The Witness Blanket will forever stand as a national monument to recognize the atrocities of the Indian Residential School era.
It was a huge undertaking for artist and Master Carver Carey Newman and his team.
More than 800 pieces were gathered from survivors and sites of 77 Residential Schools across Canada.
“I feel an immense responsibility,” says Newman of his connection to the blanket.
“One of the things about this project is when you ask people to share their stories and give you parts of their memories and pieces they’ve held on to, it’s a very personal thing,” says Newman.
“I have to take it differently than other art works I’ve done where I take some material and I make it into something and it is what I made it” says Newman.
Very few of the items collected were left out of the Blanket.
Newman, who’s father is a residential school survivor, wanted to ensure that something was used from every from every place they went and something from every person who gave a piece.
Among the location visited were two the residential schools Newman’s father attended.
Newman admits, visiting the locations, handling items, and hearing the stories from survivors did weigh on him and the team.
“You don’t necessarily feel it right away. You’re busy, you’re thinking about the work that you have to do. You’re sort of thinking about it from, for me a from the technical perspective,” says Newman.
“Then slowly the stories start to seep in and it starts to build up. And the way we dealt with that when I realized this was something that I was going to have to continually maintain, was through ceremony.”
Newman also co-directed a documentary on the process of creating the Witness Blanket and more recently co-authored a book called Picking up the Pieces: Residential School Memories and the making of the Witness Blanket.
Newman feels the book and documentary work to bring the stories to life in a different way then the artwork itself.
“The blanket can only be in one place but the book or the documentary can be in many places. “The documentary brings those words of survivors to life and get to walk through residential school sites and really see and feel the emotion of that process in a different way. And when it comes to the book you can go deeper into the stories,” says Newman.
The book also played a cathartic role for Newman – a time to reflect back on the whole process.
The Witness Blanket is currently being restored at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, however, a replica continues to tour the country.
On the latest episode of Face to Face, Newman tells host Dennis Ward about a project he worked on in 2008 is what prepared him for his work on the Witness Blanket.
The 2008 Cowichan Indigenous Games Spirit Pole was an idea to replace a torch relay, taking a totem around the province of British Columbia and letting thousands of people carve chips from it.
For Newman, it was the first project that took him out of the studio and working with people on a project.
Newman is a master carver, a title he was uncomfortable with at first.
Newman’s father was a carver, so was his great aunt and great, great grandfather.
More recently, Newman has also taken on the title of professor.
Newman encourages his students to use their voice to bring about change.