Painting with fabric; drawing with thread: An interview with artist Blair Treuer

Bemidji artist Blair Treuer’s exhibit, “Portraits: An Identity Exploration,” is featured at the MacRostie Art Center this month.

While fairly new to the art world, Blair Treuer’s work has been part of over two dozen exhibitions across the globe and has received multiple awards. She is both an artist and a storyteller who “‘paints’ with fabric and ‘draws’ with thread.” Treuer’s strikingly intricate pieces not only catch the eye with their vivid colors and unique subjects, they completely reinvent the way fabric is utilized and viewed; it is not only a skill and fun hobby but also an imaginative and awe-inspiring art form. In the following interview with

she explains what inspired her to set out on her artistic journey and what she hopes to elicit from her audience in her new exhibition, “Portraits: An Identity Exploration,” at the MacRostie Art Center in downtown Grand Rapids this month.

Have you always lived in Minnesota?

I was born in Bemidji, Minnesota, and have spent most of my life here and over the years I have really grown to appreciate the vibrant art community in my hometown and the surrounding area. My husband, Anton Treuer, is from the area as well, and raising our children around both of our extended family members has been such a blessing.

What inspired your interest in art, specifically fabric-based artwork?

I have always been a creative person and have always been drawn to artistic expression in various forms. I 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 offering. As these blankets were made as a spiritual offering, the process was very spiritual for me. And because it was the only way I could contribute as a non-native woman, I poured everything I had into those offerings. I didn’t just make patchwork quilts like everyone else. My blankets pictorially depicted the Native American names gifted to my children when they were born. This was my introduction to working with fabric. I’m completely self-taught which I think accounts for the reason my technique and style are so unique and innovative.

When did you begin making your own art pieces?

After a decade of creating blankets for private spiritual ceremonies, I transitioned to creating portraits for gallery display in 2018. My solo exhibition showcasing my first collection of portraits titled “Portraits: An Identity Exploration” at the Watermark in Bemidji, Minnesota, in January 2020 was the very first time I had ever shown my artwork publicly. Since then, portraits from this body of work have been included in over 30 exhibitions all over the United States and even worldwide in Calgary AB, Venice, Milan, Tokyo, and Istanbul. This collection now has a travel schedule that extends through fall 2023. I am also excited to announce that my 2021 mini collection titled “The Female Body” will be featured at the International Art Fair in Paris, France in September 2021.

What does the fabric-based medium contribute to your pieces that other mediums do not?

I think one of the major contributions of using fabric is that it allows my work to feel easily approachable and accessible. I think humans have an intimate relationship with fabric. We engage with it daily. I have a strong relationship with women’s domestic work. Many of us have received a fiber-based item handmade with love from our mother, grandmother, auntie, etc. whether it’s a baby blanket, a set of mittens, potholders, and the like. I think my work touches on that female heritage and that intimate connection.

It’s a pivotal time for fiber arts on the fine art stage in general. Gallery shows are a relatively new platform for fiber arts traditionally having been diminished as craft or women’s domestic work. I see myself as an innovator reimagining what it means to work with fabric. I want to inspire a new wave of exploratory work in this field and be one of the catalysts pushing this medium forward into gallery spaces and in arts education. Because I am self-taught, my approach to textile portraiture is unique. The images are often confused with paintings until experienced in person. My approach is captivating, and people generally stand as close as possible to examine it because their familiarity with fabric has them wondering how I did that.

How did you connect with the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota?

After my debut at the Watermark in Bemidji, I didn’t really have a plan for what would come next for these portraits. I was incredibly surprised and thrilled by how they had been received by the public and by the conversations they had evoked. And so, I searched for opportunities to share what I had created with more people. I applied to MacRostie right away, and they agreed to host this collection. Grand Rapids has a reputation for having a thriving and supportive arts community and I am just so honored to be here.

Can you describe your art exhibition, “Portraits: An Identity Exploration,” which will be at the MacRostie this July?/Were there any specific personal experiences, objects, etc. which affected and/or motivated your creation of this exhibit?

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.

I’m not afraid to explore new approaches to fabric nor am I afraid to engage in challenging topics with my work. 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 ranged in topics from drug abuse, social ostracization, body image, femininity and masculinity, sexual abuse and exploitation, aging, transitioning from childhood to manhood and womanhood, 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 do you hope others will gain from viewing your artwork in “Portraits: An Identity Exploration”?

This portrait collection depicts each of my 9 children, my husband, and myself, and each portrait is accompanied by a short essay about the image I’ve created. My artwork is a window into my unique life experience. I hope that my exhibition will help generate conversations within the community and that those who engage with my work will reflect on my perspective on identity and hold space for my vulnerability as I share so much of myself with you, the viewer. And I hope that my work inspires more people to play with fabric.

The public is invited to view Treuer’s exhibit both in person at the MacRostie Art Center or online at macrostieartcenter.org through July 31. If you would like to see more of Blair Treuer’s work, please visit her website, ww.blairtreuer.com, her Instagram, @blair_treuer_textile_artist, or her Facebook page, Blair Treuer Textile Artist.

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