Artist Interviews 2022
By Laura Siebold
Blair Treuer is an artist in the field of textile arts that, though unfair, seems to receive less attention than other, traditional art directions. Creating beautiful portraits of her children with textiles, Blair paved the way for a fusion of white and Native American culture in art. Fighting for the awareness of the dangers of trafficking of Native American women, and showcasing the evolution of children to adults, the artist earned her way to a McKnight Fellowship in Fiber Arts in 2022.
We encountered Blair’s work at The Other Art Fair 2022 Los Angeles edition and could not resist asking her for an interview. Read on to learn about how Blair seeks to create a better world with her art, encouraging self-reflection of American norms and values. The artist allows us deep insights into the inspiration and authentic reality of her work, and her desire to make women’s voices heard, both in society and in establishing textile/fiber arts as fine art.
Blair Treuer is based in Bemidji, Minnesota.
Blair, it is safe to say that you have had a pretty unique path as an artist. Can you please try to describe your art in three words? Please go into detail about why you chose those three words.
The 3 words I would describe my artwork are innovative, spiritual, and activism. Most people who create textile portraiture come from a background in quilting, an art form that generally uses a fairly formulaic approach. I am self-taught and approach my work much more like a painting. In fact, my artwork is often confused for a painting until you get close enough to see that there is no paint at all, only fabric and thread.
I use the word spiritual to describe my work because of how I came to 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 pictorially depicted the Native American names gifted to my children when they were born. After a decade of creating blankets for private spiritual ceremonies, I transitioned to creating portraits for gallery display in 2018. Though my work is no longer ceremonial, it’s still very spiritual for me and I see it as a continuation of the spiritual journey I found myself on when I was making blankets in support of my children.
When I first started making portraits, I didn’t know that I had anything that I was trying to communicate through them. These images come like a dream, and they need to be created, they nag at me until I create them. And while I’m creating, there’s no thought that goes into them, it’s all feeling. So, I try really hard to recreate what I see in my mind, that is my focus while I'm working. That is the goal. And I think that is often why I don’t understand what the piece means to me until after I’ve made it. Because I’m trying to simply see it, not understand it. And once it's created, like interpreting a dream, I begin searching for meaning. The meanings once revealed have been profound. They show me things about myself that I didn’t know were there. I’m finding that I’m almost incapable of not being honest with myself when I make these. I don’t know how to NOT come from an authentic feeling space. And in so many ways I also feel like these images are not mine, I am just the vessel from which they came.
And everything that I seem to want to communicate through my art is an effort to inspire people to be more thoughtful and compassionate, and to have agency in the effort to create a better world. I didn’t set out to be an activist, but that is the essence of the work I’ve created so far. My initial body of work was a series of portraits depicting each of my 9 children, my husband, and myself. Through the images and the artist statements for each portrait, I opened the door into our personal lives. I was vulnerable and I was honest. In the process of creating this collection, I realized how much my husband’s life's work has impacted the way I see the world and the way I see myself. He is an educator, culture-bearer, spiritual leader and activist for the Ojibwe Tribal Community. Being exposed to his work was like turning on a light bulb, or my “third eye” being opened. All of my textile 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 has 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 second project was a collection of 3 portraits addressing cultural norms and engaging 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, it's 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 current body of work is an ongoing series, which I have been working on for 3 years titled, “Becoming”: The Transition from Childhood to Womanhood, celebrating my 12-year-old daughter’s journey and ceremonial right of passage into womanhood. Important revelations in this series involve but are not limited to the following themes: Our relationships to the natural world and the relevance of imagination. Cultural views, attitudes, and communication regarding the physical transitions of the female body, definitions of womanhood, and the teachings we share with our daughters about what it means to have a female body, and how to protect it in today’s society.
Your work displays the fusion of your white culture and your husband’s Native American culture. How were you able to merge those two different cultures in art and how does your family feel about your art?
