Big art emerges from a big blanket

Legacy Art Gallery’s Justine Drummond and Caroline Riedel show a small slice of the world’s biggest button blanket, due to be on display at the gallery starting this week.   - Edward Hill/News staff
Legacy Art Gallery’s Justine Drummond and Caroline Riedel show a small slice of the world’s biggest button blanket, due to be on display at the gallery starting this week.
— image credit: Edward Hill/News staff

Give an object an exaggerated size and suddenly it holds a new dimension of power, if not peoples’ attention. So it is with the world’s largest button blanket now on display at the Legacy Art Gallery.

Nearly two storeys of Melton wool, countless stitches and adorned with abalone and mother of pearl, the Big Button Blanket is the product of University of Victoria student labour, guided by History in Art assistant professor Carolyn Butler-Palmer.

“We’ve invited the Guinness World Record people to take a look,” Butler-Palmer said. “We’re sure one has never been made this big before. I don’t think anyone will challenge us on that claim of the biggest button blanket.”

Tahltan artist Peter Morin designed the blanket to represent headwaters of  northwestern B.C.’s Klappan River, a sacred place for the Tahltan First Nation. Tsartlip artist Barrie Sam contributed the design at the centre of the blanket.

Button blankets are typically worn to celebrate a family and one’s ancestry, but this one is also conceived as a piece of art, and a way to introduce students to indigenous art history.

“It came about from conversations with Peter Morin. We decided we wanted to work on a project of button blankets as an art form, but in a way to aggrandize that form,” Butler-Palmer said. “It’s all sewn by hand and was a lot of work. It’s human proportions amped up.”

They picked the six metre by six metre size based on what could be shoehorned into the Legacy Gallery. Twenty five students and members of the community spent last semester stitching together fabric panels, while local aboriginal elders gave talks on the traditions of button blankets.

For the Legacy Art Gallery, hanging the 300-pound blanket will be a logistical challenge unlike any other.

“It’s easily the biggest art object we’ve received or displayed here,” said Caroline Riedel, curator of collections. “The sheer weight and logistics to hang an object of this size is a challenge. The buttons are extremely fragile.”

Royal B.C. Museum exhibit designer Allan Graves is helping design a scaffolding to hang the blanket vertically between the gallery floor and mezzanine. “It’s a new challenge with the installation, but it opens up new ways to think about this as an art form. I’m looking forward to peoples’ responses,” Riedel said.

Button blankets are traditionally used in dances, and this one is no different, other than having an unwieldy size. On Jan. 29, Morin and the students will perform a dance with the Big Button Blanket at the First Peoples’ House as part of the opening reception of UVic’s 2014 diversity forum.

The blanket is on display at UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery, 630 Yates St., starting this week.



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