Marie Watt is an artist I admire not only for the visually appealing work she produces but for the thought and meaning she puts behind each piece. Her quilts are all gorgeous and full of humans’ stories. In the artist’s words, “We are received in blankets, and we leave in blankets”.
Her blankets and quilts tell the stories of the humans who wear them, who use them as markers for important moments in their lives, and each piece says something about the ritual importance we place in objects. Her work is transformed as it is hung flat against a wall or curved to the contours of someone’s body. Watt wants to bring up our own memories of quilts and blankets that were worn and stretched out due to use, that hold memories of their own.
I was lucky enough to see one of her pieces at the National Museum of the American Indian and it was one of my favorite pieces in the museum. The whole collection of contemporary works (titled Vantage Point) was very interesting to view, and I learned a lot more about Native American artists (and about Native American cultures) working today. I would recommend this museum to anyone visiting DC. The artwork, the stories, and the gorgeous building (not to mention the fantastic food!) make the trip worthwhile.
The piece of Watt’s I saw was titled In the Garden (Corn, Beans, Squash).
This quilt’s title is from the story of the Three Sisters. The Three Sisters being corn, beans, and squash. These three food crops grow together in a way that supports and strengthens one another. We see their strength in how the structure on this quilt grows and moves powerfully into the sky. This quilt also has influence from the story of the Sky Woman falling to the earth with the diamond patterns suggesting Native American star quilts. While Watt draws from traditional Native American quilting patterns and techniques such as the star quilts she does not copy them directly. Take these star quilts (Not created by Watt) for instance:
We can see how Watt drew from the diamond structure of the star quilts, but she didn’t use the iconic star shape. Additionally, her piece has a sense of depth the traditional quilts lack as the diamond structure seems to twist and turn further and farther away from the viewer. By manipulating the diamond shapes Watt was able to give her quilt a sense of three-dimensionality. We also see a different, almost softer, color palette, as she sticks with colors in a red hue (with contained yellow accents), while the traditional star quilts use loud and often contrasting colors.
Watt not only explores her own heritage as a self-proclaimed “half Cowboy and half Indian” (being born to the son of Wyoming ranchers and a daughter of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation (Iroquois/Haudenosaunee), but explores feminist concerns with the historical devaluing of crafts. This is a subject I want to talk about in more depth in a separate post (I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but it’s kind of intimidating. It’s one of those things that will take a lot of research so I’m waiting until I feel the urge to just spend a day dedicated to learning and thinking more about it). Basically the gist of it is that crafts have been devalued throughout history as a lesser art form because it is women’s work. The female-dominated fields of crafts such as pottery, textiles, and ceramics are often considered less important than male-dominated fields such as painting, sculpture, glassblowing, etc. If we put aside all of our pre-conceived notions we’re left with some awkward questions: why are the crafts considered less artistically valid than the fine arts? Is it because the artwork is created to be used? Or is it because “women’s work” cannot be great in the same way as “men’s work”?
We saw this in my post on Faith Ringgold. As an artist working with story quilts Ringgold struggled throughout her career to not be defined as working with crafts, but as being a fine artist. If I remember correctly in my earlier research I stumbled across a quote where Ringgold passionately insisted that her quilts and soft sculptures were not merely crafts (I no longer have access to the book I read this in. If I find it I’ll update here!) but truly fine art.
Many artists, including Marie Watt, do not deny that their work falls into the realm of crafts. They reclaim crafts. The field of quilting should be held in the same esteem as the field of, say, photography. The two fields are not as different as you may think in terms of level of skill and creative thinking needed to succeed.
But back to Watt and her work.
She doesn’t only work with quilts and blankets, she has a number of sculptural and installation pieces as well. Take for example, this piece from 2009:
We see here a cave-like structure created with wood and felt wool. The interior view looks like this:
This installation is a cave. A cave with two chambers containing stalactites, stalagmites, and places for viewers to sit. The space is arranged to make it natural to sit in a circle with your peers, a typical formation for Native American storytellers. Once seated holograms will be projected onto the walls, telling stories that Watt grew up listening to. Interestingly enough, the holograms are a homage to the Star Wars series the artist grew up with.
Upon seeing this work paired with the quilts, it’s pretty clear that Watt is a visual storyteller. She’s using her work to share narratives with us, be they stories from her childhood, stories of groups as a whole, or stories of individuals, Watt weaves excellent tales throughout her work.
I would recommend checking out her site as there are a number of great pieces I never even touched on. I haven’t hear of Marie Watt before seeing her in the NMAI, but I hope to be able to see her work again in the future.