When Portland artist Marie Watt began making sculptures with blankets 10 years ago, she made a startling discovery. For every blanket she found at thrift stores, a friend would remark how they used to have one just like it, and launch into a story.
So Watt started collaborating with communities to find (and stitch) blankets for her work, incorporating the stories too – and now it’s Tacoma’s turn. Watt will be in town for Thursday’s ArtWalk at the Tacoma Art Museum, talking stories with anyone who wants to join in a sewing circle and collecting blankets from anyone who chooses to give them. The final sculpture — a bronze casting of the stacked tower of blankets — will be placed outside the museum’s new Haub Western art wing this November.
“It’s about the humble yet significant part blankets play in our lives,” said Watt, whose fabric blanket sculptures were shown at TAM’s last biennial, as well as the Institution of American Indian Arts Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Soft, thick and towering, the columns are usually made of actual blankets whip-stitched together into a pattern that folds onto itself, referencing home, travel, Native American traditions, totem poles, arching conifers, even architectural columns. But since the TAM version will be outdoors — placed on the sidewalk in front of the wing now being built on Pacific Avenue — the blankets will be stiffened, encased in a mold then burned away, with the mold then filled with bronze at a Walla Walla foundry.
“In order to have the bronze, the blanket must give itself to the process,” said Watt poetically.
But to have blankets at all, Watt is asking South Sounders to donate them, along with the story that goes with each of them: a cherished baby blanket, a moth-eaten blanket that warmed a favorite pet, an heirloom. Substitute blankets can be given in lieu of any blanket that’s truly too valuable to lose, Watt said.
Then the blankets must be stitched together — and with 400 blankets expected, that’s a lot of work.
“I used to stitch it all myself,” Watt said of the early days of her blanket sculptures. “But I realized that to make my deadlines I needed help.”
Paying an assistant didn’t work financially or for quality, said Watt, and so the artist started inviting her friends to stitching bees.
“I would feed them, they could bring a friend, no sewing experience necessary,” Watt explained. Eventually, she “got a little brave” and started extending the invitation to the public, offering free silk-screened prints to participants if she couldn’t offer food. The result was a sewing circle tradition that not only contributed stories Watt added to the sculpture’s accompanying handmade book, but also taught her about community.
“I learned that everyone from 3 years to 83 can sew,” she said. “And that everyone’s stitch is unique, like a fingerprint. And when the stitches all go together, it’s like we’re related. The sewing circle is a bit like a barn-raising. When you’re working with something as humble, tactile and flowing as cloth, the conversation just flows. In this time when so much of our lives is taken up by technology, it’s nice to slow down and get together in this way.”
Watt held a couple of sewing circles at the museum in April, where about 30 people dropped by. The museum already has 50 donated blankets, and people can donate anytime during museum hours until May 18.
And while the details (and budget) are still being worked out, Watt is hoping that the stories will be present in some way near the sculpture — not in book form, but possibly digitally, via an interactive station inside the lobby.
The sculpture’s full title, “Blanket Stories: Transportation Object, Generous Ones and Trek,” also references other symbolism, such as the Native American tradition of cradleboards to transport babies, and the idea of a museum as a transportation object for our imaginations. It acknowledges both the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, whose name means “Generous Ones,” and other generous people in our lives, as well as the journey anyone makes who migrates, especially to the West.
“By this use of the blanket as vehicle, as symbol, as medium, she’s touched on something that has really deep resonance (not just) with Native Americans (but) with just about everyone, at least those of us who live in places where blankets are needed,” said Rebecca Dobkins, professor of anthropology at Willamette University, who curated Watt’s felt installation “Lodge” at the Tacoma Art Museum in 2012.
“Blankets have such mixed meaning for Native Americans — as the harbinger of the fur trade, as currency, as a substitute for more labor-intensive things like buffalo robes — but also as vehicles for disease,” Dobkins said. “And (creating) such monumental sculpture but with textiles raises issues of gender and power. There’s just so much depth and possible interpretation. I think that’s why they’re so successful.”
Finally, the sculpture — and the artist’s own heritage — add to the conversation TAM is trying to enable regarding the concept of Western art. With a Wyoming rancher father and a Native American mother who moved West to Seattle, Watt straddles both the ber-Western culture of “cowboy-style” art and the Native culture often at odds with it. Watt likes the way the museum has taken on that culture gap itself along with the highly Western nature of the donated Haub collection: programming lectures, commissioning Native American artists such as Watt and Matika Wilbur, and involving local tribes, such as in the upcoming annual Native American festival.
“I think it’s an extraordinary opportunity, and the museum is actively trying to start a conversation about the topic of the historic American West what the West actually is,” Watt said.
When: 5-8 p.m. May 15
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave.
Participate: Donate a blanket by May 18 to the sculpture project for outside the museum’s Haub wing, add a story or photo, and get a silk-screened print from the artist.
Info: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org
Be charitable: TAM is accepting donated blankets for the Rescue Mission, which provides more than 800 blankets annually.Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com