Editor's note: Due to Gov. Tim Walz's mandate, The Duluth Art Institute is closed until Dec. 18.
DULUTH — Blair Treuer’s art seems to hover off the wall, and looking at it is a different experience depending on your perspective.
From afar, it’s easy to spot her son, Isaac, looking stoic in regalia twice his size; her daughter, Luella, laughing, hair blowing in the wind and off the fabric; her husband, an antlered Treuer, naked and alone save for a few goldfinches.
Up close, though, you see hundreds and hundreds of tiny fabric pieces and ribbon layered over each other and sewn together in swirling and sometimes floral designs.
The textile artist/storyteller “paints with fabric and draws with thread,” and her exhibition “Identity” is now showing at the Duluth Art Institute's John Steffl Gallery through Dec. 31.
Someone who is a bit more established can fall into patterns of following the rules, which can make for static work, and that makes it more exciting to meet someone following their vision more than the rules, said Amy Varsek, Duluth Art Institute exhibitions director.
Of Treuer, Varsek said: “She has this wind blowing through her, and it’s capturing these really meaningful stories that she might not even know that she has to tell.”
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“Identity” is Treuer’s dive into the ways traditional Ojibwe practices and beliefs shape how her family sees itself, her place in it and the identities of those she loves.
Treuer started sewing blankets as offerings for her children’s spiritual ceremonies.
“My husband and all of my children are Native, but I am not, so this was the only contribution that I could make to their spiritual lives,” she said.
It’s challenging as their mom not to be able to do more, but pouring so much of herself into the process felt very spiritual in itself, she said.
Treuer soon realized she “had a deep love affair with fabric.” She gave herself permission to explore, and she launched into her self-portrait.
The image for this, and others in this collection, came to her like dreams. They haunt her until she creates them, and often, she doesn’t know their meaning until after they’re complete.
The meanings have been profound.
“They show me things about myself that I didn’t know were there,” she said.
She understood the duality of her own identity, “as an outsider, the only white person” in her very large family.
“I’m finding that I’m almost incapable of not being honest with myself when I make these," she said. "I don’t know how to not come from an authentic feeling space when I do it.”
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“The idea of a blended family, of different ethnicities in a family, the sense of making your place and a sense of longing for your family history, it’s not an easy road to navigate,” said Lori Forshee-Donnay.
The executive director of the Watermark Art Center in Bemidji worked with Treuer in her January debut at their gallery.
Treuer knew there was some risk in sharing so intimately the stories of her family, and she’s not afraid to have those conversations, Forshee-Donnay said.
“Blair, as a person, she’s not afraid. We all have our fears, she steps out there, and to me, is very brave in what she has done," Forshee-Donnay said. “It’ll be interesting to see her path and see how her process evolves, and the stories she continues to tell.”
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Treuer cuts her fabric into tiny pieces and places them, as if they were brush strokes, on what is typically an old sheet. She uses a fabric glue stick to keep them in place, so she can sew them down.
First, Treuer starts painting the faces. For this, she needs perfect silence and solitude.
“If people are around when I’m working … I get nervous or I get too critical about what they see," she said. “After the face is done, then my kids are in my studio doing gymnastics and yelling at each other. I’ve already done the hard part, and now I can just feel out the rest and just play."
For fabric, she uses pieces she purchased, but also gifts and even her children’s old clothes. The new fabric can present a challenge because what it looks like under the store’s fluorescent light can be different when she gets in natural light at home. She is drawn to boutique material that looks hand-dyed or painted because of its nuance.
Goldfinches appear in each of the portraits in her “Identity” exhibition, and she makes them with ribbon, burning the edges to keep them from fraying over time.
The least amount of time spent on one is 200 hours; the portrait of her husband, Tony, took five full days.
She doesn’t sketch her paintings beforehand, but she has started to work from a photo or a video.
Treuer was a stay-at-home mom before launching into her artistic career. “We’ve never relied on an income from me, and that allows me to follow my instincts and my own creative vision,” she said. “Even if I never sell a thing and even if nobody ever sees these, I would still do this because the act of creating, I feel like I’m pursuing a calling. I can’t think of other spaces where I feel so much myself … true to who I am than when I’m creating these.”
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Treuer recently released her mini collection, "Female Body," which will exhibit in the Van Gogh Art Gallery in Madrid, Spain.
It is three portraits of herself, her mother and her 9-year-old daughter — all nudes or suggested nudity.
“I realized with each portrait I made, they were about social constructs around the female body, things that have remained primarily unchanged by popular culture, such as victim-blaming and rigid ideals about female sexuality and aging,” she said.
She created a video sharing her reflections and fear around how her daughter’s body may be treated, devalued or dehumanized.
“In traditional tribal practices, women are not given more power, but assumed to naturally hold power. It’s not something given to them by the men in their society; it’s a birthright,” she said.
Treuer is aiming for discussion and celebration with this collection; shame is not part of the conversation. She’s in the middle of creating "Becoming," a set of pieces about a girl's journey to womanhood. After that, she plans to explores her experience as a Scandinavian transplant.
“I feel like an orphan; I don’t know anything about my ancestors or my heritage,” she said.
She plans to spend time in Norway and Sweden researching her own tribal way of life.
Making blankets for her children’s ceremonies set the foundation, and because of that, Treuer considers her creative process as inherently spiritual.
Where she felt disconnected before, her art has become a bridge. People from around the world share with her their experiences with addiction, children struggling in school or their journeys with their bodies.
“I didn’t realize that by putting myself out there so openly and honestly that that would create safe space for others to want to do the same with me,” she said.