24 November 2023

In Conversation with Marie Watt

By Erin Joyce

Marie Watt, photo by Josue Rivas. Courtesy of the artist and MARC STRAUS.

Marie Watt’s (Seneca Nation of Indians) work exists across multiple methodologies and registers of meaning, experiences, and senses; the work pulls from Indigenous histories, contemporary events, the memory and embeddedness of materials, as well as the autobiographical. Watt’s work unearths imbricated stories and experiences that serve as inter-generational transmitters of culture – connecting past, present, and future through a continuum of creative output and collective experience. Her work, which is often highly collaborative, ranges from textile, her well-known blanket stacks, neon, printmaking, and installation. I recently met with Watt to discuss her work, her background and journey through the art world, what she is showing at Untitled Art, Miami Beach, and what else she has coming up, including an exhibition at the Print Center in New York in January 2024 and a show at Carnegie Museum of Art in April 2024.

Erin Joyce: Tell me a bit about what got you started in the art world – what was the titular moment for you that pushed you toward this career?

Marie Watt: I didn’t go to college (Willamette University, 1990) knowing that I’d end up in art. I gravitated toward the coursework in Art and Art History, because it never felt like work – I would pour hours into it. I was also encouraged by an art department scholarship. From there I just kept following the breadcrumbs.

I learned about IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) when I went on a road trip from Salem, OR to San Francisco, CA to attend a Portfolio Review Day with a friend who was looking at MFA programs. I often felt out of place at Willamette University; at the time the campus wasn’t diverse, nor did it have a Native community. I began attending IAIA in 1992 and I felt immediately more at home at the IAIA program. I was a Museum Studies major and took art classes in printmaking and drawing. I was interested in art history, but at that time (1990) there wasn’t a program where I could study Contemporary Art and Indigenous Art, unless I wanted to go into Anthropology. I think Curatorial Studies programs, like the type at Bard, must have come later. Following IAIA, I applied to MFA programs and wound up at Yale. I loved my cohort, but again felt out of place, so I did the only thing that made sense to me and started using corn husks in my work as a reference to my home and culture.

Marie Watt, "Blanket Stories (Baby Baby Baby)" (2023). Photo by Kevin McConnell. Courtesy of the artist and MARC STRAUS.
Marie Watt, "Blanket Stories (Baby Baby Baby)" (detail) (2023). Photo by Kevin McConnell. Courtesy of the artist and MARC STRAUS.

EJ: What got you interested in blankets? They are such a foundational part of your practice.

MW: Insomnia. I have to laugh because this is not the answer most people would expect! After making work about sleep and sleeplessness which manifested in drawings and a carved alabaster pillow, blanket, and a load of alabaster dust (reminiscent of the sandman), I decided I wanted to use actual blankets and wool blankets in particular. I had this idea that I wanted to make a sculpture out of folded and stacked blankets. It had many references— linen closets, totems, markers such as Trajan’s Column and Brancusi’s Endless Column. The sculpture was ladder-like and connected sky and earth, and it made me think of the Seneca and Haudenosaunee creation story. Blanket sculptures to me are humble and loaded, complicated, and generous. I never imagined I’d be working with blankets 20 years later.

EJ: You’ve said that blankets are storied objects and act as containers of meaning – can you share a memorable moment of a blanket in your life?

MW: The most memorable blankets of my childhood were army green wool blankets from a surplus supply store as well as a handsewn quilt that was white with bubble gum pink tulips and pastel green stems and leaves. The army blankets were used in every capacity imaginable: as forts over coffee tables, on chairs and sawhorses, for picnicking, as supports for changing a flat tire on the roadside, and last but not least to warm up in our Datsun hatchback after skiing. The quilt dictated other aesthetic decisions in the room – flocked wallpaper and green shutters come to mind. The quilt had applique and I remember how those stitches were a counterpoint to the running stitch that fastened the lining while also creating a pattern. I recently used that special quilt in a piece Skywalker/Skyscraper: Forest (Sister). There is nothing better than a well-loved quilt, because it has that soft, broken-in feeling like a favorite pair of jeans.

