Telling a story

When she makes a quilt or writes poetry, Gwen Westerman turns to her family and traditions.

Westerman, a Dakota fiber artist and poet, will have her work on display through March 31 at the K.K. Berge Gallery in downtown Granite Falls. She will be at the gallery from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today.

Westerman’s visual work includes art quilts that tell the story of her people.

“The women in my family have made functional quilts from fabric for at least six generations – my childhood was full of them,” she said in her artist statement. “While many of the quilts I create are utilitarian as well, and I expect them to be used, they also function to tell a story. My uncle and grandma talked about how we need to tell the truth about our people and our history.”

She said her art is grounded in Dakota culture and tradition, history, oral tradition and language recovery and the continuation of the people’s story.

Westerman said she started crafting at a young age.

“I learned to sew when I was in the sixth grade,” Westerman said.

She said that her grandmother tried to teach her how to quilt, adding that her grandmother quilted everything by hand.

“At the time, I didn’t have the patience for that, I had one lesson and that was that,” Westerman said.

In 1999, Westerman seriously started quilting.

“The art quilts are tied to the landscapes and to our stories as Dakota people,” Westerman said. The stories are about creation, ones that are important to them, she said.

A traditional pattern for Plains Indian people is the star quilt, a sign of honor, she said, and can be given in the event of a high school graduation, winning at a tournament, or at funerals. Her quilts have been exhibited in Minneapolis, Houston, Sioux Falls, S.D., Anchorage, Alaska and Tulsa, Okla.

Westerman is a 2011 recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She also is a professor of English and humanities at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

“As a Dakota person, anything I write is going to be influenced by my family and upbringing,” she said. A new book of her poetry is set to be released this spring about her journey home and the Dakota language.

“I write about learning the language, places that are important and my family,” she said. Westerman said she learned to count in Dakota, sing “Amazing Grace” and the names of the animals.

This past September, Westerman, along with author Bruce White, published the book “Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota.” The aim of the book was to tell the detailed history of the Dakota people in their traditional homelands for many years prior to the exile.

“That’s about our history on the land in this area,” Westerman said. “It was important that it came out in 2012. We wanted to make sure there was a book about the Dakota people that wasn’t about the war. And it’s a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards.”

According to the book’s description, the two “examine narratives of the people’s origins, their associations with the land and the seasonal round through key players and place names.”

This will be Westerman’s first solo show.

“I’m excited to see all of my things together,” she said.