The Next Chapter

Why Carey Newman & Kirstie Hudson created a book about the making of the Witness Blanket

Picking Up the Pieces tells the story about the living work of art conceived and created by Indigenous artist Carey Newman.
Carey Newman and Kirstie Hudson are the authors of Picking Up the Pieces. (Orca Book Publishers, Ken Wilkinson, Melissa Welsh)

This interview originally aired on April 18, 2020.

When Vancouver Island artist Carey Newman created the Witness Blanket, it was to be a monument to children who were forced to attend residential schools. Newman is of Kwakwaka'wakw, Coast Salish and settler heritage and his father is a residential school survivor.

Newman worked with Victoria writer and editor Kirstie Hudson to create the book Picking Up the Pieces. 

Picking Up the Pieces documents the creation of the Witness Blanket and calls on readers of all ages to bear witness to the residential school experience, an important piece of Canada's history.

Newman and Hudson spoke with Shelagh Rogers about how Picking Up the Pieces came to be.

The Witness Blanket is made up of hundreds of items collected from residential school survivors and residential school buildings. (Media One/Carey Newman)

Bear witness

Carey Newman: "I talk about the Witness Blanket as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's call for commemoration initiatives. It was my way of using art to talk about the truth of residential school history in Canada. It was inspired by my father and his experience.

"He is a residential school survivor. I grew up knowing very little about what that meant for him. Through the process of making this blanket, I've learned so much more. Not through his words necessarily, but through the words of many about what that experience was like.

It was my way of using art to talk about the truth of residential school history in Canada.- Carey Newman

"There is the structure of it, the measurements of it and the number of pieces that go into it. It is about my personal connection and all of the stories that are behind the pieces."

Carey Newman and his team visited about 80 communities and spoke with more than 10,000 people, to collect stories and items for "The Witness Blanket". 10:58

Kirstie Hudson: "[Bearing witness] has been, for me, the most important part of this journey of writing this book with Carey. Carey says that reconciliation is a journey, not a destination. That was my 'aha' moment. I felt like this is my small part that I'm playing in reconciliation. But it was a long time getting to that place. 

[Bearing witness] has been, for me, the most important part of this journey of writing this book with Carey.- Kirstie Hudson

"I feel so honoured to have been able to bear witness to what Carey was doing, and to have him trust me to help do that."

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights and First Nations artist Carey Newman are signing an agreement to be joint stewards of the 'The Witness Blanket,' which is comprised of more than 800 items collected from the sites and survivors of residential schools. (John Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Pieces falling into place

Carey Newman: "I was working hard to try and figure out how I could use my artwork to make something. I rejected idea after idea, because no matter how grand a scale I imagined a totem or a sculpture, it couldn't tell the story in the way that I wanted to tell it.

"It wasn't until I started to think about this idea of collection, of bringing things together, that I felt like I was on the right track. But being a sculptor, I kept thinking, 'Well, just stick them all together and then make something out of them that way.' But I realized that you couldn't because there would be things inside that nobody could see. 

I was working hard to try and figure out how I could use my artwork to make something.- Carey Newman

"I was sitting in my living room and I had my feet up on this little wooden stool that my parents gave me for Christmas. It folds up like a director's chair. But it's made entirely from wood. The basket part that holds your feet is strung together by these little pieces of wood that are held together by cable. That was my moment.

"I looked right between my feet and saw that. I could make a blanket out of all of these things that I'm imagining gathering. That was the beginning." 

Kirstie Hudson: "I remember I had access to all the raw footage from the documentary and all the interviews with survivors. Part of what I tried to do to help tell the story was to go through all of that footage and find stories that matched objects, and other ways that we could connect this story together.

"It was sitting at home by myself and going through these videos. I realized the scale of what Carey was trying to do."

Carey Newman and Kirstie Hudson's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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