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Half cowboy, half Indian

THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman keen to encourage others to weave their stories together to create a mutual story

“Gawd, this is like a clinical psychology lesson!” laughs Marie Watt, sitting in a sunny outdoor patio at the Classic Hotel in Nicosia, just an hour or so before she’s due at the J William Fulbright Center to lead a sewing circle (!). “This might be the most interesting interview I’ve ever had,” she continues flatteringly, “but I don’t know if I can give you very good answers”. She laughs nervously, then hems and haws and laughs again. I don’t get very much out of her.

I didn’t think my question was all that interesting – what was she like as a teenager, and what kinds of people did she hang out with? – but it clearly makes Marie a little nervous. She’s 46, green-eyed and round-faced; she looks a bit like the actress Hilary Swank, and talks in a similarly bubbly, candid manner – but clearly doesn’t like to talk about herself, at least not today. One explanation might be that she’s shy. Another might be that she feels a little wary, as with any person in a new place: she’s only in Cyprus for three days, lecturing on her work as a contemporary artist at the ARTos Foundation then leading the aforementioned sewing circle, “inviting visitors to help stitch an artwork in progress”.

A third, more mischievous explanation might be that a certain reserve is inscribed in her genes: she is, after all, part Scottish (hence the surname), part American Indian, a.k.a. Native American (she actually uses the two interchangeably, so maybe ‘Indian’ isn’t as offensive as the PC brigade like to insist) – two notoriously dour, taciturn races, though of course the stereotype of the laconic Indian chief (or indeed the dour Scotsman) is just a stereotype. “I feel like there’s a lot of misunderstanding,” says Marie when I ask what it means to be Native American in America. “People’s ideas are based on myths that are generated by television, and by history books that are written by colonisers… If you were to survey people, maybe some people think that Indians live primarily in teepees, which is not true”.
Does she feel like an outsider? It’s hard to say. First of all, of course, she’s not entirely Indian: her mother is Seneca, a tribe that traditionally lived in upstate New York, but her dad grew up in Wyoming to a family of ranchers (as a child, she liked to call herself ‘half cowboy, half Indian’). Secondly, Marie grew up “off the reservation” – actually in Seattle, where her dad worked for Boeing and her mother was involved in Indian Education. Thirdly, even though all artists are outsiders to some extent, she doesn’t seem to have been the type who needed Art as an outlet from an early age: it was only in college that she even thought of it as a career path, and indeed it was only a few years ago – after a decade as a teacher at Portland Community College – that she became a full-time artist.

On the other hand, her heritage is clearly important. I notice her necklace – the only remotely ostentatious part of her wardrobe – and she takes it off to show me: it’s a ring made by the Hopi artist Charles Loloma (apparently a big name in Native American jewellery), encrusted with various materials including coral, ironwood and lapis lazuli. Marie uses blankets in her artwork – even the sewing circles often work on pieces she constructs out of reclaimed blankets – an important symbol in Native American culture (Indian tribes would give blankets to commemorate big events like births and marriages). It’s a tricky subject to pin down: she doesn’t speak Seneca and, living away from the tribe, is unable to ensure that her daughters do (she has two, an eight-year-old and a 20-month-old) – on the other hand she was horrified last year when her daughter’s teacher (also a Native American) said she was “from the tribe that Pocahontas is from”, unable even to name the tribe and using “this Disney person” to define her experience.

Maybe it’s because the woman was a teacher that her ignorance seemed so shocking. Marie has great respect for teachers (her mum was one, and of course she was one herself), indeed it often feels like there’s more teacher than artist in her makeup. Above all, she has the educator’s careful insistence on being ‘sensitive’ and not causing offence, even when she talks about her own past. When she first started thinking about “the type of person I wanted to be”, she recalls, she looked back on her upbringing and decided which parts to “embrace” and which to reject – though it wasn’t a case of “actively throwing them away,” she adds quickly, “as much as actively not embracing them”. ‘You didn’t have to add that!’ I want to reassure her (but don’t, of course); ‘Everyone throws away parts of how they were raised. It’s part of growing up’. Marie seems unusually conscious of other people – their stories, their feelings, their reactions – which may be part of why she’s reluctant to talk about her own exploits.

