I dropped by the studio of artist Marie Watt the other day, where she was in the middle of her latest project – a piece to be shown this June at the Portland Art Museum in an exhibit highlighting the work of the winners of the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards. (Watt was one of five winners selected from a field of 28 finalists.)
Watt uses blankets in her artwork, and her studio, in an industrial section of Southeast Portland, was filled with towering stacks: old woolen Pendleton blankets, scratchy army blankets, thrift-store finds that constitute her raw materials. Watt’s finished blanket pieces, which have been exhibited in such places as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, are frequently large – covering entire walls – and labor-intensive, and so she often invites people to help her in their construction, through sewing circles.
Earlier in the week, she had sent out an email to everyone she knew asking for people to come by and help her stitch her latest piece. She had decided to call it “Forget-me-not: Mothers and Sons.” Using the blankets – an ordinary object that is actually infused with meaning, she liked to say, the thing that wraps us at our births and our deaths, an item of comfort and reassurance and protection – she had decided to construct portraits of all the servicemen (and one woman) from Oregon killed in the Iraq war. Along with the soldiers’ portraits, she had also invited the men she knew to give her the names of women who they felt deserved some sort of remembrance. Some chose mothers and grandmothers. Others chose historical figures they admired. She then hung the finished portraits of soldiers and women together on a web made from old blankets, and the effect was a suggestion of connection, an interconnectedness – an unrealized link – even between strangers.
As she opened bags of bagels and arranged some cream cheese and lox on a plate – she had promised to feed everyone who came to help – people began to drift through the door.
She set each person up at a large work table in the center of the studio, carefully drawing the portrait they would be stitching from a manila envelope, so that none of the dozens of fabric pieces that composed the face would shift or fall away.
Watt pulled out a soldier for her first volunteer-stitcher. “And here’s a little more about him,” she said, opening a white binder, full of news stories about each casualty.
“Twenty-four …” the stitcher said.
That’s how old the man was when he died.
Then she sat down and began to sew, making a connection with each draw of the thread.
Originally published in The Oregonian, Friday, April 4, 2008. Reprinted with permission.