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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Seneca artist Marie Watt is having a real moment in the art world. After decades of teaching she is making art from organic experiences of sewing circles and stacked blankets that create sunrises.

Her work is in multiple museum collections, she was featured in the knockout show, “Larger Than Memory” at the Heard Museum last year, has two current museum exhibits, and had a solo booth exhibit at the recent Armory Show in New York City.

Her work is based on blankets and sewing and the community that arises from those items and activities. Her roots on Turtle Island loom large as well.

“I feel like I've been a working artist for a long time,” she told Indian Country Today by phone from her home in Portland, Oregon. “And I feel like it might be one of the first times where I think, maybe after I turned 50, I thought, ‘Oh, I guess this is what I'm going to do.’ I used to always feel like, ‘Well, I can go back teaching if this doesn’t work.’”

This work, "Skyscraper/Skywalker (Twins)," by Seneca artist Marie Watt, is in the collection of the Princeton University Art Gallery in Princeton, New Jersey. It is sculpted from reclaimed blankets, steel and thread. (Photo by Kevin McConnell, courtesy of Marie Watt)

As for the heart of her art, she credits the stories that arise from community.

“Sewing is such a basic matrilineal thing within tribes and what women do, but I think what drew me most to the sewing circles was just seeing the conversation that happens when your eyes are diverted and you're working with something that's regimented and then stories flow,” she said.

“I think it's really that action of people gathering around these tables, and kids and elders and people who study different things and people who bring different cultural perspectives to that table, and what happens when all that energy is in the same place at the same time.”

Heard Museum fine arts curator Erin Joyce said Watt’s works draw from her Indigenous roots while venturing into modern themes.

“Marie Watt’s work is imbricated, lushly tactile, and thoughtfully interrogative of power structures and colonial systems,” Joyce said in an email to Indian Country Today.

“The use of textile, specifically blankets, in her sculptural works, creates conversation of the meanings imbued within an object — the stories they have to share — and the lessons they have to teach,” she wrote.

“By embracing community participation in her sewing circles, Watt creates polyphonic narratives to her work. Watt references her Indigenous ancestry while concurrently entering into art historical themes and contemporary global issues, creating multiple entry points for the viewer to engage.”

‘Hunger to connect’

She collaborates with all kinds of communities and people of all ages for the sewing circles.

Watt provides a fabric patterns with taped lettering so that the participants can sit together and sew. The needles have been pre-threaded with embroidery floss so participants can sit down and start working right away with their hands.

In return, they get to be part of the finished artwork and she gifts them all a signed print.

“Rather than it being solely about the stitching, the stitching is almost like the plate,” she said. “I like to say I set the table. So, the stitching is the plate, but then, as people are stitching, I'm so compelled by just our hunger to connect in this way with our neighbors and people that we may or may not know.”

Long-held traditions come to the table.

“Having this place where cross-disciplinary knowledge and generational knowledge is really important and crucial,” she said. “There are traditions of craft that people do in community and these traditions, are traditions, because they could think of this way back in time. They're still around because of that thread of storytelling and sharing space with one another and listening.”

The circles echo circles of life, pow wow circles and round houses, and she is inspired by the stories for future projects.

“I think when I feel like there's just call and response, that happens in the context of the sewing circles, and in the course of listening and participating in conversation, that new ideas come to life and continue the conversation,” she said.

Mixed materials

Watt, 54, is a citizen of the Seneca Nation of Indians of New York, of the Turtle Clan, and her father comes from a family of Wyoming ranchers. She describes herself as “half-cowboy and half-Indian.”

She grew up in Seattle, then attended Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She has an associate’s degree in fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, and has a master’s in fine arts in painting and printmaking from Yale University.

Watt began experimenting with materials such as corn husks and blankets at her studio in Portland, Oregon. She also uses other textiles, wood and bronze in her works, which can also include painting.

‘Companion pieces’

She also creates work without sewing circles. One piece, “Butterfly,” stems from an encounter she had while serving as artist-in-residence at the Denver Art Museum.

She had set up a sewing circle in a public space there, and young women from a day camp nearby stopped in. All they talked about was their dancing, she said.

“They were talking to me about their pow wow dances, and one was a fancy shawl dancer and the other was a jingle dress dancer,” she said. “I was just really moved by the stories of them dancing. When I knew I was coming back to Denver and I was going to host a show in circle during the museum's annual pow wows, I made a new piece that was really in response to these women's stories and their dances.”

