Marie Watt, part Seneca and part German-Scots, creates work in different media: sculpture, installation, and lithography. Her art focuses on contemporary Native American themes. In her sculptures and installations she uses materials that are conceptually attached to narrative, exploring the stories connected with commonplace objects, such as woolen blankets, cedar, iron, alabaster, and even corn husks.
Watt was born in Seattle but lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Watt studied printmaking and painting. She received an A.F.A. degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts and a B.S. from Willamette University. In 1996, she received her M.F.A. from Yale University. She is a professor at Portland Community College.
Her “Forget-me-not: Mothers and Sons” 2008 is made from reclaimed wool blankets, satin binding, thread, structured steel, and more than 300 individual portraits. A viewer can enter the circular – almost totally enclosed space – and wander through it looking at the portraits of mothers and their sons. Her 2014 “Untitled (Dream Catcher)” is a huge assemblage of reclaimed blankets, quilted by many people into a patchwork of Indigenous stories.
Watt has been working with reclaimed blankets for more than two decades in her various sculptures as a tribute to the histories of those who made them and those who used them. Often they are stacked into tall towers of fabric. She chooses to use blankets because blankets signify one’s identity as belonging to a particular tribe or clan and is often given to mark rituals, celebrations, or passages in life. “For my family and my tribe, it is a way to honor people for being witness to important life events.”
Watt has made an iconic towering column of fabric evoking many literal and figurative associations. Twelve feet tall, it recalls the conifers of her childhood in Washington state, but also references her Native Seneca heritage and the Seneca’s vertical spatial orientation of sky to ground and heaven to earth. This structure created with more than 75 wool blankets, reveals the complex history, intercultural exchange, and trade economy associated with blankets, which first came to Native people through trade with the French and English during the 1600s.
Blankets today are associated with beauty, honor, and respect and are indispensable to Native events and celebrations. Watt politicizes recycled blankets referring to them as “reclaimed wool” and considers them symbolic of Native struggles to reclaim land and sovereign rights.
Watt documents the stories of the families who owned these blankets, tagging each with a note indicating where it came from and its significance. Her work is in part a feminist statement about the relationship between women’s craft and fine art.
In 2002, Watt made a stone sculpture “Pedestrian” installed along the bank of the Willamette River in Portland. She won a Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship in 2006. In 2014, more than 300 people contributed to her outdoor sculpture at Tacoma Art Museum. In 2016, Watt was commissioned by the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies program to create a permanent sculpture for the American Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Her work is featured at the Denver Art Museum, which has a long history of showing Indigenous work, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing.