Marie Watt learned early on that the art of storytelling begins with listening. “My mom liked to say ‘You have two ears, so listen twice as hard,’ ” she recalls, looking back on the story circles that her mother, a Native American education specialist for Seattle-area public schools, hosted for native students and their families starting in the 1970s. “Native storytellers would come and share stories. But storytelling was also a tool for kids to develop their confidence and voice,” says Watt. “We passed a talking stick, and the person holding it had the floor. Everybody else was then a listener.”
Today, as an artist, Watt listens to her material, drawing from her deeply ingrained sense of community and narrative to create works that reverberate with history, both intimate and sweeping. Made primarily of cloth – especially old or used wool and cotton blankets – her works flow from figurative to abstract, from towering columns of blankets stacked up to 36 feet to small stitched samplers to embroidered canvases that hang on walls or in space. Often she invites the public to donate blankets (she always offers something in exchange) or join her in sewing circles to build a piece. If there is a single thread to her work, it is connection: between ancestors and descendants, humans and nature, the physical and the spiritual.
“Half-cowboy, half-Indian” is how Watt, 49, describes herself. Her father comes from a German-Scots family of Wyoming ranchers, and her mother, from western New York, is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, as is Watt. Settling in the Pacific Northwest, they raised their daughter to be actively engaged with her tribal heritage. That grounding influence is now at the center of her practice, which is based on an indigenous model of teaching, learning, and gathering. While thoroughly contemporary, her art mines centuries-old Iroquois principles: the relationship between earth and sky; the powerful role of women in Iroquois matrilineal society; the idea that everything we do affects seven generations.
As a young, aspiring artist, Watt “channel-surfed” in search of a form of expression that felt meaningful and true. She majored in art and communications at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, explored museum studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, then in the mid-1990s went east to graduate school at Yale University. Compared to the diversity of New Mexico, Yale at that time was a culture shock. After she earned her MFA in painting and printmaking, Watt made a conscious decision to reflect her roots in her art. She moved back to the Pacific Northwest, set up her studio in Portland, Oregon, and switched up her material, experimenting with cornhusks before becoming drawn to blankets.
“In our tribe and in our family, we give away blankets to honor someone for being witness to an important life event,” she explains. She started scavenging for them at thrift stores, not caring if they were damaged or ugly; her only requirements were that they be of natural fibers and cost no more than a few dollars. In 2003, she began piling them by the dozens – like ladders from earth to sky – into the columns that would become her signature. The art world took notice, and so did average folks. Even as they transcended their humble origins to become monumental sculpture, the blankets were still recognizable and poignant. And everyone, it turned out, had a blanket story.
“People would say, ‘Oh, my grandmother had a blanket like that,’ ” Watt recalls. “I realized each one was a marker for memory and story – a color, a worn binding, a stadium blanket with fringe, a tartan. All become jumping-off points for other conversations.” Now, when she calls for offerings to a blanket project, she asks only that the textiles mean something to their owners. And so they share their crib coverlets, army blankets, and homemade afghans, blankets that warmed pets or traveled with immigrant relatives. In 2014, some 350 people contributed to an outdoor sculpture at the Tacoma Art Museum in which Watt took the concept further, with a pair of the towers cast in bronze; she also published a micro-website to tell the story behind each blanket.
While best known for her columns, Watt has taken blanket cloth in other compelling directions. Witness (2015) is an embroidery drawing she stitched on an old, double-length trade blanket. Her inspiration was a dramatic 1913 photo of a Coast Salish potlatch, a traditional ceremony that blends generosity with displays of status. In the shot, people on a roof throw gifts down to a crowd, who are reaching for a blanket as it flies through space, in an act of what Watt likes to call “ecstatic giving.” Potlatches were banned in the US and Canada at that time, Watt notes, “so this gathering is an act of civil disobedience. It’s also an unbroken tradition.”
In her interpretation, the outstretched arms subtly suggest fists raised in protest, a gesture of resilience and unity she feels resonates with today’s conversations about civil rights. The cinematic scale – 6 feet tall and 15 feet wide – puts us, the viewers, in the scene as witnesses. To the right, we see images Watt has incorporated of herself and her two daughters.
One of her most intensely collaborative and emotional works, and the first to take the form of an environment that people could enter and inhabit, was Forget-me-not: Mothers and Sons (2008), a 10-foot-tall circular steel structure hung with fabric cameo portraits of US troops from the Northwest who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alongside them are memorial portraits of maternal figures suggested by some of Watt’s male acquaintances – mothers and grandmothers, but also iconic women such as Clara Barton, artist Tee Corrine, and Native American activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash.
At the time, Watt published a booklet to accompany the installation, which traveled to museums in northwestern states; lately her husband, graphic designer Adam McIsaac, has been transferring the cameo stories to her website. “The work is so community-driven,” she says, “that to give the community in its largest sense access to it is really important.” She regards the piece as unfinished.
Concepts of motherhood continue to interest her and are the subject of some of her newer works, along with our relationship with animals and nature. Her recent creations include a pieced and embroidered tartan hanging based on the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus, big enough so that when you stand under it, “her body becomes canopy or shelter, offering protection and comfort.” She plans a similar piece in wood, a material she uses on occasion. “I have a pile of cedar in my studio that I’m super-excited about carving.”
Raising children of her own, she values all the more the importance of passing along traditions to the next generation. At 12 and 5, her girls are still too young to fully appreciate the significance of her art (though they’re impressed by the number of hits her work gets on Pinterest). She’s confident, though, that they’ll embrace and celebrate their heritage in years to come. She can still see her teenage self, dragging her heels to her mom’s storytelling circles, those gatherings that ended up being so formative of the artist and person she is today.
“My dad reminds me that I just hated going. ‘Hated’ is maybe a strong word, but I really was not that interested in these cultural programs my mom would arrange,” Watt admits. “It’s funny,” she adds with a laugh, “because now, of course, here I am.”
Marie Watt is in group shows at the Block Museum at Northwestern University (to Jun. 18), the Wave Hill garden and cultural center in the Bronx (Apr. 8 – Jul. 9), and the Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York (May 5 – Sep. 5). She also has a solo show this September at PDX Contemporary Art.