Blurring the boundaries and deconstructing the distinctions between craft and art, a new group of like-minded individuals has materialized in the first decade of the 21st century. This new generation of do-it-yourself (DIY) knitting and crocheting artists are putting down the paintbrushes and picking up the knitting needles, and, in the process, are skewing the lines between “knitting and fine art practices like sculpture and performance” (Gschwandtner, 5). Knitting is no longer restricted and relegated to Rockwellian stereotypes of grandmothers crocheting blankets in their rocking chairs. It can now be sculptural, political, performance-based, environmentally-conscious, guerrilla and graffiti-based works of art both within the white-washed galleries to the banalities of inner-city sidewalks. Furthermore, the definition of what knitting is and can be has been propelled down pathways of new thought and now incorporates everything from large-scale, monumental pieces; projects sewn with hazardous materials; and projects with a conceptual art aesthetic.
Thanks mostly to the DIY revolution of the last 10 years; this new way of looking at a very old craft is being explored in a wide range of art forms, styles, and ideas. From performance art collectives featured in the Whitney Biennial to the internet-based global community of knit-graffiti artists (aka- yarnbombers) to CMU fine-arts graduates transforming knitting into activism, the practice of knitting has evolved into an outlet for a new generation of artists.
Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Jim Drain, was bored with using traditional materials for his sculptures. After deciding to stay in Providence, he joined some fellow classmates as part of the four-man art collective called Forcefield. Drain was in charge of the collective’s visual aesthetic for their performance pieces. “Because Providence had once been a booming textile mill town, places to find inexpensive yarn were plentiful” ( 51), as Drain puts it while being interviewed by Sabrina Gschwandtner for her book, Knit Knit. Gschwandtner goes on to state that Drain knits “dizzying patterns in bright colors” (51) for Forcefield’s “frightening, silly, hallucinogenic, and cryptic” (51) audio/visual performances. After traveling to China to peruse the yarn shops in Beijing, Drain realized “that knitting is a living tradition – its physical knowledge of a culture. Knowledge as a language dies so quickly” (52). Drain concluded that knitting is a primitive form of consciousness and has been part of the human psyche since time immemorial.
When he returned from his trip, he discovered that he and the other members of Forcefield were invited to participate in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. He shared his revelations during his trip to China with the other members, which in turn helped the collective to take a decidedly different approach to their piece, “3rd Annual Roggabogga”, for the Biennial. Instead of their usual performance-based works, Forcefield created an installation piece with “elaborately constructed knit costumes, nomadic-looking sculptures, overstimulating silk-screened wallpaper, a psychedelic projected video, and electronic audio works, all encountered in dim light” (Gschwandtner, 52).
Soon after the show ended, Forcefield disbanded but Jim continued to work with this new knitting philosophy and combined it with his first love of sculpting to create pieces for several gallery exhibits including: P.S.1, New York; Pompidou Center, Paris; the 2004 Lyon Biennial; Dietch Projects, New York; Foskal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw; and the 2005 Basel Art Fair. Now located in Miami, Drain continues to probe the limits between gallery and craft-show art with his abstract, knit sculptural works in a mish-mash of outlandish designs and an array of vibrant colors.
Another knitting artist who got his start in Providence, RI (and continues to work there to this day) is David Cole. Like Drain, Cole makes knit sculptures but the similarities end there. Working with a variety of strange, and often hazardous, materials, Cole weaves baby blankets out of carcinogenic, spun porcelain with a bright yellow sign reading “Warning: Cancer and Lung Disease Hazard” that he keeps in sealed glass tanks. Cole calls his work “conceptually-driven sculpture” and uses nontraditional materials such as lead, Kevlar, shredded dollar bills, and rubber for his sculptures. His use of heavy, toxic, and industrial materials makes Cole’s sculptures “time-consuming and laboriously difficult tests of his own perseverance that…border on the obsessive” (Gschwandtner, 39).
Suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Cole uses the methods he learned to help him focus on such pieces as “Fiberglass Teddy Bear” (2003) to provoke a sense of wonder from the viewer at the enormity and intensive labor involved in his works, while simultaneously transmogrifying an object usually identified as “cute” and “huggable” into and untouchable item that required museum installers “to wear respirators, gloves, and goggles when they put the figure together” (Gschwandtner, 41).
As Gschwandtner states, many of David Cole’s pieces “have required spectacular…theatrical feats of labor” (40). However, Cole insists his work is not about performance or about subverting gender stereotypes associated with needlework, but rather, about “the creation of an object…the carrying out of an action…it’s about presenting contradictory ideas in a single form, and co-opting the craft” (52).
In 2005, Cole continued to insist his work had no hidden message other than the arduous task of its creation when some critics accused him of his work, “The Knitting Machine”, of being un-American and/or a commentary on aggressive U.S. foreign policy during the Iraq War. “The Knitting Machine” is an eight-hundred stitch, thirty-five-by-twenty foot American flag made of felt for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Cole required two John Deere excavators, a cherry picker, over a mile of acrylic felt, and two twenty-five foot aluminum poles that he used as enormous knitting needles for his project.
