The Whatcom Museum is featuring five women artists from its collection throughout the month of March—Women’s History Month—in conjunction with the #5WomenArtists campaign, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This week we highlight Gail Tremblay, whose work was last exhibited in the Whatcom Museum’s 2016 show, Just Women as well as in the 2010 exhibition Show of Hands: Northwest Women Artists, 1880-2010.
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1945, Gail Tremblay is an artist, writer, and activist of Onondaga and Mi’kmaq ancestry. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon and has taught English, Native American Studies, Art, and Art History at Evergreen State College for more than thirty-five years. Tremblay continues to write poetry, curate, and create contemporary artworks in the Pacific Northwest and resides in Olympia, Washington.
Since the 1980s, Tremblay has been weaving film baskets made from scraps of 35mm and 16mm film culled from a variety of sources including old movie trailers, and outdated educational documentaries. To add variations of pattern and color, Tremblay incorporates leader film, which is often of a white, black, blue, green, or vibrant red tone. The titles of her works reference the original film sources that she uses. Of this series the artist writes, “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 and sweetgrass baskets.” Employing the skills and visual language of her ancestry, Tremblay retains tradition through process while proposing a contemporary critique through her media which often reflects issues of appropriation and misrepresentation.
Like her visual art, Tremblay’s poetry speaks to modern indigenous experiences of isolation and loss when lands and identities are overwritten. For example, in her poem Meditation on the Dalles Dam, she reflects on the disappearance of the history, peoples, and ecology of Celilo Falls. A once-bustling fishing and cultural hub, and the oldest indigenous settlement in North America, Celilo Falls and village were flooded to make way for the construction of the hydroelectric dam.
Meditation on The Dalles Dam
for Lillian Pitt
Electricity is humming in a spider web of lines
as copper wires cased in rubber cross the land;
what sorrow builds in this sound that only whines
Where the thunder of water no longer combines
with a wild rush of salmon so close at hand?
Electricity is humming in a spider web of lines.
Where fish runs were rich, everything declines.
No one explains how a body can withstand
The sorrow that builds in this sound that only whines.
Fishermen stood on scaffolds amid the steep inclines
of rock; water foamed before the flow was dammed
so electricity could hum in a spider web of lines.
Rocks watched while men made strange designs
To swell the river to places no rush of water planned.
What sorrow grows when the new sound only whines?
The bodies of old ones wash out of ancient shrines—
how can the spirits of the dead learn to understand
the electricity that hums in a spider web of lines.
What sorrow builds in this sound that only whines?
-Compiled and written by Amy Chaloupka, Curator of Art