Blankets. We are wrapped in them at birth, and then again at death.
Portland artist Marie Watt calls blankets “markers for memories.” In her family and culture — she is a member of the Seneca tribe — blankets are often valued gifts given at important passages in one’s life. They can be heirlooms of great personal value, she said, imbued with stories and memories of those we love.
Wool blankets are the heart and very fiber of her “Forget-me-not” Exhibit at the Holter Museum of Art.
Watt, who is the Holter’s Cultural Crossroads artist-in-residence, introduced a Jim Darcy School third-grade class to both her artwork and the beauty of wool blankets Wednesday morning. They sat in a circle on the gallery floor. Watt asked the students to think of what symbols were important to them.
“I want you to make a flag about you,” Watt urged.
In the gallery is a piece that Watt calls her own flag — a large blanket with a series of concentric circles — a symbol that is deeply significant to her personally and culturally.
“Circles have no beginning or ending,” she said. “Circles expand to include others.” And when people sit in a circle, they all have an equal voice.
The first step for the students was drawing the symbols they wanted to use on paper. Some grabbed pencils and the points leaped across the paper. Others screwed up their faces, squinted their eyes and searched for inspiration on the ceiling.
Elisabeth Davidson chose to make the face of a panther.
“I like panthers,” she said, “because they’re really fast.”
Samantha Wigen, inspired by studying Chinese culture, drew a flamboyant Chinese dragon, and then dove into the fabric pile — choosing a brilliant array of purple, light and dark green and hot pink for her flag.
A unicorn and Pegasus flew across Jennifer Grossman’s paper.
“I love Greek mythology,” she said, “because it kind of feels like you’re in the past.”
As they worked, the children were enclosed by Watt’s sculpture, “Forget-me-not: Mothers and Sons,” a 10-foot-high hoop with webbed walls entwined with sewn portraits of soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She became interested in the lives and stories of these soldiers, she said, because she is a mother.
Also on the woven walls are stitched portraits of women — some were mothers of young men who contributed to this piece, others were women who were meaningful in these men’s lives.
By including pictures of both soldiers and “mothers,” Watt seeks to create a form of conversation that involves the viewer. She compares stepping into her exhibit with stepping inside a family photo album.
If viewers walk around the outside of the hoop wall, they see a name tag attached to each portrait that can be matched to a brief description of who the person is.
You learn that Travis Arndt hoped to be a football coach, Phillip Baucus was a musician and married his high school sweetheart and Timothy Hutton loved fishing and the river.
Watt sees her artwork as a way to keep the memory of these individuals alive — continuing the conversations about them long after their deaths.
Meanwhile, as the other students puzzled out the symbols for their flags, Michael Wegner was already busy sewing his.
“Yup, you’re getting it,” he encouraged a classmate. “Don’t pull too hard or else you’ll break your thread.”
His mother already had an influence on his work — she taught him to sew, Wegner said, swiftly stitching his first piece in place.
Does he like it?
“Yes! Sewing is the best!” he said.
If you go . . .
Marie Watt, Holter Cultural Crossroads artist-in-residence, will give an artist talk from 6:30 to 7:30 tonight at the Holter Museum of Art, 12 E. Lawrence. She also will hold a workshop,
“Storytelling with Soft Sculpture,” from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday at the Holter Museum of Art. The cost of the workshop is $25. To register, go to www.holtermuseum.org or call 442-6400.
Marga Lincoln: 447-4083 or firstname.lastname@example.org