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Marie Watt sparks nostalgia with Heirlooms

Marie Watt’s sewing circles began as a means to meet a deadline. The Portland, Ore.-based artist called up a group of friends, some of them also artists, and asked if they’d help her sew an art piece together so she could get it done in time for a show. She offered them lunch and planted the idea that it was one way they could all get together during their busy schedules.

These days, Watt often asks people to join her sewing circles—friends and strangers, alike. In fact, she uses a massive e-mail list to call for help, and the list continues to grow. It’s still about efficiency—she’s gone to making all of her art by hand, and without other people she’d only get one piece done per year. But those sewing circles also produced a meaningful experience in which people told stories in an environment where fast-paced lives had a moment to slow down.

“I would compare the sewing circle process to—because I don’t want it to only be understood in the context of women’s work or the history of sewing bees—the idea of a barn raising,” Watt says. “It takes a community to come together and make something like that, otherwise it couldn’t happen in a short amount of time.”

With barn raising, she says, there’s also a food element, and since food often evokes comfort, Watt takes it seriously. At her sewing parties she serves bagels with lox, cream cheese and capers, and in the summer months she serves Caprese salads, cheese from the local farmers’ market, cookies and focaccia bread with cured meats. She also offers various beverages, including wine, beer, coffee and tea.

Recently, Watt invited her sewing comrades to help her stitch together a giant blanket made out of smaller wool blankets of various plaids and sizes. The 50 foot wide and 130 foot long patchwork makes up one part of Watt’s new installation at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM). The installation, titled Heirlooms, is meant to evoke that sense of nostalgia people feel with items that are either passed down a family line or have a strong story attached to them.

“I was thinking wool blankets are heirloom-like objects,” Watt says, “and I also think my interest in heirlooms grew out of the fact that I have a 4 year old and I’ve been thinking more about what is it that we pass on. [It’s] less of an object based discussion and more based in values and stories and that sort of thing. And objects are the touchstone for those stories. They’re the marker of a memory that leads you to that story.”

The Heirlooms installation fills a full room at MAM. Watt has built a cedar wall blocking off a small back section of the room in a way that she hopes will give the illusion of a giant old trunk or hope chest. From that wall the wool blanket billows out and across the rest of the room, suspended by cables wrapped in wool braids—also made collectively in Watt’s studio.

“I want to create this feeling of being enveloped in a blanket,” Watt says, “and also create this sense of the blanket flowing out of the chest.”

Behind the wall—essentially “in” the chest—museum-goers can have their own sewing circle. Visitors can cut wool outlines of their hands and then sew them onto the blanket behind the wall, which will be laid across a table.

“That side of the wall,” Watt says about the sewing circle space, “will be where heirlooms are still in the making.”

Besides tracing their hands, visitors have the opportunity to answer questions about their favorite heirloom, which they write down on sale tags that say “Heirloom.” Those tags will continue to be pinned on the blanket for others to see for the duration of the exhibit.

Watt’s idea about heirlooms stemmed from a number of personal references. Her mom worked in American Indian education for 27 years and when she retired the kids, parents and grandparents gave her a blanket on which they’d traced their hands. Watt’s also attuned to indigenous groups as she’s a member of the Seneca tribe herself, and so knowing that cedar has been an important cultural resource for other native groups makes the material more poignant for her.

She also has a fond memory about heirlooms from the last time she visited Missoula. Two years ago she gave a brown bag lunch talk at MAM on heirlooms. It strikes her even now that she remembers MAM staff and community members telling stories about their memory items, such as canning jars, glass cutting tools and antiquated farm equipment.

Watt says that she chose wool as the main heirloom-like texture for her piece because so many people can relate to it.

“Certain textures and colors remind people of blankets they had when they were kids,” says Watt, “or blankets they had at their grandparents or blankets from camping and so I hope that will be one of the experiences of this installation.”

Heirlooms begins in Missoula but Watt plans to move it to other sites. She’ll soon be in residency at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia where she’ll continue to embellish the wool installation, and she’ll move it back to Portland where she hopes it will continue to evolve as people add to it.

“I think when artists make work there’s sometimes an assumption that it’s a completed thought,” Watt says, “but one of my goals is to have something that the community helps continue. So it’s not about completion in that regard. Like heirlooms, the stories grow with each generation.”

Marie Watt’s Heirlooms opens Thursday, March 19, at 5:30 PM for Artini at the Missoula Art Museum, with a gallery talk at 7 PM. Free.
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