Our heritage informs us in many ways. And often too, if we are lucky, a few positive blood relationships in our early lives sustain us into the present and nurture our future. Artist Kim Blodgett’s early influences, especially her very close relationship with her grandmother, have molded her into wanderer, provocateur, and tough chick in addition to artist. Blodgett’s ancestors, the Abenaki Algonquin, originated on the Eastern seaboard. They are the “people from the east.” Today, 2,000 Abenakis live on two reserves in Quebec and about 10,000 are scattered throughout New England, including three small bands in Vermont and Massachusetts, among whom are Kim Blodgett’s family.
The Blodgetts still live down a seven-mile dirt road in Vermont; in Kim’s words, they were, “the Indians living in plain sight, who looked white but grew up on the fringe.” The possible murder of her uncle and other events of upheaval and sadness in her upbringing are “things that at my age I reflect on … that make more sense now.”
Blodgett’s family has previous connections to the South. Her grandmother came looking for work in Florida in 1926, trading baskets of ash splint and sweetgrass she had woven for shoes from the Salvation Army. She told Kim stories of Georgia. A trip Kim made to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics intrigued her enough to return here when an opportunity to teach art to middle school kids came up last year at the Westminster School.
Blodgett has crossed the U.S. at least 15 times, lived in various states, taken on myriad jobs and earned college degrees along the way, studying with many influential art educators and accomplished artists, such as Sheila Pepe. Blodgett is a nomad, a story-gatherer, and a storyteller who works with text, the deconstruction of media images, and the feminine art of stitching. Blodgett draws inspiration by connecting family, her morphed Indian ways and an acquired academic list of accolades that exist within a Western Art tradition.
Leisa Rich: Do you see any connection between the use of stitching in your work and your grandmother’s basketry?
Kim Blodgett: My grandmother taught me to use my hands … a lot of people today haven’t explored this enough. The kids I teach often don’t seem to know how to do some basic things like push clay around or use an X-acto knife. We grew up using our hands. I actually made dolls when I was a little girl, and my brother made cows on skis out of wood that he sold at the Ben and Jerry’s gift shop. My family are makers. We would make our costumes at Halloween. We were not a wealthy family. Everything was handmade by us. It was not an easy existence, and growing up was a little too busy, my parents a little too young, and the family a little too poor … so there’s a lot of littles that made a lot of big problems.
My grandmother and I were so close. I put a lot of thought into her eulogy. I started out by saying every name she was known by, listing the multiple relationships she had throughout her lifetime, all the different roles she filled with the people present at the eulogy: friend, mother, sister, aunt, her maiden name, her married name, and so on, but I knew her as Gram. I did this because I wanted each person to feel considered and connected as well as know where my words were emanating from. I wanted to serve all of the different perspectives that looked back at me as I spoke. In my view the purpose of her eulogy was to celebrate her memory through the people present.
LR: Is it more common in Native American culture, to assign different roles and to assign different words to describe those roles?
KB: There’s more of an oral history. I grew up talking a lot with my gram and family. We would talk about everything, and a lot about spirituality… I was really fortunate to have my gram. I like words, and that plays off who I am as a person. I am a text artist.
LR: This is your second time in Atlanta. You first came to Georgia in 1996 for the Olympics. What did you see?
KB: I went to the Velodrome. I was in the bike world and got tickets from an inside source.
Because there were five kids in my family, I started planning for college in sixth grade because I knew I wanted to get the fuck off that mountain [where she grew up in Vermont, off the beaten path and off the grid]. I knew my parents would never be able to afford college so I said I’m gonna get an athletic scholarship. Tour de France was on TV and I realized there were amazing stories in sports. There was something about the struggle, discipline, and elegance of sports. I did not get a bike until I was a sophomore in college. I worked all summer and bought a pretty expensive racing bike … the next year I was the top racer.
LR: Do you like relocating? What is it about it that attracts you?
KB: I adore it. Growing up in the woods, I would watch commercials and think, “Who are they talking to … because it is not us.” There was a world out there that you got windows into. This was fascinating to me. And Canada was right there! I thought, what about Europe and, gosh, this is such a big country … 50 states! When I was seven my grandmother took me to Wyoming and the Grand Canyon and that pretty much did it for me, traveling.
LR: How did you get into art? How did these paths—sports, leaving your culture— lead to art?
KB: When I was a child, I told my mom that I was going to be an artist. The only other thing I considered doing was sailing. I only took one high school art class, and it was the only class I got detention in! When I was applying to Boston University for undergrad and the application asked how much art experience I had, I said absolutely none. I turned my portfolio in 15 minutes before it was due. I did a self-portrait in the car on the way there. So, I got into BU! [She went on to RISD for an MFA, graduating in 2006.]
LR: What is your main medium?
KB: My work is kind of difficult. Paper. I work with words. I also do video performance. My stuff is about communication, language, perception, conceiving of something. I use thread. I stitch. I gold leaf. I cut. My stuff is about affecting the paper. If it is gold leafed it means something, if it is stitched it means something, if it’s typewritten it means something. Take the sampler, Home Sweet Home. What happens when you put something stitched next to something that is media driven?
The conversation becomes about the interaction of those two things. A lot of times there is underlying meaning. It has to do with the way we perceive. I am forever fascinated by the ability of a word to hold personal meaning yet have universal context. I play with visual attributes that affect perception. The way in which a word is portrayed gives context.
Part of my work deals with vulnerability and error-making. I have a series of photographs where I take a picture of myself every time I cry. I wanted to see what people’s reactions are … I am playing with the viewer’s reaction. The work plays to them and they are the subject of the work.
LR: What do you feel most closely connected to in your artworks?
KB: I don’t restrict myself to one medium. In my most recent work, I draw the definition of the word ‘of,’ which reads like a poem. It’s the sweetest little definition you ever heard; there are eight definitions, but I am only going to use two— “expressing the relationship between a part and a whole, indicating an association between two entities typically one of belonging.”
I feel close to Frida Kahlo. She did so much work that is so personal. I feel close to that. When I get stuck, I make sure I do something with my hands. There needs to be a lot of care in my cut pieces—they are sexy; they are not frivolous. I like the borderline where craft and art meet and the pieces exist in that. I think of my artwork as having both craft and art elements. This is not to say there is a hierarchy between them but rather I like to rejoice in both their similarities and differences. I am renovating and destroying. A lot of times I do work that fails miserably. If you were to describe my work, it’s a perspective through the eyes of a female American. What I understand by using my mind and with my eyes. This has to do with nurture and nature.
LR: It sounds like you do a lot of research?
KB: I like to find patterns, looking. My research is me out in public. It’s me traveling to New York, to Boston, to Denver. Understanding that words mean different things in different areas. My research is really on the ground.
Blodgett is adjusting to changes in her personal life—her recent move to Atlanta and familiarizing herself with the idiosyncrasies of Southern culture—and her new job teaching at the Westminster School. She says: “Teaching takes a certain amount of patience that is difficult for me. There is something different about the way people here communicate … it is different from the way people in Boston communicate. It took me awhile to adjust.”
There’s something about art that breaks down barriers. Hopefully, as Kim Blodgett finds her footing in the art world of Atlanta, more doors will open up for her. Somehow though, I feel the wanderer won’t be here for long.
Leisa Rich is visual artist living in Atlanta. She writes for various publication and blogs at www.monaleisa.com.