Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Off reservation with Marie Watt

Watt?s work, currently at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, contests the juxtaposition of ancestry

Marie Watt surveys her work ?In the Garden (Corn, Bean, Squash),? 2003, comprised of reclaimed wool, satin binding and thread. Watt?s work is currently on display as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts exhibition ?Album: Shifting Native Stories.?


For the Express

There is a saying in Iroquois folklore that it is difficult to stand in two canoes at once. No doubt Seneca artist and teacher Marie Watt is familiar with the feeling. Her "Blanket Stories" and multi media paintings are on display at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts' new exhibition, "Album: Shifting Native Stories."

The Center's artistic director, Kristin Poole, conceived the show after discovering a group of extraordinarily fine weavings made by anonymous Aleut Indians at the turn of the 20th century in Alaska. These baskets, wallets and bottle coverings contain Russian flower designs that were incorporated into traditional rye grass weavings in order to attract the eye of passing tourists. Some of these weavings ended up in the private collection of Poole's friend, Michael Engle, and are on display at the Center's gallery at 191 Fifth Street East in Ketchum, along with the work of renowned artist Marie Watt. Watt's own work continues this inevitable tradition of acculturation, yet from a very different vantage point: within the world of modern art.

Watt wears a beaded bracelet with one colored bead conspicuously out-of-place. "You'll see irregularities like these in native blankets and beadwork," she explained. "It is a native way of saying that imperfections are OK."

Despite her knowledge of native culture, (Watt is half Seneca-Iroquois), the artist enjoys moving beyond stereotypes as she continues to make her mark on the art world. "There are stereotypes like 'we are connected to the earth,' which may in fact be true, but it doesn't end there," she said.

Schooled at Willamette University and at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe—where native traditions have been explored and expanded upon by hundreds of Indian tribes since 1962—Watt later earned a master's degree from Yale University. Until recently she has been an instructor at Portland Community College. She is collected by museums and has found a place within the modern art world, which of course is a tribe all its own.

"For non-Indians I think education matters a great deal in terms of (artistic) success," she said. "For traditional cultures, like the potter families of New Mexico, it can stem from family lineages.

"The Center's show has a great mix of traditional and contemporary artists, but what I like most about it is that someone coming in here would not automatically assume that any of us are native," she said. Yet Watt is still aware of the particular designation held for Indian artists. "Curators would never put together a show and call it a 'Group Show of European artists.'"

Although Watt's work holds intrinsic significance for curators and collectors, she is quick to point out the motifs and symbols that derive from her native ancestry. Her status as an artist enables her to have a two-way conversation with both worlds, a conversation meant to reclaim some of the symbols that have become iconic within the vernacular of modern art. The well-known target, made famous by Jasper Johns in his 1955 "Target with Plaster Casts," is evident in her work, though she chooses to employ the concentric rings as natural symbols. "Circles are common throughout native cultures and everywhere in nature," said Watt.

Watt's "Three Sisters," is said to reflect a series of three sculptures by the Romanian abstract sculptor, Brancusi. Yet Watt is speaking also of the three traditional food crops of the Iroquois people: corn, beans and squash. These "Three Sisters" have been grown together since time immemorial by the inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America). Her mosaic galaxies of woolen patches, sewn by friends and family at sewing bees, represent the artist's connection between heaven and earth. Their execution speaks of the importance of community.

Watt has been known to address the phenomenon of fractal geometry in her work, hardly the terrain expected of Indian artists. "I'm part Indian, part non-Indian," said Watt. "It's not as though I can separate the two."

Watt's "Edson's Flag," a U.S. flag nearly obscured by military surplus wool and Watt's own motifs, is also reminiscent of Johns. It can easily be read as a political statement representing the historically ambiguous relationship between Native Americans and the U.S, military, or a statement on the military role in American foreign policy. Watt insists the surplus blanket is only a practical and cheap source of warmth from her youth. It is difficult at times to tell whether Marie Watt is shooting back at the Modern Art Canon with bow and arrow or chiming along with her own kind of song. Perhaps what matters most is that the art world is listening.

Despite the shifting roles of Indians in American culture, Watt's work in its essence is work of conciliation, just as to view it can be an act of absolution. Her "blanket stories" are totems of shared innocence. Dozens of colorful blankets, each with a personal tale to tell, reach toward the ceiling. After helping to hang the show, Kristin Poole contributed her own family's blue, threadbare blanket to the pile. "I have had this all of my life," she said.

During a break in her work installing the show, Watt looked wistfully at the exquisite weave and composition of the Aleut baskets made by unknown artists long ago. "You know," she said, "within the intimate scale of their communities, they never even felt the need to sign their work."

Marie Watt will give an artist's talk Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. She also hosts a Contemporary Cloth Teen Workshop Thursday, Oct. 19, 10 a.m.--1 p.m., at The Center Hailey. Call The Center on 729 9491 for more details.

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