Inner Thoughts

Inner Thoughts

by Tesi Vaara

It’s been a long winter. In between the COVID isolation and the cold and rainy weather I have managed to stay somewhat sane by being in my studio on a fairly regular basis. I’ve had my first COVID Pfizer vaccine and am due for my second within the coming week. I’m thankful to the world of ZOOM that lets me see and hear from other creative people.

I have spent most of my time creating things OTHER than art quilts since my last blogpost. Comfort quilts and clothing mainly. Busy work.


In January I made the decision to restart the Art Quilt group in my local quilt guild. We had quit meeting because of the pandemic and because of some health issues that began for me in early 2020. We are meeting now via ZOOM once a month and started off playing with Derwent Inktense pencils or other watercolor pencils. I tried out several design ideas found from using a variety of inspirations. One inspiration came from my rather expansive library of Native American books that I’ve collected over the years.

Most of the books I have give permission to use the designs in “craft” work so I’m not infringing on copyright rules by using them in a quilt.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and the Native American culture is very present here. I admire their art and have always wanted to make a quilt using their designs. So, I started making some quilt blocks using my Inktense pencils and proceeded to show 3 of the blocks during one of my Surface Design ZOOM meetings.

An interesting question came up…” Should Native American art be made by non-Native Americans?” Never did this thought cross my mind although I am aware that their art is sacred and spiritual to their culture. That is what draws me to their work.

I thought about this conversation for several days and it was really bothering me. I was trying to justify the okayness of making Native American art to myself. Then my white privilege (non)thoughts slapped me right in the face! That initial question was quite eye opening and I am still working through all that this has brought up for me. How can I, a white person, think I can even begin to understand Native American art or their heritage? No possible way! 

I think I might be able to give myself permission to create my own vision of these beautiful and spiritual designs for my own growth and learning and viewing enjoyment. If I do continue, I don’t feel that I will ever be able to display this work anywhere but my own home. I don’t think I have that right or privilege.

I’m still struggling with it though and need to do more journaling around it. Journaling got me to another question, “Who do I make my art quilts for?” which has also been an eye-opening inner conversation based on people pleasing. Pretty heavy conversations going on within my head! I still have lots to learn and understand, in art and in life.

As one person I follow on Facebook (Beau of the fifth column) says when he signs off, “It’s just a thought. Ya’ll have a good day!”

22 thoughts on “Inner Thoughts

  1. Wow, Tesi, what an insightful post. I, too, love Native American art – Southwest and Northwest, especially Haida. I never even gave a thought to being able to relate to the spirituality of the pieces – from an indigenous point of view. I have many of the same books you do! And years ago I made a piece based on the Mayan calendar. Highly recommended if you can find it is a small book called I Heard the Owl Call My Name.

    1. I love the Southwest Native American art as well. I’ll look for that book. Thank you for suggesting it. When I was a child my grandfather had a National Geographic book on Indians of the America’s that I found fascinating to thumb through. I inherited it from him and still treasure it.

  2. Do you donate your comfort quilts? You probably told us before but I have forgotten. I like your new blouse, I don’t sew clothing so I am always impressed when others do.

    I’m not sure what the answer is about using other cultures art for inspiration. I don’t see anything wrong with studying the designs, sketching and learning. I certainly don’t think it’s right to sell work as indigenous when it isn’t created by indigenous people. I realize that wasn’t your intention. It’s good that you’re thinking about the issue.

    1. I do donate the comfort quilts. I spend most of December making them. I got kind of carried away this year.

      I have had several patterns fitted to my body which is helpful in being successful when sewing clothing. It’s hard to find clothing fabric these days as well as buttons. I’ve been trying to use up some of my stash of wearables type fabric. Still a ways to go just like trying to use up my quilting cottons.

      Thanks for your input on studying other cultures art.

  3. I too question whether it’s right to recreate Native art to sell. I am also from the NW and have asked others about this. I haven’t asked a Native person though. I will. I do believe I will get an honest opinion from the Suquamish Tribe. Will post answer.

    1. Looking forward to hearing the response from the Suquamish Tribe. I did not intend to make anything to sell, however if I did I would donate the money to one of the Tribes I live near.

  4. Your new blouse is great! Gorgeous colours and it looks very comfy.

    Only you can decide for yourself about the rights and wrongs of using designs. I don’t have a problem with drawing inspiration from anywhere at all because all art is derived from what’s gone before. As an example see the previous blog post 🙂

    Should you make a quilt using an exact pattern, as long as you give credit to the original source and didn’t pretend that you designed it, surely there can be no harm in that?

    It’s very kind of you to make and donate the comfort quilts – I’m sure they are very much appreciated.

    1. I love that blouse pattern. I have made 3 blouses so far from it. Time to venture on to another pattern, though! The trick was to get the pattern fitted to my body, which helped tremendously. It’s nice to have new clothes to wear once the weather warms up a bit as well as get my fabric stash a little bit smaller.
      I was thinking about your last blog post and your challenge when I was doing my blog post! We learn so much from other artist’s work and get such inspiration from them. Studying other peoples work teaches us new processes and gives us new ideas. As you say, we each have to be comfortable with where we get our inspiration from and how we incorporate it into our work. Native American art is very spiritual to me and I relate to their symbols because I also live in the world of the eagle, the killer whale (2 new babies!!), the raven. etc. I have great respect for their culture.

