I am a textile artist from rural Minnesota—a storyteller painting with fabric and drawing with thread, who made an unusual entrance into this craft. My children’s participation in an Ojibwe ceremony required me to make blankets for their spiritual offering. The only way I could contribute as a non-native woman, [and] the process was also very sacred for me. After a decade of creating blankets for private spiritual ceremonies, I transitioned. Still working with fiber, I now create portraits for public display. My first series, titled “Portraits: An Exploration in Identity,” depicts each of my nine children, my husband and myself, opens the door into our inner, interconnected lives, and sets the tone for my artistic practice. As an educator, culture-bearer, spiritual leader and activist for the Ojibwe people, bearing witness to my husband’s work and its impact on our children was like my “third eye” being opened. My portraits depict what I now see.
As the only white American in my Native American family, my work is about my reflections as an outsider and the emotional rollercoaster I often ride as I stand fixed on the outside of the cultural experiences of my husband and children, but privileged enough to look in. It’s not simply about the pieces of Ojibwe culture I’ve been allowed to see, but instead what it’s allowed me to see within myself, and even to recognize what cannot be found there. My portraits explore intimate parts of my life and center on the juxtaposition between my white culture and my husband’s traditional indigenous culture, and have addressed a range of culturally challenging topics, with spirituality deeply woven into their narratives. My work is vulnerable, honest and personal, but often makes universal connections. Even when my work is dark, it’s filled with hope.
What initially compelled you to pursue art?
I am a textile artist and storyteller from rural Minnesota who made an unusual entrance into this craft. My children’s participation in a traditional Native American ceremony required me to make blankets as a part of their spiritual offering, and the process was very spiritual for me. Because it was the only way I could contribute as a non-Native woman, I poured everything I had into those offerings. Being a creative person, I didn’t make traditional block quilts. My blankets pictorialIy depicted the Native American names gifted to my children when they were born. These blankets were a requirement for the ceremony, so I taught myself how to sew. A lot of textile artists use the label “self-taught” but were mentored by a loved one, learned from magazines and tutorials or attended YouTube University. I did not. I instead experimented with fabric, thread and a sewing machine based on my general understanding of the construction of a blanket.
Perfection was not a requirement of the ceremony. The end product wasn’t the point. The point was to immerse yourself in a spiritual experience. Because of that, I made sure that my children’s hands were a part of the creation, so that it meant something more than a blanket to both of us. I never explored the formulas of quilting. I abandoned all sense of rules and standards. And I created what felt natural in a way that felt instinctual to me, without any regard for what had been done in this field before me; because I didn’t view myself as a quilter or an artist, [but] just as a mom cultivating a meaningful experience with my child.
After putting my last child through her ceremony, what remained was an immersive love affair with fabric, and a hunger to see what I was capable of creating. After a decade of creating blankets for private spiritual ceremonies, I transitioned to creating portraits for gallery display in 2018 and unveiled my work to the public for the very first time as a solo exhibition in 2020. The overwhelmingly positive reception of this body of work allowed me to recognize that this is the work I’m truly meant to be doing.
Who or what in your life influences your practice the most?
As an educator, culture-bearer, spiritual leader and activist for the Ojibwe people, bearing witness to my husband’s work and its impact on our children was like my “third eye” being opened. My portraits depict what I now see. As the only white person in my Native American family, my work is about my reflections as an outsider and the emotional rollercoaster I often ride as I stand fixed on the outside of the cultural and spiritual experiences of my husband and children, but privileged enough to look in. It’s not simply about the pieces of Ojibwe culture I’ve been allowed to see, but instead what it’s allowed me to see within myself, and even to recognize what cannot be found there. It is not my intention to teach people about Ojibwe culture, but instead to use it as a mirror for analysis and self-reflection of modern day mainstream American cultural norms and ideals, and how those values are communicated. My portraits explore intimate parts of my life and center on the juxtaposition between my white culture and my husband’s traditional indigenous culture, and continue to express a range of challenging topics concerning today’s society, with spirituality deeply woven into their narratives.
What do you feel is the key concept that connects your works?
As a storyteller, the meaning behind my work is incredibly important to me. I design exhibitions not around concepts, but instead in terms of stories as an immersive experience. I consider myself an art activist with a creative practice centered on healing. Thematically my work illustrates that “we” (mainstream society) could be more thoughtful and intentional about what we’re manifesting in the world and that we can and should do better.
