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Features / March 3, 2015

Marie Watt Returns to the National Gallery of Canada

Portland-based Seneca artist Marie Watt discusses her multidisciplinary way of working, and using objects that evoke different connotations across borders.

Two years ago, “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art” opened at the National Gallery of Canada, pushing the presentation of Indigenous art within Canada into, as critic Richard William Hill argued, “entirely new territory” with its ambitious scope and rigorous positioning. Last week, one of the artists included in “Sakahàn,” Portland-based Seneca artist Marie Watt, returned to the NGC at the behest of philanthropist Vicki Heyman.

In partnership with the NGC, Heyman—wife of Ambassador Bruce Heyman—has organized an ongoing programming series called Contemporary Conversations, which brings American artists to Canada. Throughout the week, Watt presented a lecture focusing on her work, participated in a discussion with curator Greg Hill, took part in a round-table discussion at the Carleton University Art Gallery and hosted a sewing circle at the NGC.

Caoimhe Morgan-Feir spoke with Watt ahead of her talk about revisiting the conversations started in “Sakahàn,” working with objects that evoke different connotations across borders and her multidisciplinary way of working.

Caoimhe Morgan-Feir: Your blanket sculptures undergird this section of the Contemporary Conversations programming— Skywalker/Skyscraper (Babel) is installed in the Ambassador’s residence—and they connect to the “Sakahàn” exhibition, where Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Cousin Rose, Four Pelts and Sky Woman was shown. What was the initial impetus behind these works?

Marie Watt: I’m Seneca and, for me, and my community, we give blankets away to honour people for being witness to important life events. I feel that it’s not just a Seneca tradition—it’s an Indigenous tradition. In a lot of tribes in the United States, blankets are really valued and used to honour people.

I first decided I wanted to create a column of folded and stacked blankets. I was interested in referencing architectural columns and linen closets. In our creation story, Sky Woman falls from the sky, and she is helped by a motley crew of animals who assist her as she starts her new life on what we refer to as Turtle Island. So I think that relationship between sky and ground is really important. And I was born in Seattle, Washington, and, growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I’m really interested in the reference of totem poles.

Those were the starting points. As I started to make this first sculpture I realized as I was collecting blankets that people would come over and say, “Oh, I used to have a blanket like that.” And they’d launch into a story, and they’d talk about their grandmothers, and experiences when they were children. So the project and the use of blankets really evolved over time in a way that is community responsive.

CMF: This programming series is based around conversations. Does this visit itself feel like the continuation of a conversation that started with the “Sakahàn” exhibition?

MW: I hope we’ll be revisiting a conversation. I definitely feel that coming to Ottawa this time is a chance to revisit people I met at that time, and also make new friends. Before I came here I started revisiting the blanket stories, and looking at the blankets that people had contributed, and it moved me all over again. People really shared beautiful and personal stories.

CMF: Did you see anything anew when revisiting it?

MW: In the rush to do the installation, I had the blankets for a short period of time, and they got processed, scanned and transcribed. That process is so intensive that there’s no time to sit and consider them in a more meditative fashion. So it was really fun just to look at the images, and look at the stories.

Some people would type stories, but others would write it in their own hand, and I always think of handwriting as an expression of the cadence of one’s voice. And I really enjoy that. So it did provide an opportunity to be with the piece in another way.

CMF: In Canada, the automatic association with wool blankets is, for many people, the Hudson’s Bay point blanket, which raises a whole host of difficult questions and historical references about colonialism. I know you have used point blankets in your work—how do you navigate these multivalent objects, and have you encountered differing receptions when you present the works in new locations?

MW: It’s interesting, living in Oregon, I live in the state where Pendleton originated. So I guess in my experience with using wool blankets, I don’t know if people connect with them in a nationalistic way, but when people see Pendleton blankets, there is a connection with that brand.

It is interesting to think of blankets as they relate to trade and the colonizing of a country or a nation. I think I tend to let the blankets be the voice in that conversation—I feel these blankets are objects that have been so transformed by how we use them, and I would rather that be where the conversation ends up.

CMF: In your work there tends to be a use of binaries—the references to High Modernism combined with craft, or the emphasis on individual stories within highly collaborative projects. How do you negotiate those boundaries, and is this approach a kind of conversation in and of itself?

MW: Interestingly, I recently realized that as soon as I hear the word “binary” a little red flag comes up, because it seems that it’s either black or white. But I work in a way that is a traditional way of working in community, and an Indigenous way of working. Which is less about these separate camps—I just see how these are all things that intersect in really natural ways.

In our community, there is no Indigenous word for “art,” but works that we would now refer to as “artworks” have been made for a very long time. I think I’m really interested in how we can have more cross-disciplinary conversations, and conversations where art isn’t institutionalized or segregated from our experience in the world. I really do think of art as being something that intersects with science, nature, poetry and literature, and it’s integrated in our lives.

CMF: You host sewing circles—I would love to know how those work, and which projects they are working towards.

MW: I like to say that anyone can participate—no sewing experience is necessary. I’m really interested in how people’s stitches are kind of like a signature, or a thumbprint, and when those stitches come together I think of it as a metaphor for how we’re all related. Recently, I feel like I shouldn’t call it a “metaphor”: in Seneca and Iroquois teachings this notion of us all being related is a way of understanding ourselves in the world. We’re all connected in some way. I love how the “Sakahàn” blanket column is evidence of that.

In the sewing circles, people’s stitches become evidence of that, as well. During the sewing circles there’s really no pressure to talk, but when you’re working with something as humble as cloth, stories tend to flow. My ideal situation would be that people get to learn something about their neighbour, or exchange emails, and friendships might come out of that.

In an era where so much of the communicating we do is done through technology, it’s nice to be in a situation where we open ourselves up to that conversation.

CMF: When I hear you talk, it sounds as though the process behind the work is as important as the object itself.

MW: I feel like it really is; it’s as much a part of the final work. I don’t feel like there’s always a way to show that, but I know it. I can’t look at a piece without knowing that there were a room full of generous people chatting away, stitching and having conversations, and that it was something made in a community.

CMF: This is your second time doing a big project at the National Gallery of Canada and visiting Ottawa—how do you see your relationship to this place?

MW: I feel really honoured to be a part of some really amazing projects here in Canada, and I do feel really welcome here.

Truthfully, I just hope I get to come back again. I will come back again on my own, regardless, but it would be lovely to be an invited guest again.