Watt’s woven works reveal Native American collectivist culture, social protest

Artist Marie Watt opened her exhibit “Witness” in Geneseo’s Lederer Gallery on Wednesday Oct. 26, corresponding with the college’s Cultural Harmony Week. Watt draws her inspiration from her Native American culture, and primarily uses wool to create beautifully colorful and intricate blankets.

The exhibit contained a few prints, but is mostly dominated by large woolen blankets, which were suspended in the air a few inches away from the wall. The blankets vary in style—some have multicolored patterns of quilting, while others have images stitched into them with thread. The main piece, titled “Witness,” lends its name to the full exhibit and covers almost an entire gallery wall, standing out from the rest in both size and style.

“Witness” is larger than a normal blanket, with a scene stitched into it with black thread. The scene is based off a photograph taken in 1913 of a Native American potlatch. Potlatches were events in which Native American communities would gather, with one family giving away gifts to the crowd. This gifting brought wealth and status to the family. In the picture, someone is throwing gifts off of a roof and sailing through the air is a blanket. The crowd below can be seen reaching out for it, their hands uplifted toward the sky.

The actions taking place in this scene have a deep historical significance. During the time the photograph was taken, the colonists—who wanted to prevent native people from gathering—had outlawed potlatches. The colonists were also unsettled by the tradition of gifting. To them, one was supposed to gain wealth through the system of capitalism—not by giving things away. So these potlatches became acts of civil disobedience, and the onlookers became witnesses to the event.

The image of a crowd raising their arms in the air mirrors the protests of social issues happening in our society today. Just looking at the huge scene in the gallery—cinematic in scope—we, too, become witnesses of history and culture, while at the same time becoming united.

Bringing people together is another central theme in Watt’s work. She does this quite literally by reaching out into the community to complete her pieces. Many of the blankets were partially done by community sewing circles, where anyone can help stitch an image into the wool. Looking closely, you can see the different stitching styles of each individual who lent a hand to complete a section of blanket.

Watt explains that she values these differences immensely because they bring character to the pieces. “I don’t think of myself as a textile artist as much as a rogue stitcher,” she said, pulling back one of the blankets to reveal the back side, covered in knots and loose thread marking where different sewers left off.

Watt told the crowd that she will never take out the stitches of a less experienced sewer—only reinforce and strengthen them. “There is room for everybody in a circle,” she said. “Everybody’s stitch is like a signature, like the way you write your name … It’s a metaphor for how we’re all related and connected.”

She especially values the way the blankets create multi-generational connections. Blankets are often passed down through families, but can also unite generations in other ways. Watt explained the social dynamic of the sewing circles, in which different types of people—old and young—sit side-by-side passing around stories as they work. This is exactly how Native Americans have passed on their oral history and culture—sitting together, wrapped in a blanket.

Although they are beautiful to the eye, these blankets are so much more than works of art. They are physical testaments to the relationships we have with one another, with the present and with the past. They are the product of the connections that we make, stories woven tightly together with needle and thread.