âIn the old days, there were songs for everything. Marie Watt, whose solo exhibition “Companion Species (At What Cost)” runs through January 9, 2022, at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clifton, New Jersey, speaks in her studio in Portland, Oregon, with the debris of the making fabric sculptures and installations all around it. She talks to me about crafts, writing, art and history. Soon after, the conversation turns to music, songs both ancient and modern. She just quoted Joy Harjo, a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, the current United States Poet Laureate and the first Native American to be so honored, to begin explaining her own work. Three years ago, Watt began to incorporate fragments of text into his work, which is sometimes completely pearly.
On one of the walls of the studio was a large hanging banner, still in progress, which read “Turtle Island,” a term used in various ways by its own people, the Senecs (historically one of the nations). Forest of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy), to designate the land, North America, or the idea of ââhomeland. Another recent book reads “our teeth take refuge for our tongues”, another quote from Harjo. Real song lyrics also go into the work, notably from “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. Written half a century ago, during the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, his words nonetheless seem too relevant today. Watt has sewn his phrases into his work – “mother, mother”; “brother brother”; âWe don’t need to climbâ; “Right on, baby” – as if the song was already playing and she had just joined it.
Watt describes his use of the existing text as “time reminder and call forwarding, language pairing”. Difference in repetition. This formula is also intrinsic to craftsmanship – the slight irregularities communicated by the human hand – and it is central to Watt’s practice. His is an art of accumulation, bead by bead, point by point, neon tube by neon tube, coming to life in the variations that occur within the recurrence. Two or three times a year, she stages public events to initiate a new work, transforming the creative process into a kind of social gathering. (The artist will host a sewing circle at the Marc Straus Gallery in New York City on December 8.) It’s sort of simple pragmatism, the contemporary art version of a barn farm, several hands making the work light. But Watt also cherishes the instant community engendered by this collective effort, the creation of a shared, intergenerational and multicultural enterprise. Crowdsourcing complicates her own authorship and brings what she describes as cadence to work, “what’s present around the entire table, not just what’s in front of each designer.”
Watt also uses diversity and repetition in his choice of motifs, crossing time and culture, connecting disparate experiences. The covers are the most important of them; she has worked with them for about twenty-five years, after earning her Masters in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University. (As a college student, she had used corn husks, which were ânot greeted with much warmth or encouragement.â) Stubborn iron. For years she set a hard limit on herself, spending a maximum of five dollars on each second-hand blanket, buying them in large quantities, just as a painter can buy new tubes of oil or acrylic. But these objects came with stories. âI quickly learned from their tags that they migrate,â she says. âSome covers have names of people; others nibbled on pieces and fixed parts.
These fortuitous micro-stories attest to the latent cultural capital of these seemingly low-value commodities. For many children, a blanket is the first object of attachment. Even as adults, we remain intimate with them. And in Native American culture, blankets are symbolically powerful. Watt’s own family observes a custom of giving them as gifts to mark major life events. More generally, in indigenous communities, blankets have been associated with both trade and tradition, to the point that whites eager to assimilate indigenous peoples derogatoryly referred to those who retained their customs. intact under the name of “Indians of the blankets”. Her use of the material reflects this story, while also indicating an openness to other perspectives: in her hands, the blankets are a common fabric, both literally and figuratively.
Watt’s inclusive approach is a conscious response to modernist abstraction, which has often been claimed as a new universal language, despite its obvious Eurocentrism (which involved ignoring precedents such as tiling and textiles across the board. world). She opposes this dominant narrative with another, based not on a transcendent form but on mundane experiences, such as being nestled at night. Another new work, in progress in his studio as we spoke, contains nothing more than stitched bindings – the satin bands that run along the edges of the cover – in various states of wear. Arranged horizontally in a spectrum ranging from pink to gold through blue, the composition suggests a sunset. It makes you think that a blanket under the chin is some kind of psychological horizon, with a dream landscape on the other side. There is an inescapable reference here to the post-war American paintings of Mark Rothko, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Watt domesticates the idiom of these canonical artists without stepping back an inch in their ambition to capture the sublime. The artwork is so wide that when you stand in its center, you cannot see its edges. “It envelops you,” says Watt, “like a real sunset does.”
The sky is the conceptual backdrop for another series Watt is currently developing, which features a material juxtaposition between roofs and steel I-beams, the latter painted in strips. Vertical in orientation, they are somewhat reminiscent of the totem poles of the Native peoples of the Northwest, such as the Coast Salish and the Tlingit. The I-beams also allude, once again, to modernism – the sculpture of Anthony Caro and Mark di Suvero – and architecture. Watt has in mind the famous âSkywalkersâ of the Mohawk Nation (another woodland people of the Haudenosaunee), who worked high above the streets of Manhattan, assembling and riveting the frame of tall buildings. “They are up there”, comments Watt, “in conversation with the sky, a mythical and magical space, where man has always aspired to hang out – a space of wonder.”
If there are two types of artists – stones, which simply roll forward, not picking up moss, and snowballs, which gather meaning as they create – Watt is certainly that. latest. She tends to work around a subject, approaching it in a suggestive and overlapping manner. Thus, her explorations of the celestial also invoke the Haudenosaunee legend of the celestial woman. The idea of ââmothering led Watt not only to Marvin Gaye, but also to a common symbol of ancient Rome showing Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf in the wilderness. The artist appreciates the old portrayals of this scene – “this non-biological mother, with her emaciated rib cage, nurturing these founding demigods, offering her body as a shelter, even though you also feel she might be fierce.” In Native American belief, wolves can also be strong protective figures, so this is another example of Watt seeking connection, crossing boundaries and conventional classifications. She points out that most Indigenous languages ââdon’t even have a word for art. Aesthetics are not separated from what is strictly necessary. Likewise, we humans are meant to exist in a (hopefully harmonious) relationship with animals, plants, the environment, and not in our own separate realm.
That’s what it means to have a song for everything: it’s about belonging, which Watt continually offers in his work. When listing pieces with words like “Turtle Island” or “Sky Woman,” for example, some viewers may not know the reference. But they may wonder, and that opens up a space for potential connection. âIt’s an invitation to say it out loud,â she says, âand it may relate to a way of seeing that is experiential. I walk on Turtle Island, it’s the noise under my feet, it’s what I’m coming back to. There is an extraordinary generosity here, which only takes on its full meaning in a tragic context, the displacement of the Aboriginals from their ancestral lands. Watt has this story in mind, while making signs that mark a conceptual territory, one that we can all inhabit, in a spirit of reciprocity. Gordon Bettles, a Klamath alumnus, once told him, âMy story changes when I know your story. And so with Watt, and all of us, together.