Wally Dion at BAM 

The Native artist makes traditional-looking quilts from computer parts

click to enlarge COURTESY WALLY DION
  • Courtesy Wally Dion

This year, Boise Art Museum has made a point of showcasing Native American artists—in particular, Native artists porting the traditional to contemporary media and aesthetics. That trend continues with Wally Dion's exhibition of visually striking quilt works, Current, which will run Friday, July 27-Jan. 5, 2020.

Made from circuit boards and other media, three large quilts will be suspended from BAM's 26-foot Sculpture Court ceiling. Dion said he found himself combining his love for art and circuit boards while working on a solo show with the theme of Native American people in the workforce in response to a politician who described Natives as drains on the public coffers. In his exhibition, Dion decided to portray Natives in Soviet-era-style posters working in construction, nursing and contemporary occupations like working at a computer.

"That's when the idea came to combine the material of technology with the quality of quilting which is what small groups of women have done in Native American culture, gotten together to quilt garments," Dion said. "The idea came to me to use technology itself."

Weaving together intricate pieces of circuit boards, Dion creates pieces that, from afar, look like fabric quilts. On closer inspection that the electrical components start to show, their brittle textures softening into the appearance of a blanket—a sort of artistic cognitive dissonance.

"Artists like Wally Dion are telling the story of indigenous peoples in new and creative ways, counteracting accepted narratives and stereotypes," said BAM Executive Director/CEO Melanie Fales. "His use of materials such as circuit boards and auto paint to create customary First Nations quilt patterns portrays the fact that indigenous cultures are not relegated to the past, and places their traditions in the context of modern technological society."

Dion hails from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and is a member of the Yellow Quill First Nation (Salteaux). He received his MFA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design, and has exhibited numerous times throughout the U.S. and Canada.

For his exhibition at BAM, his three quilts are focused on the star quilt theme, an indigenous symbol. Dion's quilts are inspired by quilting bees or parties during which First Nation women historically gathered to make quilts for burials, dances and other ceremonies.

Aside from his quilts, Dion also does small circuit board work (that does not look like a quilt), paint work on plywood, paint covered "steppes," small wooden models drizzled with paint, and portraits. The majority of his works feature First Nations cultural symbolism like his Thunderbird series. In the description of the series, for which he used circuit board materials, Dion describes Thunderbirds as a mythological being that has existed in the past and continues to exist today.

"For thousands of years, people have fashioned mythologies in an attempt to understand the power and significance of the Thunderbird. Viewed collectively as fossils, or as living prophecy, Thunderbirds are pulled from the tar sands of Northern Alberta, hydro-fracked from the bedrock of the Marcellus Shale and resurrected from the uranium mines of Northern Saskatchewan to live again among human beings," he wrote on his website.

While Dion doesn't necessarily think each of his pieces needs to have a connection to the cultural symbols of First Nations, the majority have in his portfolio of work. Whether that's to spark discussion of the true mythology of something like the thunderbird or the broader theme of transformation is anyone's guess. Dion continues to push the boundaries of what is expected of Native American art both in his own career and soon, at BAM.

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