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Woven wonders
Artist Marie Watt and her father, Dave, install a bronze piece for the Nicolaysen Art Museum show 'Blanket Stories: Almanac' on Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Sarah Beth Barnett, Star-Tribune

People don't think much about blankets until they need them. Blankets get thrown over chairs, stacked in corners and stuffed in closets, blending in with the everyday utilitarian items strewn about a busy house.

They seem so ordinary most of the time, but artist Marie Watt sees blankets as objects imbued with history and meaning, much more than just fabric and thread.

"You're received in a blanket when you're born, you're covered in a blanket when you die," says Watt. "They're a central part of how we move through life."

Her exhibition, "Blanket Stories: Almanac," opens tonight at the Nicolaysen Art Museum. It's the second show in the Nic's Contemporary American Indian Art Series.

"(Blanket Stories) is so conceptually interesting and intellectually dense, and so beautiful," said Ben Mitchell, the Nic's director of exhibitions and programs. "It's not often you get both."

The Nic recruited renowned Native American writer and scholar Simon J. Ortiz to contribute an essay to the catalog accompanying "Blanket Stories."

"In a way, Marie is an emerging artist," Mitchell said. "The book represents two voices across the generations."

Watt, a Seneca and member of the Iroquois Nation, became intrigued by blankets after exploring sleep and sleeplessness in another project.

"I'm interested in the histories of blankets," she said. "They come with stories. … They're objects that have these really long lives."

The centerpieces of "Blanket Stories" are her columns of stacked blankets. They change from show to show, sometimes standing straight and tall, sometimes looking as if they're about to topple over. For the Nic exhibit, Watt hopes to make a 16 foot tower of blankets to reach for the gallery's high ceiling.

"I was interested in how a stacked blanket could reference architecture, trees, totem poles," she said. "I wanted to create a link between sky and ground."

Someday, Watt says, she wants to create a forest of blankets -- she'll have to find the right space, though, because the blankets can be finicky.

"They definitely change in feel and temperament, depending on what space they're in," she said.

Watt acquired the blankets through family, friends and thrift stores, learning their stories along the way. One was given to her by a friend who told her his great aunt Rose used the blanket while in an internment camp during World War II. The blanket was sewn out of patches from Rose's father's suits.

Another, a Hudson Bay Company blanket, was likely traded for beaver pelts. There are thin lines on it, like tally marks, that represent its worth in full-grown beaver pelts.

"A six-point blanket is probably the largest and highest quality," said Watt.

A cozy-looking plaid blanket was a gift from a woman's husband when they began dating. It was damaged in a fire, but the woman, Watt's friend, couldn't bear to throw it out.

The columns, then, are stacks of stories, of histories, of wool and warmth. There's no particular order to the piles of blankets, creating a sense of comfort and home.

"I like to equate it to a linen closet," said Watt.

The stacked blankets came to Watt with their histories already attached. But some of the "Blanket Stories" were created by Watt and her friends.

Large, colorful sewn pieces -- which Watt hesitates to call quilts, preferring "assemblages" -- hang on the walls. One, "Braid," was the result of hours spent holding sewing bees at her home.

Watt said she started the bees to meet a deadline for a show. She invited friends, "no sewing experience needed," to come over and help her sew. In the process, "Braid" brought stories out of its stitchers.

"I learned so many things about so many people," said Watt. "Now there are even more stories that are part of the blanket itself."

"Seventy-five people helped with 'Braid.' It means even more to me having had that community of people come together. … I would compare it to a barn-raising."

Along with the columns of blankets and wall hangings, "Blanket Stories: Almanac" includes blanket columns carved from pine and reclaimed cedar, as well as small "samplers" and lithographs Watt created along the way. A book will be available for visitors to write down their own tales of blankets present and past.

"Hopefully, people will write down their blanket stories in the book, and that relates us to each other further," Watt said.

Staff writer Kathleen St. John can be reached at 266-0586 or

If you go …

*what: "Blanket Stories: Almanac" opening

*when: Artist talk, 6 p.m.; reception 7 p.m.

*where: Nicolaysen Art Museum and Discovery Center, 400 E. Collins Dr.

*cost: Artist talk is free; reception is free for museum members, $5 for nonmembers. Kids' Corral during the reception is $3 per child for members, $5 for nonmembers.

info: 235-5247

Also at The Nic…

The galleries housing the "Postcards from the Wild Wild West" exhibition will be open tomorrow. The 200 postcard-sized pieces, donated by local and regional artists, will be auctioned May 6 as a fundraiser for the Nic.

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