I don’t think that I intentionally thought to create a dialogue about culture or race in my work. Instead, I just depict life as it is…in my life in an interracial marriage. And I sought to depict my family members as authentically as I could. I want to be true to who I am, and I’m careful not to tell stories that aren’t mine to tell. I am well aware of issues concerning cultural appropriation. My dearest friend, a native woman, expressed concern early on in this project about what people would have to say about me, a white woman, creating images that represent and are absolutely and undeniably about Ojibwe Culture. To that, I’d like to say that I recognize that that may make some people uncomfortable, and I’d love to have a conversation about that, should it be anyone's concern. I’ve not created this work to be provocative, and I will not shy away from that conversation. And I am sensitive to and will give voice to any concerns regarding issues of cultural appropriation as it relates to my work. What I would like people to understand is this …what you see before you …is what my life looks like. These are the people with whom I am most intimately connected. All of my work to date has been about the life I live, and the people important to me, my husband and children. It is incredibly important for me to accurately depict my family members, as authentic to who they are as I could. So far, I’ve created four portraits that I feel portray Ojibwe Culture so clearly that it would not be lost on anyone. My family holds their heritage in very high regard. They absolutely want you to know that they are Ojibwe. It is central to how they see themselves, they would not want that to be lost on you. And so, to be true to who they are, these images are exactly how they need to be, made by the non-native woman who loves them.
I also feel that in my role as their white mother, it is important that they see me celebrate the non-white parts of them. To show them that I see their Native American heritage as a beautiful gift, that I’m so grateful for how much their heritage enriches their lives, and that I express how much Ojibwe traditional culture has enriched my own life. I wasn’t sure how my family would feel about making my artwork public. I was open about our personal lives. I was vulnerable and I was honest. Many of the artist statements for my portraits explain how the portraits express some painful chapters in our lives. Making that public was a little scary but it was worth it because it generated a lot of healing, for my family and for those who could relate to those portraits. My oldest daughter descended into drug addiction for more than a decade. Her portrait is an expression of her life. She lost her children because of it. They are represented in my son’s portrait because he dropped out of college to raise them. My daughter’s portrait has sold, and all of the profits will go to a recovery center in my community. I don’t know what she thinks about my work, we haven’t had contact with her in years, as she’s been in and out of jail and on the streets. But the rest of my family is very proud of the work that I’ve created, and of the good in the world that I’m trying to manifest with it. They take ownership in it too because it’s about them… about us. And some of them feel like rockstars having their images travel the world!
Much of your textile work focuses on transition and becoming, specifically the transition of your children to adults. What inspired you to portray your family in your artwork?
Honestly, I decided to try to depict each of my 9 children, my husband, and myself in textile portraiture simply to practice my craft. But looking back, all of my work with fabric, beginning with ceremonial blankets, was about my family. I’m really glad that they were my inspiration because what I’ve learned since that initial body of work, is that part of what makes my artwork powerful is that it’s honest and it’s personal. I think that there is a profound energy exchange that happens when we engage with authentic art, that doesn’t quite hit as hard when the artist is telling someone else’s story or doesn’t have their art in their work. I feel like I’m creating heart to heart conversations with my artwork. When people engage with my work (especially in person), they see my heart, and when they communicate with me about how it made them feel or how much they can relate to it, then I see theirs. This exchange was unexpected when I first started exhibiting, and since then it’s been life-changing for me.
When did you first see yourself as an artist?
It was very difficult for me to claim that title “Artist”. I’m entirely self-taught, and so I assumed that you couldn’t just call yourself that, someone had to give that title to you or that it had to be validated by an outside source. Once I had my first exhibition ever (it was a solo exhibition which is pretty ambitious), I felt that at that point, if my work was on the wall of an art gallery, then I could certainly call myself an artist. Now I feel silly for not embracing it sooner. When I would draw in kindergarten, I would be crowed by kids trying to see what I was creating. Now I’m a firm believer that anyone who expresses themselves creatively is an artist, you don’t need outside validation to embrace that title.
You received a McKnight Fellowship in Fiber Arts in 2022. How did you feel when you first learned about the fellowship and what does it mean to be a recipient? How have you used this award to make positive changes in the art world?
Saying that I was overjoyed to receive this award is putting it mildly. The McKnight fellowship is one of the largest fellowships for textile artists in the country. The blessings from this award are still unfolding and I won’t fully know all of the benefits until I’ve finished it this spring, but it came with a substantial financial award with no strings attached, so I’ve purchased new equipment that opens up more possibilities in my creative practice that I’m really excited to explore. It also comes with mentorship from influential people in my field who are helping me navigate my career and strengthen my network. Being a self-taught rural artist (the closest major art institution is either 4 hours south of me in the Twin Cities, or 4 hours north of me in Winnipeg), the networking and just being able to have face time and candid conversations with curators from major museums, art critics, art writes, etc. has been mind-blowing for me and incredibly valuable.
You have done solo exhibitions, as well as joint exhibitions in your career. What do you appreciate most about a solo exhibition and what do you enjoy about working together with other artists?
