- Materiality and Collective Experience:Sewing as Artistic Practice in Works by Marie Watt, Nadia Myre, and Bonnie Devine
Over the last few years there has been a growing recognition of the trend among contemporary artists to engage methods and materials traditionally associated with craft. This trend is noted by Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro in their 2007 book titled By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art, which introduces the reader to a diverse group of young artists engaging the craft tradition in their work.1 Similarly, the three-day symposium "Craft at the Limits," held at the Getty Museum in 2007, focused on the significant dialogue between art and craft since World War II and included sessions that specifically examined craft as it has been appropriated by contemporary artists.2 As craft historian Glenn Adamson observes, "Craft seems positively fashionable in the present moment, as artists, architects, and designers evince a fascination with process and materials not seen since the heyday of the Counterculture in the late 1960s."3
Sewing in particular has become a prevalent form of artistic expression among contemporary artists. Utilized in 1970s feminist art projects, Judy Chicago's Dinner Party (1979) being the most prominent example, sewing as an artistic practice continues to receive high visibility in the contemporary art world as artists from Louise Bourgeois to Kimsooja give primacy to sewing within their body of work. Similarly, the sewing circle has been revitalized within the context of contemporary art, exemplified by the monthly "Stitch 'n' Bitch" meetings currently held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In contemporary art sewing has been employed for a wide variety of purposes, from an exploration of personal narrative, represented especially in Bourgeois' work, to an examination of broader social issues, as seen in the work of Kimsooja. [End Page 344]
This article is a consideration of sewing as an artistic practice in the works of three contemporary artists, Marie Watt, Nadia Myre, and Bonnie Devine. As contemporary artists well versed in postmodern art trends, Watt, Myre, and Devine engage many of the ideas and concerns that characterize current international art. Equally important, all three women have North American tribal affiliations that also inform their work, Watt as a member of the Seneca Nation, Myre with an Algonquin heritage, and Devine of the Serpent River First Nation. Keeping the artists' cultural backgrounds in mind, the position of sewing within both Western and Native North American art-making traditions must be considered, and their work is best viewed as a dialogue between these two traditions in relation to constructions of sewing as craft.
Adamson's Thinking Through Craft is a compelling reflection on the relationship between craft and the fine arts tradition. Describing craft as a "cultural practice [that] exists in opposition to the modern conception of art itself," he invites the reader to consider the highly significant role of craft in revealing the limitations of Western art if we are willing to reject the "simplistic formulation that the crafts can (or should) be art." Adamson's suggestion that "craft's inferiority might be the most productive thing about it" is grounded in his recognition of the historic marginalization of craft in the Western tradition.4 Similarly, Native American art making, or craft, has been marginalized by the Western tradition, revealing additional limitations about Western constructs of art. As art historians Janet Berlo and Ruth Phillips observe, "The distinction [between art and craft] imposes a Western dichotomy on things made by people who [traditionally] do not make the same categorical distinction and whose own criteria for evaluating objects have often differed considerably."5
It is important to note that the position of craft within the Native American tradition is not one of marginalization. Craft, as the term has generally been defined in Western discourse, has always been a highly valued form of creative expression. Historically, American Indian women engaged in a variety of crafts related to sewing that were unique to their gender but holding equal value to crafts made by men. These include the design and making of clothing decorated with quillwork, beadwork, embroidery, and ribbonwork as well as quiltmaking, a form of...