Blanket Stories: Talking Stick, Works Progress, Steward

Left: 144 × 11.25 × 11.25 in.
Right: 186 × 23.25 × 23.25 in.
Salvaged white pine; reclaimed blankets and salvaged fir base

This installation is composed of two sculptures that share the same title, Blanket Stories: Talking Stick, Works Progress, Steward. I am interested in how wood and wool blankets, ubiquitous materials in our lives, are touchstones for stories that connect us.

Both sculptures incorporate salvaged timber that was donated to the High Desert Museum in the 1980s. The wood, once part of a train trestle, was used structurally for the working sawmill on the Museum’s grounds, and when this structure was re-engineered, the wood was liberated.

The wooden sculpture is made from a blackened weathered beam that in the carving process revealed itself to be white pine. White pine has been so heavily forested in the West that it’s now considered rare. This beam has been carved to create a wooden column of folded and stacked blankets. In person, you’ll notice that the white pine column is still giving sap. It’s a testimony to this enduring resource, and this beam in particular, likely cut 50–100 years ago, that still gives off sap once carved. The cracks in the wood are called ‘checking’ and are also evidence of the wood behaving like a living and breathing material.

The title references a talking stick, which is a staff or cane used by some Native American tribes in the context of council meetings. Traditionally, the person who holds the staff has permission to speak while others listen; the stick is then passed, giving each person the opportunity to contribute. This practice ensures everyone’s voice is heard. When I was a kid, my mom – an Indian Education Specialist for our local school district – used a talking stick in her storytelling circles. In this context, the talking stick was shared by multi-generational participants – youth, parents, younger siblings, and elders. It was a tool for learning cultural wisdom, sharing stories, and developing public speaking and listening skills. My mom likes to say we have two ears and one mouth, so we’re supposed listen twice as hard.

The second sculpture uses blankets contributed by the local community – Bend, La Pine, Madras, Warm Springs, Portland. The base of the blanket story column comes from fir, also from the Museum’s property. I think of wood, like blankets, as being a storied material. Not only does salvaged wood have a previous history of use, but its rings reveal a lot about the environment in which it grew. I like to think of this use of wood as being in the spirit of the WPA, as so many Works Progress projects drew from both local labor and resources, which in the Pacific Northwest would include timber.

‘Steward’ recognizes the efforts of the region’s earliest inhabitants, caretakers, and preservationists in our communities. In the High Desert Region of Eastern Oregon, it’s appropriate to acknowledge the tribal communities that make up the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs including the Walla Walla (later called Warm Springs), Wasco, and Paiute Nations. Donald M. Kerr, the conservationist and founding visionary of the High Desert Museum, is also a steward I hoped to evoke and remember. The High Desert Museum, in its mission and programming, shares a model of stewardship for present and future generations.

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.