Photograph by Willa Vogel

Blanket Stories: Western Door, Salt Sacks, Three Sisters

Reclaimed blankets, manila tags, jingles, stone
Collection of The Rockwell Museum
Corning, NY
Photograph by Willa Vogel

Blanket Stories: Western Door, Salt Sacks, and Three Sisters is a collaboration with The Rockwell Museum and the greater Corning, NY, community. I was commissioned by The Rockwell to gather stories that tether people to place and community. Each story is represented by a textile in this sculpture. The textiles were contributed in response to a call for blankets and their stories from the community including local residents, the greater Finger Lakes region, and friends of The Rockwell. While each blanket in this column represents one person’s story, it also serves as a marker for the collective memory of a larger extended family. Each story communicates the universal nature of our shared human condition and has the potential to unite us.

Western Door

The Seneca Nation of Indians is one of six tribal nations that make up the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), also known as the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations. Historically the western-most tribe of the Haudenosaunee, the Seneca are known as the Keepers of the Western Door. In the context of Corning, NY, and The Rockwell Museum, Western Door acknowledges the long standing presence of Seneca people in Western New York.

Salt Sacks

I was struck by how a humble blanket—made from salt sacks—tells a story about human resourcefulness, a family heirloom, and a regional industry. Salt refineries were a significant part of Western New York’s economy from the late 18th to the early 20th Century. I associate the salt sack blanket story from Helen Sawyer with my mom’s stories of having play clothes made out of repurposed calico-print flour sacks. This salt sack blanket is indicative of the abundance of quilts and their stories collected in this project. They represent the labor—enterprising, creative, and social—of women in Western New York and their immigrant families.

Three Sisters

Three sisters refers to the Iroquois staple foods—Corn (onëö), Beans (osáe’da’), and Squash (o:nyö́hsa’)—that offer sustenance, both nutritional and spiritual, to Iroquois communities. In the Seneca language they are referred to as Diohe’ko which means “our sustainers” or “they sustain us”. Traditionally, they are planted in a way that Corn’s long stalk creates a support for Beans to climb. Beans contribute nutrients and nitrogen to the soil. Squash, planted at the feet of Corn and Beans, has a broad-leaf covering that protects their roots and keeps the soil moist. When grown together, they thrive; when eaten together, they form a complete protein. This is also a metaphor for community and how we are inter-dependent and related. In this sculpture, I have incorporated three tiers of jingles, traditionally used in pow-wow regalia, to acknowledge the Three Sisters.

What is a blanket story?

Blankets are everyday objects. We take them for granted, yet as we use them, they quietly record our histories: a lumpy shape, a worn binding, mended patches. Every blanket holds a story.

In the secondhand and thrift-store blankets I use in much of my work, I can only guess at the story. But when I can work with contributed blankets, I ask each contributor to record the blanket’s story (or the contributor’s story as it relates to the blanket) on a tag. These stories remain with the blankets in their installations, and are also transcribed and collected, so that others can share them.

Blanket and story from Kenya, contributed to Blanket Stories: Seven Generations, Adawe, Hearth at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Sometimes, people want to contribute but don’t want to give up a beloved blanket. That’s fine, too. The story is the most important thing. You’re welcome to send a proxy blanket—one without a story, or without one related to you—along with your story.