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Thus, for instance, with the sewing circles – not the only part of her work, by any means, but a vital link in the chain of her creativity. Wikipedia says that “Watt’s art is primarily lithography and sculpture”, which is true enough. She’s worked with cedar, stone and bronze, made artworks out of blankets (as already mentioned) and reclaimed jeans, even worked as a printmaker. She trained as a painter but calls herself “more of a tactile kinesthetic maker: I like installations, and things that might compel you to want to touch the materials”. But, she also adds, “part of my studio practice is collaborating with communities, and sewing circles are one aspect of that”.

It’s not so much about the sewing; it’s not like quilting, where (she says) technical perfection is important and sought-after. It’s about the coming together; it’s about community – a nod, perhaps, to her own sense of a slowly-fading Indian community that has to be nurtured and preserved – and about “honouring” those taking part. It’s about other people. “I’ve had participants as young as three and probably as ‘young’ as 83,” she smiles. “I think of everybody’s stitches as being sort of unique, and as like a signature, or even a thumbprint or fingerprint”. Marie prepares a pre-constructed framework, then everyone pitches in; it takes about three hours – but participants are free to come and go, and no sewing experience is necessary.

But what about the ones who can’t sew? Doesn’t matter, she replies. Practically speaking, the piece is so big that a patch of bad threadwork isn’t fatal. Conceptually speaking, bad sewing is as important as good sewing: the real point is watching the threads intersect and come together, which she views as a potent metaphor for “how we’re all connected and related”. She likes to compare it to barn-raising (the American custom where pioneer neighbours used to come together and help each other), a communal effort where people meet, friendships are made, stories are told. Besides, she admits, she’ll sometimes “go back and reinforce” really awful sewing, just to bring it up to scratch – which doesn’t sound like “honouring” that particular “signature”, but whatever.

Marie Watt is a strange kind of artist, going against the popular perception of an artist as a person who prizes their own self-expression above all else. She appears almost embarrassed by her own self-expression; she seems to prize diversity, the “pendulum of perspectives” as she calls it, and organises Art – the sewing circles – aimed at sparking other people’s self-expression. What’s her lifestyle like, having recently moved from Brooklyn to Portland with her husband (a graphic designer) and daughters? Is it a bohemian lifestyle? Another burst of nervous laughter: “I wish I was comfortable with a bohemian lifestyle! I really do, sometimes.

“I go in to the studio every day like a person going to an office,” she says wryly. “One thing nobody told me was that you could spend over 50 per cent of your time as an artist just doing the administrative details”. Like what? “Documenting your work, sending out correspondence, filing applications, signing contracts, creating budgets…”. If she has a gallery show, it’s up to her to take photos of her work and supply the gallery with info. She keeps looking forward, trying to get commissions and put events on her calendar – and of course she also has to pause every day to pick up her daughter from school, and take care of the baby and all the other mummy stuff.

“Honestly, sometimes I really contemplate whether there’s another solution for me,” sighs Marie, “because a security net sounds really lovely”. She knows she’s lucky, of course, being able to create on a full-time basis (and getting a trip to Cyprus, among other perks) – but health insurance and a regular paycheque would also be nice. Maybe she’s just “the lapsed-Catholic kind of bohemian,” she says with a rueful grin, “that has to experience bohemianism with, like, a little bit of guilt!”.

Lapsed Catholic? That’s the Scottish (actually Scottish-German) part talking. I suddenly get an impression – though of course it’s only an impression – of Marie as a Catholic ‘good girl’, not exactly sewing in a corner (that came later) but a dutiful daughter of two serious-minded, non-artistic parents with good jobs, always aware of her Native American roots – albeit not as inspired by other “signatures” as she later became, on her journey from teacher to artist.

“One of the things I loved about being an educator – and I still do, [because] I think once an educator, always an educator – was that, as a teacher, there were all kinds of students who maybe when I was younger, and the age of my students, I might not have … um, might not have automatically befriended a person who was Goth or something, one that I was less culturally familiar with. And then, as a teacher, I’m like ‘Oh my goodness, this person is so cool and inventive, and look at how they’re re-designing their pants with safety pins, this is so creative!’.” Marie Watt shakes her head, at her own younger self but also, with a kind of awe, at the “pendulum of perspectives” that makes up the world.

So she wasn’t much of a Goth in high school, I point out. So what was she like, in that case? And what kind of friends did she hang out with? But that’s when she gives a nervous laugh and says that my questions are so very interesting, and hastens to depart to her sewing circle.

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