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The University of Alabama

Artist Sews Genius, Heritage into UA’s Moundville Museum Exhibit

Fabric and textile artist Jay McGirt works on the covering for the palinquin to be on display at the Jones Archeological Museum.

Fabric and textile artist Jay McGirt works on the covering for the palinquin to be on display at the Jones Archaeological Museum.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Fabric and textile artist Jay McGirt is sewing thousands of feathers onto a piece of burlap. The piece of decorated fabric, when completed, will stretch across the top of a Native American palanquin – a litter carried by four men — as part of an exhibit to be displayed at the Moundville Archaeological Park’s museum, part of The University of Alabama Museums.

His painstaking, detailed work shows just how much McGirt cares about his culture and his ancestors.

“This is a labor of love, because I don’t know very many people who would take the time to cover this in feathers,” says McGirt, who lives in Tulsa, Okla. “I would like to show folks in Alabama and elsewhere who see the exhibit that there are still people who care about tribal art.”

The exhibit, which will be the centerpiece of the main hall of the renovated Jones Archaeological Museum, will depict a Native American bride carried by four life-size bearers to her wedding to the heir of the Moundville chiefdom. He’s also sewing the piece to roll down the back of the litter. The palanquin will bring alive an interpretation of ceremonial life of the people who built the mounds at the Moundville site, a Native American city that flourished between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1450. The $5 million renovation, designed by Taft Design, is to open in early 2010.

Because only one or two sketches survive depicting a palanquin from Native American culture of the area, McGirt has to rely on his imagination to come up with a design for the covering.

McGirt is using turkey feathers arranged in colorful patterns.

McGirt is using turkey feathers arranged in colorful patterns.

The design nears completion.

The design nears completion.

“This project was a challenge,” says McGirt, who is a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and is of Creek and Seminole descent. “It was something that had not been done in any of the other museums. It was something that was going to basically come from our imagination. It wasn’t something you could go find an example of.”

In addition to fabric, McGirt, who’s been a full-time artist for about 15 years, works in ceramics and watercolors. His work can be found at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Okla.

McGirt, who lives in Tulsa, plans to finish the piece near the end of September. The feathers, which he is sewing into a horseshoe pattern on the burlap, come from wild turkeys around Moundville. Hunters brought them in – thousands of feathers, many of them needing to be plucked from the bird. The artist arranges them according to color and pattern to transfer his artistic vision from his brain to the burlap.

“I made sketches as a way to get in my head what I wanted it to look like,” he says. “So yes, there are drawings that I made, but basically it just came from my imagination. It’s hopefully going to look like something that would have been from that time period, but we can’t say. We don’t know.”

His process offers him few, if any, shortcuts: Each feather gets sewn into the burlap, one by one by one.

“Basically, what you’re doing is that you’re sewing through the quill of the feather and sewing it onto the fabric, then stitching it down a couple of times, then going on to the next feather, and sewing that through the quill down into the fabric,” he says.

Fortunately, McGirt likes the solitary effort.

“I really enjoy working alone, and people create distractions,” he says. “When I listen to the radio or work in the quiet, I’m better able to focus on what I’m doing.”

He’s making the covering in a studio adjacent to the Moundville site, where he’s participated as an artist in the annual Native American Festival, scheduled for Oct. 7-10 this year. At the festival, McGirt, who trained as a tailor, shows off his skills in making ceremonial Native American men’s clothing; he’s also going to make much of the clothing for the figures in the permanent exhibit. For the clothing, McGirt finds inspiration in existing collections and living traditions.

“There are examples in museums, and, also, there’s drawings and paintings,” he says. “There’s also a continuation of folks who carry on the art of traditional clothing because traditional clothing is still worn at ceremonials; this is not just something that one would find only in museums.”

But for the palanquin, McGirt is using his greatest tools: his patience, his imagination and his pride in his ancestors and culture.

“I’m sure that there will be parts of the exhibit that are educational, but basically I hope people are struck by the beauty of the whole exhibit,” McGirt says. “Our ancestors are mound people. That blood is still in my veins. There is an appreciation for that.”

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.