The piece — an 8x10-foot wall hanging — features jingles, reclaimed wool blankets and satin bindings.

A 2015 work by Seneca artist Marie Watt is made from reclaimed wool blankets, satin binding, cotton twill tape, thread and nearly 4,000 tin jingles. The work now hangs in the Denver Art Museum. (Photo by Aaron Johanson, courtesy of Marie Watt)

Other works that Watt has produced include a series called Companion Species, which includes a large blanket work stitched together with the embroidered image of a lounging, panting wolf that was exhibited at the “Larger Than Memory” show in Phoenix, Arizona. The wolf’s tongue is made up of hundreds of French knots.

“I no longer painted for a long time,” Watt said. “But that piece, I feel like was a re-introduction to painting for me. But the tongue needed to be more like a real tongue so it’s made out of French knots but based on a painting of a tongue.”

Venturing into sculpture, she created a striking work called “Skywalker/Skyscraper (Sunrise)” made of a steel I-beams, reclaimed blankets and cedar. Standing on the wooden base — which harkens to Watt’s childhood in the northwestern woods — the blankets derive meaning from both Indian blanket traditions and from the colors of the sun coming up.

That piece evoked the years she lived in Brooklyn, New York, from 2009-2013, which was home to many of iron workers in the 1950s. Many were young Mohawk men.

“There were so many iron workers, helping build Manhattan skyscrapers and the bridges,” she said. “Sometimes people say that were unafraid of heights and had exceptional balance, but truthfully, it was like a job that had really good pay and it allowed them to work in the city and then travel home. So, it wasn't necessarily any special type skill or genetic trait.”

Indeed, young Mohawk men were drawn toward the city, building the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the George Washington and Triborough Bridges, Madison Square Garden, and the World Trade Center. According to a Dominion Bridge Co. official quoted in a 1949 New Yorker article, "They would climb up and onto the spans and walk around up there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters, most of whom were old sailing-ship men especially picked for their experience in working aloft.”

The I-beams become the skyscraper, the cedar her roots, and the blanket colors are inspired by poet laureate Joy Harjo’s “American Sunrise” poems, Watt said.

“What’s interesting to me about sunrises is that there's a sunrise happening some place right now on the planet, something that we share in common and sunrise also is an indicator of a new day,” she said. “But sometimes when we see a really beautiful sunrise, there's a consequence attached to beauty, which is global warming. Being in the Pacific Northwest where there's a lot of fires right now, that smoke from those fires create these religious sunrises. I see a cautionary tale about our relationship with, not just sunrises, but the elements.”

Making connections

She said the shift from the Pacific Northwest to New York helped her see things in a different way.

“I felt like, as a person who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, all of a sudden I traded in the conifers and cedar trees for the skyscrapers and scaffolding that are so much a part of New York,” she said.

“I loved being in that city, knowing that people who are my relatives had a hand in the skyline. I also like the word skywalker — it’s what we call our iron workers. As a kid who grew up watching “Star Wars” in the theater, the hero is named Luke Skywalker, so it has this twin meaning. One is the art and workers, and the other is George Lucas' movie hero who is going on this journey. I also think about how skyscrapers are like churches and their steeples — they occupy the sky space or a space that is unattainable. The preoccupation of that space is ancient and modern.”

Those thoughts brought her into local communities and to the sewing circles.

“Artists usually work alone and people in general have become more isolated by technology,” she said. “I think that sitting around a table with people — neighbors and strangers — deep down, there's something in our DNA that needs that connection.”

See for yourself

Through Dec. 12
Each/Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger
Carlos Museum
571 S Kilgo Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322

Through Jan. 9, 2022
Companion Species (At What Cost): The Works of Marie Watt
The Hunterdon Art Museum
7 Lower Center St., Clinton, NJ 08809

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that artist Marie Watt does not work exclusively with Indigenous women in her sewing circles, but with all people from all communities. She provides fabric panels with taped lettering for the participants to sew. She does not use alabaster or slate in her works, and she is no longer affiliated with Portland Community College or Northview Gallery. The tongue of a wolf in one of her "Companion Series" pieces is made exclusively of French knots; it is not painted. 

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