EJ: In terms of the Blanket Stories, they have in many ways become synonymous with your practice. What does that feel like – does it feel exhilarating and uplifting, or does it feel like there’s pressure to not stray too far from that material and medium?

MW: Making objects and putting them out into the world is a process which involves a lot of hands and relationships. In that way, I think stories – the act of storytelling and doing the work to understand the stories – will probably always be a part of my work.

I make a lot of work without blankets, and I’m excited about employing radically different material investigations. One of the things that my materials have in common is that, for me, they are conduits to story or history or site. I think people who appreciate the arc of my work understand this.

Marie Watt, studio work in progress (2023). Photo by Kevin McConnell. Courtesy of the artist and MARC STRAUS.

EJ: You’ve been experimenting and leaning into working in mediums like neon, large-scale installation, paint, and prints – what does the process of working with new mediums feel like?

MW: My background is in painting and printmaking. In fact, my initial pull toward art as an area of study began with printmaking. I also have to share that I was always encouraged to make things whether it was mud pies in the forest or pudding finger painting or taking classes at the local arts league. The flow to other mediums has been organic and natural. I first started using clear Czech beads for a piece, Placeholder, with the text ‘EPHEMERAL. MONUMENT’. This led me to learn more about the history of Czech seed beads. Then I found vintage Venetian beads from the early 1900s, and I saw a connection with Seneca and Haudenosaunee beaded whimsies which still exist in our homes, but also were sold to tourists at Niagara Falls and other places. Using beads led me to neon, as I’ve been thinking a lot about beads as currency and shiny objects that call for attention. The extension to neon as a bead-like material, light-filled and eye-catching, was natural. I’ve been thinking a lot about how humans as well as our animal relatives are attracted to light.

EJ: Do you feel that the medium informs the concept or idea or vice versa?

MW: The medium is the language through which the concept is translated, but both must be in alignment. For example, in my recent iterations of blanket columns, I’ve been working with steel I-beams. I chose steel to invoke skyscrapers and my community’s ties to historic Skywalkers, Mohawk people who were essential in the development of many East coast skylines. So, the sculptures speak to a material history and also to a community practice of story-sharing and more.

With neon as a medium, there was a natural connection between it and text, but also because I think of neon as being both a chord or thread and having the character of a bead. The different mediums I work with all reference each other in ways as well.

Marie Watt, "Shared Horizon (Keepers of the Western Door) (2023). Photo by David Schulze. Courtesy of the artist and MARC STRAUS.

EJ: How do you feel about the museum field currently? With more inclusion and representation of contemporary Indigenous artists, what do you think precipitated that in recent years and what, if any, concerns do you have about how museums have shown contemporary work by Indigenous artists, and what do you fear / hope for moving forward?

MW: I’m cautiously optimistic. The door is ajar. We need to all put our feet in to make sure it doesn’t close. I watched my mom work in Indian Education for three decades, the work is never over.

EJ: Your work is often highly collaborative – working with skilled contemporary artists and fabricators, as well as your community-driven projects like your sewing circles – can you share a bit more why collaboration is so important to you?

MW: Collaboration is how all things are made.

Marie Watt studio team (2023). Photo by Kevin McConnell. Courtesy of the artist and MARC STRAUS.

EJ: Who are artists working in the field today whose work is inspiring you and getting you excited?

MW: Park McCarthur, Athena LaTocha, Peter Jemison, Andrea Carlson, Rachel Martin, American Artist.

I am excited to read the catalogue on Ruth Asawa: Through Line.

EJ: What are you working on next?

MW: I am working on a project at the Carnegie Museum of Art in April [of 2024]. I am exploring the use of I-beams with text and that sites complex history.

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation and has received attention for her work in Vogue Magazine, the New York Times, the Art Newspaper, Forbes Magazine, the Economist, the Chicago Tribune, Hyperallergic, and Widewalls. Joyce lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona.