Interview by Amanda Rhoads
Gail Tremblay is an artist with skills using a wide variety of materials to create art. At the Portland Art Museum, I stood with my class viewing the Native American galleries. My instructor Wendy Red Star mentioned that the film basket made by Gail Tremblay in one of the display cases was one of the few examples of contemporary Native art in that section. This fact intrigued me. Wendy then added that Gail is known as an articulate writer. The art of writing is something to which I am increasingly drawn. It was this day in the museum and Wendy’s comments that inspired me to interview Gail Tremblay. In our interview Gail provided references to works that communicate the complex, thoughtful, and inspiring process of making art.
And Then There is the Hollywood Indian Princess, 2002Sculpture - 16 mm film, metallic braid 9 x 7.25 x 7.25 inches
Ms. Tremblay used an educational film about sexually transmitted diseases to create this basket. It was included in the ArTrain exhibit of contemporary Native American Art curated by Joanne Osbourne Bigfeather, and in Tattered Cultures, Mended History, curated by Mary Babcock, at the Academy Art Center, Honolulu, HI 2008, and it was reviewed, Artweek November 2008. It is in the collection at the Hailie Ford Museum at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. (Froelick Gallery)
Indian Princess in a White Dress, 2006Sculpture - 16 mm film, metallic braid
9 x 7 x 7 inches
Amanda Rhoads: It was mentioned that your works are “reclaiming native history.” The piece “Indian Princess in a White Dress,” would seem to need more explanation to convey a message of reclamation of Native history to an audience without any knowledge of Native history. As it is alone, a person might easily experience the piece as another stereotypical Indian image. Does it matter if people consciously “get” your piece, or is the energy and intent enough, and further explanation would actually take away from the intended experience?
Indian Princess in a White Dress, 2006
Sculpture - 16 mm film, metallic braid
9 x 7 x 7 inches
Gail Tremblay: Where was it mentioned that my works are “reclaiming native history”?
Some do, but some of my film baskets comment on images of Indians in the media, some play with and make ironic commentary on stereotyping, I am enclosing a slide list that will help you understand something about how I use/choose materials and write titles. You might also want to look at the article in the July/August art ltd. magazine on the work in my April/May exhibit in the Froelick Gallery for insight about my film baskets. I am also including an artist statement about the film baskets in particular, and an artist statement that talks about various periods of my work which was in the gallery notebook for a retrospective exhibit I did in 2001 called Twenty Years in the Making. It is hard to reduce the work I show to a single theme, although works of a particular period may relate to a particular theme.
AR: Is there something you want people to think or feel when viewing your baskets? Is there a specific intention you have with your work? Reclaiming Native history seems to be one intent. Could you perhaps expand on how this plays out in your work and how you want it to affect those who experience it?
GT: See material attached and the article mentioned.
Scorched Earth Policy, 2009
Sculpture - 16mm film, leader, rayon cord & thread
10 x 7 x 7 inches
As Long As the Grass Grows, 2004
Sculpture - 16 mm film, green leader, metallic thread
10 x 7 x 7 inches
AR: Museums and private collectors have collected traditional Native baskets as “objects” removed from their original context. How does that dynamic play into your work, which are intentionally shown and collected as art objects?
GT: Actually I find that many museums treat Indian baskets as artifacts and write about them ethnographically sometimes with no mention of the name of the artist who created them. I am a conceptual artist using traditional forms to comment on images created that either exclude or make strange commentary on indigenous culture and history. My works are both art objects and an indigenous response to both images in films and lack of fair representation of Indians in films.
AR: Online I read an article about how you began making film baskets. You mentioned you take pleasure in the notion of recycling film for your artwork. I really enjoy that aspect of your work—the ability to use what would otherwise be thrown away and to transform it into something of incredible beauty and value. Where do you get your materials to make your baskets? Does the process of “gathering” and weaving film stock mimic any of the traditional processes of making baskets? Do you view the content on the film? How important is the content on the film in relation to the finished piece?
GT: I get my materials from lots of different sources, broken down trailers for 35 MM films, recycled 16 mm films that are being thrown out by libraries, out takes of student films from the college where I teach, wherever I can find interesting footage and then I also used fullcoat used when people are editing sound for films and also leader (the colored footage that spliced onto the beginning and end of films.) The content of the film is sometimes important, the color of the film or leader is sometimes important. Read materials and titles on the slide list.
AR: I have looked at your film basket at the Portland Art Museum and will be going to the Froelick gallery to see more of your work. At the Portland Art Museum my professor mentioned that you are an accomplished writer on contemporary Native art and that is what interested me in interviewing you. I have since read some poetry of yours from the book “Indian Singing: Poems.” It is clear you are involved in several different forms of creating art. Your poetry is on it’s own so powerful and accessible, while your visual art for me becomes more powerful when there is explanation that helps me interpret its meaning. Do you have any thoughts about this?
GT: Perhaps you have more skill interpreting images expressed in words than you do visual images, or maybe you have more context for what you are reading than what you are seeing. I like interpreting both art and literature and creating both art and literature. If you want to read some of my writing on art you could read Joe Feddersen: Vital Signs, or the article I wrote on Jim Denomie for the current Eiteljorg Catalogue, Art Quantum, or my work on Indian Women Artists in the section of Women Artists of the American West on issues of identity (Susan Ressler edited that book.) One has to study the context of work in order to interpret visual work or to understand all the levels in a poem, and the more one learns about and understands the context, the better one is able to see what the artist or writer is doing.
AR: When I examined the Tri-Met website, I found that you and other artists created work for the North Portland Station along the Max Yellow Line. Have you worked on public art projects in the past or is that a new venture? Art included in our surroundings is something I think is very important. What was the process like working with other Native artists on a public art project? Is that something you would consider doing again?
GT: In terms of public art, I have works in the University of Washington Native American Law Library Collection, the Department of the Interior Collection, the Microsoft Collection, The Evergreen State College Collection, and at the Portland Boulevard Max Station done with Rick Bartow, Lillian Pitt, and Ken MacIntosh for TriMet. I also did the texts for Lillian Pitt’s panels at the Portland Convention Center Extension. I might consider doing public art again if the right opportunity presented itself.
AR: I appreciated your response to an earlier question in the interview: “You have more skill interpreting images expressed in words than you do visual images, or maybe you have more context for what you are reading than what you are seeing. I like interpreting both art and literature and creating both art and literature…. One has to study the context of work in order to interpret visual work or to understand all the levels in a poem, and the more one learns about and understands the context, the better one is able to see what the artist or writer is doing.”
GT: I actually have three careers simultaneously, as a college professor, a poet and an artist, and I have also worked as a costume designer in the theatre. I’ve made art since I was in my teens, and wrote my first published poem when I was 17 years old. I started teaching in college at 23 when I finished my MFA in Poetry, and have taught English, multicultural humanities. I first taught Weaving at Keene State College in New Hampshire since I was exhibiting regularly. I have taught art and creative writing and various Native American Studies and Multicultural Humanities Topics at The Evergreen State College since 1980. I have also been on the Board and am a past president of the Women’s Caucus for Art. I have also done multiple things with my life, and art has always been one of those things.
Homage to Wild Strawberries
Recycled 16mm. film
11”h x 7 1⁄2” in diameter, 2003
AR: Your basket titled Homage to Wild Strawberries happens to be one of my favorite movies. How did this piece come to be? What other movie references have you used in your work?
GT: I don’t know if I have the energy to answer this online. If you want to call and talk to me about it, I will gladly discuss the filmbaskets, film stock, and titles with you. My phone number is
AR: I am incredibly inspired by your work. As an artist I have aspirations to find meaningful ways and practices of enriching my culture (American with European ancestry). I get a feeling of enrichment when I look at your work. Your work brings up questions of place and community. Do you feel a strong sense of place both within your Native American culture and mainstream culture? What are some of the strengths and weakness that those communities provide for you as an artist?
GT: I feel a strong connection to both Iroquois and Micmac culture. My grandfather was Onondaga and Mohawk and my grandmother was Micmac. Both those cultures have wonderful stories, customs, laws, spiritual traditions to which I really feel a kinship. There are also lots of artists from those cultures whose work inspires me. I have a much more complicated and uncomfortable relationship to Euro-American settler culture with its history of practicing physical and cultural genocide against indigenous peoples. If Euro-Americans are anti-colonial, and work to promote equality and to allow indigenous people to maintain their cultural traditions, I enjoy their company. If they are racist and believe in white supremacy, I try to stay as far away from them as I can.
AR: How did you first learn how to make traditional baskets? Do you have any plans to pass that knowledge onto younger generations in your community? Is there a feeling of preserving traditional knowledge and technique when making your film baskets?
GT: I learned to make baskets from my great aunts, and I have taught young people to make baskets and other art forms.
AR: In your artist statement Twenty Years in the Making you write about your small and large star series: “These works are extremely labor intensive to make. This series explored the death and birth of stars and made references to stories of stars in Onondaga legend. They also reflected on the way that materials taken from the earth and refined using technologies that can pollute the environment can be made shiny so that they become a metaphor for contemporary culture which glitters and destroys.” This statement paints a beautiful and thoughtful picture. What do you think about some of the environmental movements that are going on now? Do you commonly interact with these types of concepts when making your work?
GT: I think about seven generations in the future whenever I make art.
AR: You have stated: “I come from a culture that sometimes uses abstract symbols as mnemonic objects to help the mind to focus on complex concepts.” What do these abstract symbols look like and how are they incorporated in your culture? Can you describe some of the types of complex concepts that the symbols help aid? Do you incorporate these symbols in your own work?
GT: I do use symbols that have cultural references in my work. I wrote an article back in the 1990’s in New Art Examiner Magazine which talks about my use of such symbols if you want to read it.
AR: At what point in your life did you realize you were an artist? Do you have a specific story or memory in regards to this moment?
GT: I started making things when I was around five and was surrounded by people who made things all the time. From a very early age, I thought it was the work of people to make beautiful things, and so I just worked at making things until I got good at it.
AR: What are some of your interests aside from creating art?
GT: Flowering arranging, gardening, especially companion planting corn, squash and beans and growing and gathering traditional plant foods and medicines. I like cooking, writing, playing scrabble, cribbage, and Chinese Checkers. I like teaching, working for social justice, traveling, reading, spending time with my friends, going to hear jazz and other live music, attending ballet and modern dance concerts. I am never bored.
AR: Do you think of yourself as a contemporary North American Indigenous artist? Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary Indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
GT: I think of myself as an indigenous person and an artist inspired by my cultural roots. I think all artists are part of the art world, and that art is richer for its diversity.
AR: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
GT: I am not sure who you have interviewed. I would include Jolene Rickard from Cornell University, Shelley Niro from 6 Nations Reserve in Canada, Corky Clairmont for Salish Kootenai Community College, Duane Slick who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, Truman Lowe who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a curator of contemporary art at NMAI, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie who teaches at U. of California-Davis, C Maxx Stevens who is a dean at IAIA, Will Wilson, a Navajo Artist who is currently working at IAIA, Erica Lord, Joe Feddersen, Bob Haozous, Jaune Quick-to See Smith, Sarah Sense, Jim Denomie, Jim Luna, Rebecca Belmore, Ed Poitras, Jane Ash Poitras, Ryan Rice (currently working at IAIA) Melanie Yazzie, Emmie Whitehorse, Larry McNeil (currently teaching at U of Idaho.) and Bentley Spang, are people that come to mind. I think, probably being in Oregon you’ve already done Lil Pitt and Rick Bartow, I could come up with a much longer list and indeed, could send you one Jaune developed for a book project if you would like.
(edited and updated from the Washington State Governor’s Award
Biographical Statement written by Bitsy Bidwell at the Washington
State Arts Commission when Tremblay received the award in 2001.)
Gail Tremblay is of Onondaga and Micmac ancestry. She resides in Olympia, WA has been contributing to the arts and cultural life of Washington state for over twenty years, by sharing a unique vision through her multi-media visual works, art installations, her critical writing, and poetry. She is a professor at The Evergreen State College, where she has mentored hundreds of students in the fields of visual arts, writing, Native American and cultural studies. She has served the larger artistic community as a member and president of the National Board of the Women’s Caucus for Art, and received a national “Mid-Career Art Award” from that organization in 1993. Her influence has been felt on the international level through her two trips to China as part of women’s artists’ delegations, and her exhibitions in Switzerland in 1985, in China in 1995, in Mexico in 1998, and the Czech Republic in 2000. Her visual art has been featured in Washington in over 40 group and solo exhibits and throughout the nation in an additional 60 exhibits. Her writing and art has been published in more than 50 different books, journals, and periodicals, and she is in great demand as a lecturer and workshop presenter. She has worked for thirty years to assure that issues of diversity and gender equity are addressed in the teaching of art, in the writing of art criticism and art history, in the curating of exhibits, and in the granting of public and private funding to artists and art institutions.
Gail Tremblay: Twenty Years of Making
This exhibit contains works that were made between 1981 and 2002. Several represent examples of works from series I created and others were done in response to themes for particular exhibits. Many of these works were part of major national touring exhibits and were made during the 1990’s. The earliest work in the exhibit, “Medicine Bearer,” was part of a series of coiled masks I made between 1976 and 1988. The earliest were based on the gajesa or cornhusk masks used in our longhouses, but were mixed media explorations based on the form rather than usable masks. They were followed by a series of animal masks, some representing clan animals, others animals in our stories. In this series of work, I was exploring the relationship between different materials and textures inspired by indigenous ancestors who were skilled mixed media artists.
The work “Incandescent Cloud Bears Gifts of Rain” made in 1990 is the last in a series of waffle weave hangings I began in 1979. The first two in the series were woven in 4 harness waffle weave and the rest were in 8 harness waffle weave. They were an intense exploration of color and had metal or wood tops and bottoms. The weaving incorporated pile weaves, maribou and other feathers. Some weavings in the series were arced between curved metal tops and bottoms, others like the example in this exhibit were flat.
Between 1982 and 1995, I did a series of metal stars woven on copper or brass wire warps with metallic yarns and braids. Initially these pieces were small and intimate; the first was only six inches in diameter. Over time, they got slightly larger, and then in 1989 I made my first large one. By 1991 for the 5th Heard Biennial, I had completed three large Stars, and “Exploding Star” is the last in that series. Subsequently, I made two stars for art auctions before completing the series. These works are extremely labor intensive to make. This series explored the death and birth of stars and made references to stories of stars in Onondaga legend. They also reflected on the way that materials taken from the earth and refined using technologies that can pollute the environment can be made shiny so that they become a metaphor for contemporary culture which glitters and destroys.
In 1990, I completed two quilts out of commercially tanned and dyed eather with porcupine quill work. Both are part of this exhibit.
They looked at the star theme as it is presented in the Iroquois creation story. They were both done for the Definitive American Quilt exhibit at Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in New York City and toured nationally for four years. Moira Roth wrote about my work for the catalogue and there was also video documentation done with the artists to accompany the exhibit.
In 1991, I began work on a series of paper pieces after participating with Naoaki Sakamoto, master paper maker from Japan, in a workshop with several other indigenous artists in Oregon. I made my first sheets of Cedar bark paper, and created two major hangings and a paper basket. Of these, the second, Kami Kami/ Paper Spirit, paid homage to the way fiber can collect itself on the screen to become a simple lovely sheet. My first three sheets of paper are sewed with silk thread to raw silk to create this artwork. I subsequently created “Basketmaker’s Dream” from handmade, hand dyed, and commercially produced papers and did a series of woven paper baskets. “2/2 Twill/ Diamond Dreams, Red on Black” combines papers from various paper companies in a composition that is partly woven and partly collage. When I think about this series, I think about the way an ephemeral pile of plant material can become an object of culture and can be arranged to make different sorts of meaning.
In 1993, I made my first fish trap for my second major installation,”The Empty Fish Trap,” which opened at Stanford University for the Faculty Renewal Workshop, Art, Multiculturalism, and Technology in the ‘90’s.” That installation has been recreated in several sites including at Sacred Circle Gallery since it was first shown. While working on the piece, I fell in love with the form of traditionally woven fish traps, and have made two other installations, Shadow Magic Traps Sweet Meat, and Voices of Water in which I have used fish trap forms. “Waiting Fish Trap” in this exhibit was done for a basketry show at Froelick Gallery in Portland, Oregon and was part of a touring exhibit to University galleries in the Michigan and Wisconsin. It was also incorporated into the Voices of Water installation at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in the summer of 2001. I love the shadows these traps can make against a wall when they are lit, and the way a simple object of traditional technology can be so expressive and beautiful as form.
The final series represented in this exhibit, is the Iroquois Fancy Stitch Film Basket series. I made my first film basket as a present for a colleague, Marge Brown, when we taught together in mid ‘80’s, and have been developing the series ever since. I love the control over this material that has been a medium for stereotyping Indians, and use traditional stitches like bird mouth stitch, porcupine stitch and strawberry stitch to make comments with these baskets. Since January, I have been producing a suite of round film baskets and “Then There’s the Hollywood Indian Princess.” is the second of these. I have made film baskets for the collections of the Portland Art Museum, The Haille Ford Museum at Willamette University, and The National Museum of the American Indian.
Of the thematic work in the exhibit, two pieces, “The Things Colonial Angels Witness” and “Memorial to Indians Massacred and Disappeared,” were done for exhibits during the quincentennial, “Sky Woman Falls to Earth Making My Ancestors Possible” was done for Ancestor’s Known and Unknown: The Women of Color Artists Box Project, and “Real Indian Medicine” was done for the Gathering Medicine Show. This exhibit was originally called the Traveling Medicine Show before several American Indian artists objected, and the knowledge that even in the women of color community that some people weren’t sensitive to the history of that term led me to make this particular little work. Finally, “In Search of the Ultimate Roach Joke” was done for the Indian Humor exhibit and national touring show curated by Sarah Bates for American Indian Contemporary Art in San Francisco.
Each object in this exhibit represents an exploration of materials. I am fascinated by the way arranging a variety of materials together can create imagery and meaning. As an artist, I have spent a life thinking about the way that matter can be manipulated. I come from a culture that sometimes uses of abstract symbols as mnemonic objects to help the mind to focus on complex concepts. In my work, I try to embody ideas that will raise questions for the viewer. At the same time I want each of my works to give the viewer an image to feed the eye, a mystery to wake the soul, and enough beauty to break the heart or make it grin.
The final work in this exhibit is my newest installation work, Iókste
Akwerià:ne / It Is Heavy on My Heart, in which I use felt, audio and
visual elements, text and images that document medical conditions to raise questions about the issue of nuclear pollution on reservations. I have written a statement about the history that has caused me to make art about that issue. I hope that those viewers who have the patience to spend time with this difficult work, will learn things that will help them to be more humane and fully human in our difficult world.
My work is concerned with using non-traditional materials to explore conceptual ways to use indigenous stories and traditional Onondaga and Micmac basketry forms as a commentary on indigenous life in the 21st Century. Originally I used copper and brass strips and handmade paper to create baskets, then I began making film baskets when I taught with Marge Brown, a filmmaker at The Evergreen State College where I work.I asked our students for the out-takes from their films. Film was an interesting material, and I enjoyed the notion of recycling film and gaining control over a medium that had historically been used by both Hollywood and documentary filmmakers to stereotype American Indians.
I relished the irony of making film take on the traditional fancy stitch patterns of our ash splint and sweet grass baskets. Soon I began to develop more complex patterns and to use fullcoat, an opaque material used in sound editing, and leader as well as exposed film. I enjoy creating titles to contextualize these baskets and often choose materials to ironic purpose. The choice of weaving stitches, many of which have names, is deliberate. I make baskets with 35 and 16 mm film.