1 Writing 150H July 14, 2013 A Tower of Memories: The Meaning Behind Marie Watt’s “Blanket Tower” In the Shaping America exhibit in the BYU Museum of Art stands a piece called “Blanket Tower.” Its title does not surprise me when I consider its components: folded woolen blankets stacked precariously atop a sturdy wood pedestal. The blankets involved represent a myriad of colors and styles, but each carries a small tag detailing the blanket’s history—how the donor came to possess it, who had given it to them, or what memories it brought back. As I stood reading the plaque labeling the piece, as well as the tags, a woman’s voice sounded overhead. She told how her father had haggled for the blanket she had contributed to the tower, recalling the day in startling detail. It struck me then that every blanket concealed a hidden story and a hidden personality. By using these blankets—objects which we use every day and may take for granted—to make art, creator Marie Watt explores our relationships with and the personal meaning we attach to such everyday objects. Marie Watt was born in 1967 in Seattle, Washington. Her father has German and Scottish heritage; her mother comes from the Seneca tribe of American Indians. According to Inara Verzemnieks of The Oregonian, she attended the University of Williamette and found that she enjoyed art after taking an art class “on a whim” (Verzemnieks). While earning a master’s degree in fine arts at Yale, her mother’s traditional dolls made of corn husks piqued her interest. Watt liked the idea of using items heavy with cultural and personal meaning “that we take for granted,” she says, “but which have these amazing histories,” to create art. Watt has since created many art projects using common everyday objects, like corn husks, flags, and
2 blankets, to explore the deeper meaning and associations behind these objects. “Blanket Tower” may seem at first like “art” that takes no real talent to produce, but its value lies in the time investment required to create it. Marie Watt spent a significant amount of time collecting these blankets, soliciting donations from neighbors, friends, and even strangers anywhere she could find them (Verzemnieks). As she accepted each donation, she took the time to listen to the donor’s story of how they came to have the blanket, the memories it held, and what it meant to them, recording the history on tags affixed to each blanket. Several donors’ stories are also recorded as audio and play as visitors examine the tower. The “Blanket Tower” transcends its face value and name when visitors discover each blanket’s history. Each one was once a prized possession—a child’s security blanket, a precious gift from a relative now deceased, or simply a valuable shield against cold winter nights. Watt said in an interview in June 2004, “One of the things that I thought was so great about blankets was how intimate our relationships are with them.” And she’s right. Blankets come with us to bed, where dreams express our innermost desires and fears; on picnics and to parades, where we make memories to last a lifetime; and everywhere an insecure toddler goes, providing a tangible source of comfort. By bringing all these blankets together—vessels which carry dreams, nightmares, sunsoaked celebrations and rained-out disappointments, and a comforting feeling of home— Watt has created an archive of human experiences. Each blanket holds a record of the people it spent its “life” with. The blankets themselves do this even better than the attached tags, which are inadequate in capturing fully the emotions and memories—both good and bad—their owners associate with the sight, smell, and texture of their beloved blankets. For a woman such as Watt with Seneca Indian heritage, blankets are even more
3 significant. Verzemnieks reports that in many Native American cultures, blanket-giving marks important rites of passage: births, naming ceremonies, and weddings. Michalyn Steele, a law professor at BYU also of Seneca lineage, says about this tradition, “It sends the traveler on his journey with the honor and love of the giver.” Watt adds, “I was really interested in how much of an honor it is to give a blanket away, not just receive one.” By using these donated blankets in her art, Watt sends museum visitors on their journey with her love. Likewise, the museum and its patrons honor her by receiving her gift. Because they come from all different families, no two “Blanket Tower” blankets are exactly alike. Quite the rainbow of colors and textures make up the tower: some bright, others dark; some fresh and new, others threadbare and worn. Just as each blanket is unique, so too are the people who donated them, and so too are we as students at BYU and as church members around the world. Just like the blankets, we come from a rainbow of different backgrounds, but just as the blankets have united to form the “Blanket Tower,” we all unite in the gospel. A mother, aunt, or grandmother lovingly crafted each blanket, just as God created us with all the love and care of a perfect parent for His child. We begin innocent and perfect, like a freshly completed blanket. Over time, the world may wear us down until we are thin and dirty, but with a good wash and a little mending at our creator’s hands, we can revive, ready to be part of something larger—our own sort of “Blanket Tower”—an eternal family. This metaphor of a well-loved blanket for an individual really struck a chord with me. Seeing how some blankets in the tower had been mended again and again as they wore out reminded me that I too am flawed. I’m far from perfect, and sometimes I feel like I have this gaping hole in my center that makes the blanket of me useless, something that not even
4 Goodwill will take, something to be thrown out with holey underwear and socks. But if holes made blankets worthless, then the “Blanket Tower” would lack some of its most history-rich components. Those blankets that have been worn and patched and worn and patched, over and over—those were the best loved, the ones that hold the most meaning. Contemplating the stories behind the “Blanket Tower” blankets makes me recall my own experiences with blankets: my younger brother carried around a blue and white plaid blanket for several years as a toddler. It wasn’t even a full-sized blanket that you could spread on a bed, and it only really served the purpose to make him feel secure. He dragged that blanket around everywhere and even wanted to take it to school on the first day of Kindergarten. Even several years after he started school, we kept it around despite the fact that it had become yellowed and ratty with wear, because he had formed a deeply emotional attachment. Clearly, we value blankets more than just as a simple way of keeping warm at night. They remind us of home or the loved ones who gave them to us, or mark important times in our lives. They warm us, comfort us, connect us to our loved ones, and carry memories in their colors, textures, and scents. Marie Watt’s “Blanket Tower” is not simply a tower of blankets, but a rich collection of personal history. It’s a metaphor for Latter-Day Saints, different but brought together by “shared stories; shared strength and warmth” (Steele). And it sends a message about our place in the world—what we could not do alone or with a single blanket, we can accomplish by working together.
5 Works Cited Verzemnieks, Inara. “Blanket Coverage.” Oregon Live. The Oregonian. 4 April 2007. Web. 16 July 2013. Steele, Michalyn. “Blanket Tower.” Shaping America: Selected Works from the Permanent Collection of American Art. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 2013. Web. 16 July 2013.