Community through Art

Marie Watt ’90, one of the country’s foremost contemporary Native American artists, engages others in the creation of her work.

“Please touch it — this art is meant to be touched.”

It’s not a phrase you typically hear in a museum, but Marie Watt ’90 encourages the visitors to her exhibition at Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art to do more than just look.

She wants them to feel the roughness of the wool in “Dwelling,” a stack of donated blankets that each tell a story about their former owners; and to relax on felted wool pedestals while listening to Native American storytellers inside “Engine,” a recreation of a cave complete with stalactites and stalagmites.

The idea of people interacting with her art applies to much more than the finished product. Watt believes art should be a social, participatory endeavor — which means her hands are not the only ones to shape her pieces.

“For some of my work, I’ve hosted sewing circles that were open to friends and the community,” she says. “When people’s hands and eyes were diverted as they sewed, there was no pressure to talk, but I found that they often would share stories with each other.

“Collaboration has always been part of my artistic process, whether it’s through gathering stories to incorporate into my work or listening to people share their stories in the sewing circles.”

In this respect, Watt reflects her alma mater’s motto: “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

Finding Art at Willamette

Watt is one of the country’s foremost contemporary Native American artists — her mother is Seneca, one of the six tribes of the Iroquois nation, and her father is Scottish and German. Watt’s work has been featured in countless solo and group exhibitions nationwide, including one at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

But until she came to Willamette in the late 1980s, art wasn’t even on her radar as a potential career. She first chose a major in speech communication (today’s rhetoric and media studies major), but discovered a second passion when she took an art class from Professor James Thompson.

“Liberal arts colleges allow you to select courses from many different disciplines,” she says. “I finally got to take an art class, and it opened up something inside of me that I’m continuing to explore today.”

Watt went on to earn an associate of fine arts degree in museum studies from the Institute of American Indian Arts and a master of fine arts degree in painting and printmaking from Yale. Talking with other students at Yale made her realize the value of attending Willamette rather than a technical art school.

“Artists must learn practical skills, but you also need ideas that compel you — the things you can make art about. The liberal arts education I got at Willamette gave me other experiences that I draw from today as an artist.”

Watt primarily creates sculptures, prints and mixed media installations. Blankets, like those in “Dwelling,” frequently show up in her pieces. She sees blankets as heirloom objects that can act as conduits for storytelling — as well as a reflection of her Native heritage, where blankets are given to honor significant moments in life.

Giving Back

Willamette has changed a great deal since Watt attended several decades ago. She appreciates new programs that have developed, including the Hallie Ford Museum and the Native American Advisory Council — which forges relationships with local Native communities while also providing support for Native students on campus.

These additions made her even more excited about collaborating when she visited recently to celebrate the opening of her exhibition at the museum.

She hosted several sewing circles to help her create a new tapestry piece, including one for undergraduate art and theatre students who also got to hear firsthand how Watt built a career as an artist.

“Marie knows how to help barriers fall so others can connect and interact,” says Heidi Preuss Grew, associate professor of art. “While working with our students of all disciplines, she deftly illuminated the many ways a life can inform art, using traditional means like printmaking and bronze casting to innovative integration of unassuming materials such as blankets and corn husks.”

In her own way, Watt helped write new stories for the next generation of artists — much the same way Willamette did for her.

Marie Watt: Lodge,” a mid-career retrospective of Watt’s work, is on display through April 1 at Willamette’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art.