My series titled “Portraits: An Exploration in Identity” depicts each of my nine children, my husband and myself, [and] opened the door into our inner, interconnected lives. My self-portrait is the central thesis of this body of work. It’s about the cocktail of both despair and hope that I feel as a mother and wife in this family and about my purpose in this world. I’m in the dark and naked. I often feel I have nothing to offer my children or my husband. I am of Scandinavian descent but I don’t even know what that means to me. I don’t have ways of being handed down and taught with purpose. I don’t have things that are known by my people and through my people from ancient times. I don’t have spiritual gifts, birthrights to bestow, etc. No toolbox. I’m just out here winging it, loaded up on American culture ... gas stations, shopping malls, McDonald’s. I didn’t realize how little I had until I realized my husband had so much. I didn’t know how lost I felt until I became aware of how sure-footed my husband and my children are. But I have hope. The antlers are on top of my head, as if to say there is something incredible about me too. I also possess a spectacular gift. I can’t see it but I can feel it as though it’s within my very bones, passed down from my ancient tribe too. And someday I’ll know how to use it and be empowered by it.
My second project was a collection of three portraits that addressed cultural norms and engaged with contemporary issues regarding the female body. “Mother” discusses societal messaging about aging as a woman in today’s society. We don’t see the transitions of a woman’s body as sacred, and we haven’t rewritten the narrative to assert that aging is beautiful. But what if we did? “I’ve Made Peace …. with My Body,” though nude, [is] not a fetishization or erotic portrayal. She occupies the space completely in a pose typically reserved for the male form, and is accompanied by a bird, nature ... the natural. We realize self-acceptance is a delicate thing needing to be nurtured. And “Daughter” is an expression of a mother’s fears of the future of my daughter’s body, given the prevalence of sexual violence experienced by Native women.
My most recent body of work, titled “Becoming: The Transition from Childhood to Womanhood,” celebrates my 13-year-old daughter’s journey into womanhood. I was captivated by the ceremonial rite of passage my daughter went through as a Native American when she got her “Moon,” her first menstrual period. It was celebrated as sacred. She was celebrated as sacred, which was so different from the way I, or any woman I knew, had experienced this transition. It inspired me to explore cultural views, attitudes and communication regarding the physical transitions of the female body, definitions of womanhood and femininity and, ultimately, the teachings we share with our daughters about what it means to have a female body, and how to protect and celebrate it in today’s society.
This series expresses and celebrates the value of femininity, its relevance to the health and well-being of a society, and elevates feminine expressions of leadership. Though this series explicitly discusses and portrays the female body, it is essentially proposing that “our” bodies (meaning every BODY—male, female, transgender, nonconforming) are sacred, and no one has the right to deny our sanctity. In a world that insists that power, relevance, significance and worthiness [are] something you earn, cultivate or fight for ... my work proposes that it’s something within you, simply because you exist. You are a sacred being. I want these portraits to inspire more intentional and meaningful cultivation of healthy cultural norms and experiences around valuing our bodies, especially with regard to how we express these values to our children.
Tell us about a moment that ultimately made you look at your art and/or practice differently.
My work, created from a rich palette of fabric and thread, is painterly but uses no paint, is highly textured, and is mounted onto wire to become almost sculptural on the wall. When I had decided to share my work publicly for the first time it was because I thought that people might think that they were neat, interesting or even beautiful. But the response to my work was nothing like I had expected. My portraits often make people cry. Grown men have cried looking at them. They overwhelm people emotionally. Being in a room filled with my textile portraits has been described by viewers as an immersion into a palpable forcefield of love.
When I first started creating these, it never would have occurred to me that others would see what I see and feel what I feel when they look at them. I hear often that my portraits feel alive. That they vibrate energy. I know how strange that sounds, and it’s a response I never would have imagined, nor do I understand how or why that is. Being overwhelmed by a flood of messages from viewers sharing their visceral response to my work definitely made me look at my art and my role as an artist differently. I’ve loved art my entire life, but I didn’t know or understand that viewing it could be so moving or that it could transform the viewer.
My work continues to attract people who insist that they are not art people, often bringing people into an art gallery for their very first time. Knowing that has also changed the way I look at myself as an artist, and it has greatly influenced my career goals. I now see myself as an ambassador of the art world. Not only to illustrate that textile art is a sophisticated fine art medium, but to show people the healing power of art, both in its viewing and in the act of creating. And to inspire self-proclaimed non-art people to change their mind.
What does your art give you that nothing else can?
I had a lot of trouble finding my place in the world. I went down various career paths trying to find my footing but mostly stumbled instead, until now. I feel like I’ve found my calling. Art gives me the right and the responsibility to be my most authentic self unapologetically, and the right and the responsibility to accept others in kind. Perfection isn’t relevant in my art, in my practice or in my presence in this field. To me, visual art is the safest space to explore ideas, to be vulnerable, to be honest, to question instead of prove, to be a mess or unruly or uncomfortable, and to make meaning on your own terms. As an expressive space devoid of rules and guidelines, art allows me to see myself more clearly, to know myself more intimately and to live in the wonder of my own imagination, indulging in the freedom that it brings.