? How much is sorrow or joy?
This work-in-progress is bound for SITE Santa Fe, part of the exhibition Unsuspected Possibilities running from 18 July through 25 October, 2015. I hand Marie my card and offer up a vintage Pendleton blanket, the sole memento of a trip to Albuquerque twenty-five years ago. It may not have as much story-value as others, but it does have holes chewed by my (former) dog, rendering it less blanket-like and ripe for reincarnation. Plus there’s a neatness to its potential repatriation to New Mexico.
Upcoming events in the Contemporary Conversations series:
Nick Cave Thursday, May 28th, 2015
Eric Fischl Thursday, September 10th, 2015
Stephen Wilkes Thursday, November 19th, 2015
National Gallery of Canada
380 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario Canada K1N 9N4