  5. I can’t really see the problem with your work being based on or inspired by native art. I do also think no-one has the right to say that their work is someone else’s – which is what they would be doing if a non-native person claimed to have “created native art”. That’s basically plagiarism.
    I have to say that similarly I can’t see what is wrong with borrowing a dress or hair style from another culture or ethnicity. If that ban is taken as far as some people would seem to want, we’d all be dressed in clothing native to our country of origin and only western men would be allowed to wear suits!

    1. Thanks nanacathy2! This was the second blouse I have made lately. Working on the third, however, the fabric has a been a bit fussy to work with so it hasn’t been much fun to get finished.

  6. I am so glad you are asking this question!

    I have worked with a Nation in the Coast Salish area of Canada(BC). I would suggest reaching out to the Nation whose lands you are living on and speaking with someone in their cultural department to see what their side of this issue is.

    I have long admired Indigenous cultural art, and with the exception of one piece that remains unfinished (and to be honest I was a very naive 25 when I made the piece) I have never directly used Indigenous symbology in my work as it has always felt very uncomfortable to me.

    I hope others will do this if they are so inclined to use Indigenous Cultural Symbols in their work to reach out to the Nation whose territory you are dwelling and get their feedback.

    The blouse is lovely, I need to make myself something new.:-)

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post!

    1. Thanks Jody. As I said in a previous comment, I do have a friend who is teaching quilting, etc. at a school on the Tulalip Reservation that I will discuss this with first. I agree, we need to reach out to the Nations whose land we are living on out of respect for them if we are interested in using their symbology in our artwork. Thanks for mentioning that. I’m like you though. Since I’ve had this white privilege revelation I am very uncomfortable about using them in any of my work.

  7. It is nice of you to donate comfort quilts. my grandson got one when he was in hospital as a baby. Your blouse is lovely.
    I am not sure about art. Were does mine start and stop where does yours. Who’s culture gets protected, who’s doesn’t. I know that I have the luxury to to think about it and others don’t and I suppose that’s a big part of the problem. It is not an easy question to answer.

    1. Thanks shepherdessann for commenting. It is awesome that so many people make gifts for those who have a need for them. I’m only too happy to be able to donate.
      I think we just all need to get back to respecting each other and none of us feeling superior to others, regardless of race or religion. Of course, there have been wars going on for eons around race and religion so it’s all nothing new. Sad though that it just continues on. I think my history goes back to Finland or Norway on my paternal side, but growing up none of that culture got passed down through my family. Maybe since I grew up in the Pacific NW and was exposed to Native American art quite a bit, that is why I am so attracted to it. It became my culture in an obscure way.

  8. Interesting self-questioning and very appropriate for us white folk, I think. There isn’t an easy answer, is there? However, I think it all boils down to: are your profiting from another culture unduly, are you disrespecting it in any way? If not, and it brings you true joy to look at native American art, then I think it’s worth pursuing.
    Another thing I’d love to know: have you contacted any native American art groups and asked about their thoughts? I find a lot of cultures are very happy for you to participate in theirs if you’re respectful and do it out of love (like the Japanese love it when foreigners wear Kimono on Japan streets!)

    1. I have not contacted any Native American art groups. But I do have a friend who teaches quilting, etc at one of the nearby Reservations and have planned on having the discussion with her at some point. One thought I did have, if I made and sold a quilt like that, would be to donate the money to tribal education or something of that nature. I would never want to profit off it. But you are right…no easy answer.

  9. Lovely to see your pile of comfort quilts (a dear friend knits & crochets similarly) and a great result with your beautiful well fitted blouse. I remember spending hours looking for dress fabrics – gone are those days….time-wise and lack of shops.

    Interesting self-questioning which I hope you come to a comfortable decision about as none of us would wish to see your creativity stifled by it.

    Like many comments above – using a specific design needs to be credited to the originator. However we can all take inspiration from different sources.

    Over millennia, as people have travelled, they have taken inspiration from art, architecture, writing, practical elements (think what the Romans, or the Chinese printing press gave us) etc from across the globe. What they (or we) have seen has been an inspiration to develop upon or create something new.

    To use the idea in the first place we must have found something beautiful, something that spoke to us which in itself implies respect (respect – a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements). I’ll ignore the few who undo this!

    Initially seeing a source of inspiration, it is often ‘copied’ as part of developing & evolving the design process to create something that is unique and ‘ours’. Impressionist painters, Art Nouveau, Tiffany glass, underfloor heating – all started somewhere.

    Indigenous v White v Any other race/nation – do any of us know our full historical DNA profile? Somewhere way back when might there have been a cross-over that has since been ‘diluted’?

    For me it all comes down to RESPECT in all that that implies & our responsibility to it.

  10. I understand your dilemma, but in adopting and getting inspiration from another culture, can’t that be a sign of respect and admiration?
    With our goal to be a diverse and accepting society, giving homage to each others ideas and creations can be healthy.

  11. Your blouse is lovely! As far as being inspired by Native American art that exactly what it is unless you copy it. Chances are whatever you created would not be exactly the same. We are all influenced by other cultures and reflect it in our work.

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