Reminiscent of Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s works, David Cole is thinking even bigger than previously. His next project, a “gigantic mobile taller than the Statue of Liberty and made from eight antique pickup trucks” (Gschwandtner, 41), will require a team of structural engineers, architects, and a millions of dollars from fundraising in order to execute.
Similar to the size and scale of David Cole’s work, the Viennese artist collective, Gelitin, erected a mammoth pink bunny on a northern Italian hillside in 2005. Over two-hundred feet in length, “Hase”, harkens back to ancient, geoglyphic images like the Nazca Lines in Peru or the Uffington Horse and Cerne Abbas Giant in the U.K. In their book, Yarnbombing: the Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti, authors’ Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain, discuss Gelitin’s artists’ statement, which explains, “as Columbus discovered, an inexplicable continent…behind a hill, as if knitted by giant grandmothers, lies this vast rabbit, to make you feel as small as a daisy” (209). Knitted in pink wool, “Hase” can be viewed by Google Earth and its creators expect viewers “not only to walk around the bunny, but also climb up onto it” (206).
Continuing in the pink-knit tradition of Gelitin’s but with a decidedly gender-based tone in her work, Theresa Honeywell “juxtaposes the soft nature and feminine associations of knitting with masculine objects like power tools and motorcycles” (Moore & Prain, 26). In a style similar to Claes Oldenberg’s “soft sculptures”, Honeywell knits “floppy woolen machine guns and cuddly jackhammers” (Moore & Prain, 26). Her needleworked piece “Everything Nice” (2006), covers every inch of an engine-revved Harley Davidson in pastel pinks; simultaneously, mollifying and nullifying any and all stereotypical assumptions of a motorcycle being a male, phallic extension.
Yet another artist crocheting pink-knit creations that blight the common, street-life cityscapes is Marianne Jorgensen. Taking inspiration from Christo and Krzysztof Wodiczko, Danish born, Jorgensen developed her guerrilla art piece, “Pink M24 Chaffee” (2006), to cover an army tank in a hot-pink blanket to “protest Denmark’s involvement in the Iraq War” (Moore & Prain, 205). Made of four-thousand squares contributed by needleworkers across the world, Jorgensen called out for contributors via word of mouth locally and via the Internet globally. As Jorgensen explained, “the main impression of the knitted tank is that it consists of hundreds of patches knitted by many different people in different ways…that represent a common acknowledgement of a resistance to the war in Iraq” (Moore & Prain, 205). Jorgensen goes on to discuss the use of pink in her collective project: “When it [the tank] is covered in pink, it becomes completely unarmed, and it loses its authority” (Moore & Prain, 205-206).
Another activist knitter is Cat Mazza, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s BFA program in 1999. Mazza became interested in knitting “an abandoned skill that was practiced before garments were made through feminized sweatshop labor” (Gschwandtner, 121), and explains that her knitting projects “just a small act of resistance against the fact that mostly women work in horrible conditions to make the products we consume If only two percent of Americans demand that garments be made in fair working conditions, the corporations that capitalize the most on cheap labor would have to change their policies” (Gschwandtner, 121).
Mazza’s ultimate goal is to create a network of hand-knitters involved in DIY apparel production that she calls NARCA (the New American Radical Craft Alliance) via the blogosphere and her weblog microRevolt. “She hopes that creating a powerful microeconomy might tip the balance of power toward fair labor” (Gschwandtner, 122). As Mazza puts it, “NARCA is intended to create an alternative to sweatshops” (Gschwandtner, 122).
Continuing in Mazza’s radical views on the power of knitting as art, Houston-based knit graffiti crew, Knitta, is made up of eleven members ranging in age from twenty-three to seventy-one. These “yarn-bombers” (the title given to knit graffiti artists) “tag street lamps, public statues, handrails, gates, and other public and private property with impractical hand-knit cozies late at night” (Gschwandtner, 91). Knitta started in 2005 with a simple cozy placed on a door handle on a storefront, and “in just a few years, yarn graffiti has become a widespread phenomenon, with crews in North America and Europe planting tags wherever they travel. They have tagged Las Vegas, Beijing, NYC, “France, Germany, Sweden, El Salvador, and Canada” (Moore & Prain, 20). Member PolyCotN brags, “We prove that disobedience can be beautiful and that knitting can be outlaw” (Gschwandtner, 92). Although their work is considered public defacement and therefore illegal, PolyCotN disagrees and says, “It’s covering, not defacing. It’s considerate to the victim. If they don’t like it, they can unbutton it” (Gschwandtner, 92); not to mention, it’s friendly to the environment, unlike spray-canned graffiti art. Because Knitta is inundated with email requests from knitting artists across the globe, the graffiti crew has opened up chapters on three continents now.
The knit art movement has been going strong for 10 years now and with websites like Myspace, Etsy, and Facebook, as well as sites solely devoted to yarnbombing and knit art such as Ravelry.com, the yarnbombing and knit art movement has used the internet to create a globally-connected community. Yarnbombing has even hit close to home; in an article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, dated December 5th, 2008, the headline reads “Artist weaves alternative graffiti into Oakland fence”. So, the next time you cross the Schenley Bridge, stop and admire the three panels of yarnbombing that now adorn it.