Marie Watt’s work gets maximum mileage out of a most-everyday medium: blankets.
“They are a little bit itchy,” she laughed, “but truthfully I think what I’m really drawn to is how each blanket has a different color or pattern. In many ways it’s like unique tubes of paint.”
Watt’s constructions — which have shown at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Portland Art Museum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — use blankets and other textiles to address comfort and connection.
When she gets a new blanket, she says, she often leaves them sitting in view in her studio, so she can think about its color, its pattern, its story.
“I really respond to the worn areas,” she said, “the ways they’ve been mended. All of that tells me something about its past history.”
Watt sometimes stacks blankets in towering, colorful structures. Standing next to one can make you mindful of the generations that came before, each with its own layers of story. She’s shredded blankets and woven them to make new things. She’s even bronzed them, forming columns that seem to hold up the weight of the world. An enrolled member of the Seneca Nation, she’s never far from the cultural history of her materials, even as she teases out their contemporary meanings.
Watt has a new show at PDX Contemporary Art in Portland is called “Companion Species”. Blankets are the canvas on which she explores comfort and connection. Walk in, and you’re confronted with a 20-foot blanket construction embroidered with the image of a giant wolf.
Like many of Watt’s projects, “Companion Species: Canopy” was created with help from sewing circles convened in her studio. “No sewing experience is required,” she added with a smile. The circles for this particular work were convened at the High Desert Museum, while Watt was doing a commission for an exhibition celebrating the Works Progress Administration.
“I felt it was the perfect piece” for the museum, Watt said. “This amazing institution that fosters conversations about the environment and animals.”
Once the circle had joined blanket pieces together, Watt and her assistant took on the elaborate overstitched embroidery giving the wolf its shape. The resulting figure towers over visitors to the gallery.
“I actually think the proportion of the gallery to the size of the work really allows the work to envelop you,” she said.
Moreover, the scale of the two large works in “Companion Species” speak to Watt’s feelings about women’s power, women’s spheres and women’s work — concepts permeating most all her work.
“For me, maybe part of the power is the scale,” she said. “The sheer quantity of stitches, the sheer number of hands and voices that occupy each stitch.”
Marie Watt’s exhibition, “Companion Species,” is on view at PDX Contemporary Art through Sept. 30. The show also includes several smaller textile works, cast crystal and bronze.