What I appreciate most about solo exhibitions is, that because I’m a storyteller, when I do a solo show, the viewer gets the whole story, and I feel like each individual portrait becomes more powerful because of the way it connects to the other portraits in the exhibition. For instance, I mentioned the portrait about my daughter’s drug addiction, it’s more powerful next to the portrait of my son who steps in to raise her children, and it feels more real and relatable when it’s displayed within a family where no one else is an addict, making it feel more humanizing. I think this generates more empathy and compassion than if her story was told disconnected from the people who love her.
What I love about exhibiting with other artists is seeing the common thread in our work, seeing the experience a curator creates with the work they’ve chosen, and I love to see what other artists are making, how they’re making it and what story they are trying to tell through their artwork.
What is the project you are most proud of to this day and why? Elaborate.
It’s really difficult for me to answer this question. When I released my first body of work, the positive response was overwhelming. It evoked many conversations and many tears, and I received thousands of messages from people who were moved or who felt connected to that exhibition. That solo exhibition has been traveling since 2020 and is booked through 2023, and at least one of the pieces will continue to travel in a group show until 2027. My second body of work was a mini-series of 3 portraits. I had been invited to show my work in Paris but at the time I was approached, all of my artwork was contracted out at the time. So, in order to say yes to this opportunity, I had to quickly produce 3 new pieces and the gallery was willing to accept them sight unseen because they believed in my work. I had no idea what I wanted to create. I didn’t work this way. I didn’t look for inspiration, it had just struck me like lightning so far. So again, I thought, what can I practice? And I decided to practice the nude figure. This series is three generations of women, my mother, my daughter, and myself. I found the creation of this series addressing societal issues about the female body, and my own personal issues with body image very healing. And again, the response to that body of work was very overwhelming and positive, and that series became an important part of my work in this field and reaffirmed my role in society as an artist.
The collection I’m working on right now is the most ambitious series I’ve undertaken so far. It is a series of 27 portraits that celebrate my daughter’s right of passage into the society of women. I’ve been working on this collection for 3 years and I’m proud of my creations, of my dedication, and my ambition when I consider this body of work. And I’m really excited about the conversations it will provoke when I release it January 2023 at the Textile Center in Minneapolis. Each body of work has taught me so much about my craft and about myself. Each collection felt pivotal to my development as an artist and to the development of my career, so picking one to be most proud of…I don’t think that I can do that.
If you were in the unique position to showcase your textile art in a community where art is restricted, what would be your main focus in sharing your work?
There are several things I hope to accomplish with my work wherever it is exhibited, and I feel this would apply even where art is restricted. The first is to show people that textile art is fine art, and it is an injustice to the artists and to these art forms to diminish them as craft or women’s domestic work. I seek to celebrate and elevate all of the women who’ve worked in this field, whose work was never publicly acknowledged or appreciated. Secondly, I do consider myself an art activist. I’ve never participated in a community where art is restricted but my particular style regarding my activism is bold in its ideas but gentle in its delivery. I guess I’d be very curious what kind of response my artwork would receive in a restricted environment. And it’s clear that I should be very grateful that this is not something I’ve had to consider because I live in a part of the world where creating my artwork feels like complete freedom.
Your series “The Female Body” and “Becoming: The Transition from Childhood to Womanhood” specifically focus on the evolution of the female.
If you look at the current political climate, notably the situation in Iran, and women’s rights in the world, do you believe that the artist can be an architect of change?
I do. I do believe that artists can be influential in the way ideas to generate change are expressed and how they are received. Art in all of its forms, visual, musical, theatrical, lyrical, etc. allows us to understand and experience lives we’ve not lived, so we can better understand one another, and it allows us to conceive of a better world. I think that these various forms of communication have the power to educate, to empower, to express solidarity and support, and have the power to change minds.
What is the legacy you would like to create for yourself and your art?
I guess I’ve never really thought about that. I certainly don’t operate with the intentionality of creating a legacy, but I guess what I hope lives on through my work is a greater interest in textile art. It is a pivotal time for fiber arts on the fine art stage in general. Gallery shows are a new platform for fiber arts, traditionally having been diminished as craft or women’s domestic work. I am innovating. Reimagining what it means to work with fabric in portraiture. I want to be an inspiring force in this field and be a catalyst pushing this medium forward into gallery spaces and in arts education. And what I would hope would be part of my legacy is the recognition that women are often the healers and the change makers, so we cannot fully see or understand the society we live in, nor can we address its problems without greater representation of women’s voices.