Treasures from the Vault: Marie Watt

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Blankets are familiar to most people, used for warmth, comfort, and even play, they are entwined with our life experiences, traditions, and carry cross-cultural meanings.  Blankets have served an important role in Native American histories as commemorative gifts and were used in trade, collecting, tourism, and aided the spread of disease. Sewing has had a valued position in Native American traditions and, because of the rich associations, Marie Watt, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nation, Iroquois/Haudenosaunee from upstate New York, has used blankets for her artwork for years.  The Seneca Nation is a matrilineal society, so she had a host of nurturing, strong women in her life and considers herself a proto feminist.   

In the 1970s, sewing was embraced by feminist artists, such as Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, and Miriam Schapiro, as a means of expressing the female experience. Sewing, like quilting, china painting, and needlework, is historically associated with women and, therefore, undervalued by art historians. Watt uses wool blankets gathered from secondhand stores, friends, and family for her sculpture and installations.  She does not see these as anonymous found objects, but rather refers to them to as “reclaimed wool.” Watt values the stories linked with the individuals and groups who previously used them. Wool fibers are resilient, so blankets can survive several generations.  The wear, mends, stains, and misshapen forms are a record of their use and history. Blankets are given to honor people who are witnesses to important events in the Seneca community, and other indigenous communities. Watt explained, “We are received in blankets, and we leave in blankets.  The work. . . is inspired by the stories of those beginnings and endings, and the life in between. . .  Blankets hang around in our lives and families—they gain meaning through use.”i 

Watt's woodblock features a forest green background with multiple rolled, yellow lines on the right. The lines appeared stitched, and stop three-quarters of the way down the print.
Marie Watt, American, b. 1967. Tether. Woodcut, 2011. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2013. 30. 1. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Watt creates wall pieces, assemblages of blankets with hand embroidery. She is best known for her monumental sculptural works in which she folds and stacks blankets that become towers, linking the sky and earth. For a commissioned work for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, her sculpture reached 36 feet tall.  These tall forms recall totem poles of the Pacific Northwest and Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s 98-foot high Endless Column (1938).   

Watt states, “My work does seek to forge relationships and reveal aspects of our connectedness to one another, to animals and to the natural world”ii  as the artist appreciates the fact that the felted material comes from the fleece of sheep, a tie with the animal world.  In 2003, Watt began hosting sewing circles in which she invited community members (no sewing experience necessary) to assist with a piece by adding hand-stitched embellishments to the blankets.  She welcomes the expressive and unique quality of an individual’s stitches but is equally, if not more, interested in the sharing of memories and the connecting of humanity across generations and cultures that occurs during these events.  As a custodian of human experiences, Watt sometimes refers to these pieces as blanket story sculptures.  (Interestingly, Faith Ringgold makes painted images with written narratives directly on quilts, which she calls story quilts.) For Watt’s commission at the Tacoma Art Museum, she created a bronze sculpture cast from nearly 350 blankets gathered from eleven states and three countries.  On the artist’s website, you can browse through the stories she captured. 

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art owns three small-scaled woodcuts and one lithograph by Watt.  All four were created at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, which was co-founded by James Lavadour to support Native American art.  As an Artist-in-Residence, Watt spent two weeks in the Crow’s Shadow studio taking advantage of the technical expertise of their master printer and the printmaking facilities. 

This lithograph is busy. A light, highlighter-like mark vertically bisects the print. A light brown background, stitched brown and white lines loop through the print, overlapping the yellow line.
Marie Watt, American, b. 1967. Portal. Lithograph, 2011. Gift of Joe Zanatta, 2014.359. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Making prints allowed Watt to explore ideas in a small format.  Portal (2002) shares an affinity with her first blanket wall piece entitled Flow of Time (2004), now in the collection of the Portland Art MuseumPortal has muted earth tones that are comparable to the dye colors found in her wool blanket pieces.  Its wiry, curving lines are segmented, like a backstitch used for embroidered outlines.  In Flow of Time, Watt used strands of wool to form looping lines that extend down past the edge onto the floor, perhaps calling to mind a dream catcher. She explored the idea of a dream catcher in a 2014 wall piece.   

A deep purple background sets off this vertical print. The top has black, stitched-like lines flowing above, creating the look of wind while yellow-ish stitch-like marks in the right hand corner undulate to create a mountain.
Marie Watt, American, b. 1967. Plow. Woodcut, 2011. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2013.30.2. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In woodcut, typically the printmaker uses a gouge and knife to make cuts into the wood block.  Instead, Watt relies only on the roulette (a printmaking tool with a small, spiked wheel) for mark-making to create the subtle abstract patterns in PlowTether, and Vest, all from 2011.  She only used two inks in her woodcuts, but the overlaid inks blended to create multiple colors. Watt used Shina plywood for her block, a fine-grained wood that carves easily and retains details through repeated printing.  As the roulette rolls across the surface, it leaves behind an incised textured pattern.  These tiny flecks resemble a running stitch, recalling Watt’s expressive hand stitching on her blankets.  

A print, this woodcut looks like a stitched quilt. The background is red, with white square, stitch-like lines creating a grid pattern. At the bottom of the print are bunches of thick, red lines that look like hammocks.
Marie Watt, American, b. 1967. Vest. Woodcut, 2011. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2013.30.3. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Watt grew up in Redmond, WA.  She earned her bachelor’s degree from Willamette College in Salem, OR and attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM for a degree in Museum Studies.  In 1996, Watt received her MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Yale University.  The artist received the Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Arts in 2005 and awards from Anonymous Was a Woman, Ford Family Foundation, and the Joan Mitchell Foundation.  Her work is included in the current traveling exhibition, Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, and is in the collections of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, National Museum of the American Indian, Tacoma Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

i Cynthia Fowler, “Materiality and Collective Experience: Sewing as Artistic Practice in Work by Marie Watt, Madia Myre, and Bonnie Devine,” American Indian Quarterly 3, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 346. 

ii Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series: Artist Marie Watt. Smithsonian American Art Museum. (accessed May 5, 2020). 

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