Connected \\ December 4, 2019

Building community with Marie Watt

In the Seneca creation story, before the Earth existed, humans lived in the Sky World. Sky Woman fell through a hole in the sky (she may have been pushed), and as she fell, birds softened her landing. A motley crew of four-legged animals helped her to survive in this new place which came to be known as Turtle Island (also known now as North America). The birds and animals are the first teachers.

PEM has commissioned an extraordinary work of art from multidisciplinary, internationally renowned artist Marie Watt (Seneca Nation) that speaks directly to this creation story. “When one is raised to think of animals as teachers and also as extensions of us — our relatives or relations — you’re less likely to be able to separate how our actions affect the environment, animals and the natural world,” says Watt.

Watt’s commissioned work for PEM is a part of her current Companion Species series, which asks us all to consider: What would the world look like if we thought of ourselves as companion species? Place, nations, generations, beings. All interconnected. Moving through the world, mindful of and nurturing these untethered relationships. Watt calls this body of work a mash-up of Indigenous knowledge and Marvin Gaye knowledge, as she is inspired by Indigenous values of relationality and Marvin Gaye’s searing, and sadly still so relevant, song What’s Going On.

Building community is at the heart of Watt’s practice. For this series, she brings community members together in the form of a sewing circle to co-create elements she will develop into a larger artwork over the next several months. Watt believes that when people’s hands are busy at work and their eyes are diverted, conversation and storytelling starts to unfold. This aspect of coming together with the greater Salem community to contribute to a monumental work of art for PEM’s collection was just one of the many reasons I wanted to work with Watt.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

I first became acquainted with Watt and her internationally renowned textile work about 15 years ago in the Continuum: 12 Artists exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. From her smaller hand-stitched pieces and large wall tapestries to her tall stacks of blankets and room-sized installations, her dazzling work beckons you closer and asks you to engage with the dialogue she cultivates. Some may recall her sculptural installation Column, 2003 from her Blanket Stories series, which also graced the cover of our 2012 exhibition catalogue Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art. Through that project, I began to understand just how multivalent blankets are with their power to tell stories of individuals and communities, and how Watt’s work can truly penetrate and move the dial on our collective consciousness.

shapeshifting catalogue

Shapeshifting catalogue

2012 Installation Marie Watt’s Column, 2003 in Shapeshifting

2012 Installation Marie Watt’s Column, 2003 in Shapeshifting: Transformations in Native American Art exhibition (right). Photo by Walter Silver/PEM.

Over four days, PEM hosted five sewing circles on and off campus, which were multigenerational, multicultural and packed to the gills. We held our first one at Salem’s new community life center (the Mayor Jean A. Levesque Community Life Center on Bridge Street), which brought out many now-retired folks, who shared stories over stitching and pastries. Salem and North Shore educators sewed for hours, as well as PEM staff, our public and a special interest group (sugar boosts are helpful when sewing and food is always a wonderful binder). Working closely with Watt’s superstar assistant Lilia Hernandez, PEM’s Assistant Curator Rachel Allen (Nez Perce) expertly coordinated all of these activities. I am so thankful to everyone who contributed stitches to this commission, and to all the PEM staff who supported this project in so many ways.

visitors sewing in sewing circle

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Watt’s sewing circle invitation includes a trade of one of her small prints in exchange for stitches, and food when possible. No experience is necessary — in fact, Watt says some of her most favorite stitches come from inexperienced sewers, since their work tends to be more expressive. People are welcome to stay for as short as one stitch, and friends are always welcome.

sewing circle presentation

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

sewing at Marie Watts sewing circle

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

sewing circle in progress

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

Participants embroidered onto nearly 140 reclaimed blanket fragments with pre-selected text in various fonts and sizes. Evocative words and phrases came from What’s Going On, poetry by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek Nation), Seneca clan animals, English translations of local Indigenous placenames and astronomical bodies her second-grader is learning in school right now. “Mother mother,” “too many dying,” “beloved place,” “warm animal,” “ancestor” and “earth memory” become powerful messengers when stitched together with dark embroidery floss on a red background, expressing a sense of poetic urgency. The final work will be sewn into a format that gestures toward an oversized speech bubble, and the artist may sew an additional phrase or image on top of the assemblage. She will listen to the piece and respond in kind.

As we stitched, conversations unfolded between neighbors, strangers, friends, co-workers and family. This created a lens for not just understanding — but really feeling — connectedness to one another, to place and the universe. I especially love that Marie Watt’s work offers a viable way forward at a time when our planet is in peril and the future begs of us all more conversation, more coming together and more understanding.

The final piece for PEM will be realized over the next few months. We can look forward to seeing it in our forthcoming Putnam Gallery of Native and American art opening January 2022, which will explore the intersections of these two historically separate disciplines and categories of artistic expression. We anticipate this piece to be an anchor in the gallery, bridging and grounding our eyes, hearts and minds.

Marie Watt with a slide of the reclaimed blanket fragments

Marie Watt with a slide of the reclaimed blanket fragments mapped out to what the final piece (which will measure approximately 16 feet wide and 9 feet tall) for PEM may resemble. Photo by Karen Kramer.

Building community with Marie Watt, sewing circle
Curator Karen Kramer at center. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM

TOP IMAGE: Photo by Peter Jennings.

Facebook Twitter Email