“Once, there were songs for everything.” Marie Watt, whose solo show “Companion Species (At What Cost)” runs through January 9, 2022, at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clifton, New Jersey, is speaking in her Portland, Oregon, studio, with the debris from making fabric sculptures and installations all around her.
She is talking to me about craft, writing, art, and history. Before long, the conversation turns to music, songs both ancient and modern. She’s just quoted a member of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, Joy Harjo—current poet laureate of the United States and the first Native American to be so honored—as a way to begin explaining her own artwork. Three years ago, Watt began to incorporate fragments of text into her work, which is sometimes completely beaded over.
On one wall of the studio was a wide banner-like hanging, still in progress, that read “Turtle Island,” a term variously used by her own people, the Seneca (historically, one of the woodland nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy), to designate the earth, North America, or the idea of homeland. Another recent work reads “our teeth make refuge for our tongues,” another quotation from Harjo. Actual song lyrics get into the work too, notably from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Written half a century ago, during the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, its lyrics nonetheless feel all too relevant now. Watt has stitched its phrases into her work—”mother, mother”; “brother, brother”; “we don’t need to escalate”; “right on, baby”—as if the song were already playing, and she were just joining in.
Watt describes her use of existing text as “a call back in time and a call forward, a twinning of language.” Difference within repetition. That formula is also intrinsic to craft—the slight irregularities imparted by the human hand—and it lies at the heart of Watt’s practice. Hers is an art of accumulation, bead by bead, stitch by stitch, neon tube by neon tube, taking its life from the variations that happen within recurrence. Two or three times a year, she stages public events to initiate a new artwork, turning the making process into a sort of social gathering. (The artist will host a sewing circle at Marc Straus gallery in New York on December 8.) To some extent this is simple pragmatism, the contemporary art version of a barn-raising, many hands making the work light. But Watt also cherishes the instant community brought about by this collective effort, the creation of a shared, intergenerational, multicultural endeavor. Crowdsourcing complicates her own authorship, and brings what she describes as a cadence to the work, “what’s present around the whole table, not just what is in front of each maker.”