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Radical Art and Yarn: Local Roundup

Knitted Together: Creating Community through the Fiber Arts
Roxanne Samer

Editor’s intro: this begins an exciting series about cutting edge artists who use traditional materials and techniques associated with “craft” – from quilting to crochet, collage to mail art, we found so many great artists, we had to break it into sub-categories. We begin with yarn.

Network, Sarah Schnadt. Spatial City exhibition.

Once stereotyped as women’s work, craft and leisure, knitting and crocheting have become the new “it” media, and fibers, yarn and string are now popular fine art materials.  “Yarn Bombing,” a kind of knit graffiti, has taken off across North America, as hundreds of individuals and groups have turned to distributing their knitted works in public places for the purpose of achieving political, social and/or aesthetic commentary. Similarly, since its inception in 2005, the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project, a crocheted tribute to the quickly disappearing Great Barrier Reef,  has taken on unpredictable dimensions as it expands at the hands of hundreds worldwide. And the trend has not missed this city; there are a number of Chicago artists creating impactful work out of yarn, string and other fibers. In choosing to do so, many are purposefully countering the well-known stereotypes of the media while simultaneously toying with their efficacy. The perpetual thread of community-based art production has, for example, in most cases remained. How Chicago artists have played with the notion of community in their fiber-based art works varies, but in each case, the work is not being made by an isolated and sheltered modern artist out of sight from the viewer but instead someone interested in sharing, communicating and connecting with others.

Anni Holm has been using yarn in her art for nearly ten years. Primarily incorporating the material into performance art pieces, Holm is most interested in knitting’s capacity to bring people together and connect by way of a collaborative project. When Holm and her performance partner Nyok-Mei Wong were asked by the A+D Gallery at Columbia College to do something in their booth for the NOVA art fair (now Bridge Art Fair) in 2006, the two came up with the idea of Networking, which has since developed into a four year long and ongoing performance piece. “We decided to do one piece, in which we would knit on the same thing and eventually make it possible for others to join in,” said Holm. Begun as a few stitches of red thread, the now vibrant and huge octopus-like knit piece has since traveled with Holm to Cleveland, Minneapolis, Hollywood, Miami, Denver, Fargo, Dallas, Denmark, and elsewhere. During the original performance, Wong and Holm discussed how they met and the parameters of their art making network in Chicago, and in each meeting around the piece, those working on it are encouraged to discuss their own relationships and expand the network outward, making a psychological and social developments comparable to the physical growth of the work. Since 2008, Holm has been working on Plasti-City, a knitted blue plastic depiction the Chicago skyline. Now about seven or eight ft long, Holm works on the piece in public—including at Manifest Festival, Antenna and the MCA—inviting a discussion about the city and its controversial recycling policies around the thick, sculptural and shiny piece.

Lindsay Obermeyer has been knitting since her maternal grandmother taught her how thirty-seven years ago, and she began incorporating it into her artwork fifteen years ago, first making discreet 2D bead embroideries and most recently utilizing it in community driven performance art pieces. Her works play off the traditional uses of yarn and knitting, constantly referring back to the body, comfort and warmth. She is interested in how “the enduring connection of textiles to the body offer rich metaphorical possibilities.” Her daughter has been a large inspiration in her work, and she has chosen to address the concept of family and the relationship between parent and child frequently in her work. “Like a knitted garment,” she said, “this bond can stretch, rip, fray, or unravel as the child grows and matures.” Her goal is not to sentimentalize this relationship but to comment on it, engage with it in visually and tactilely complex ways.

Pink Tube, Miller & Shellabarger

Recently, she has chosen to address larger social issues through her work. In 2007, she participated in the Hot Ideas for a Cooler Planet project, which began in Chicago and has since travelled the world, spreading awareness about climate change and its threats to our planet through visual art. She designed one of the 120 globes to be exhibited along the lake front, Adjust the Thermostat, which included a knit sweater, passing on the message of the importance of conserving energy whenever possible. The Red Thread Project® is one of her most exciting projects to date. It is a traveling group performance piece, in which tens of members of a particular community come together to knit and crochet hats, attach the hats to a half mile long knitted red thread, wear the hats in a performance before donating them to local charities. These acts have been repeated by groups in Terre Haute, Memphis, Grand Rapids and St. Louis. The piece provides a visualization of how we are all interconnected, interdependent and part of the same environment.

Sarah Schnadt doesn’t crochet, she doesn’t knit, but she does use a heck of a lot of string and fiber in her most recent body of work. She told me, “I’m really interested in the material, because it’s a nice material for creating spacial structural elements, very lightly, almost like drawing in three dimensions into the space.” A webmaster by day—she has designed and run the Chicago Artists Resource website since its inception in 2004—and a performance artist “by night,” Schnadt’s recent work explores contemporary modes of communication by providing her audience with an ornate visual representation of that which is most often invisible. Network (2009) is a piece based on the structures Schnadt discovered in studying social networks and Internet network infrastructure. It is composed of hundreds of feet of yellow twine weaving across a large space, tied together at points of connection and expanding seemingly infinitely by way of mirrors at its sides. Her use of ordinary materials is meant to give shape and weight to highly conceptual material. As Schnadt said, “The contrast between really organic materials and kind of cold, slick technology helps to give people a direct and material experience of the texture and landscape of virtual space.”

Network was first installed in an open storefront space in the loop as part of the Chicago Loop Alliance’s new initiative the Pop-Up Art Loop, meant to rejuvenate downtown through temporary contemporary art installations. The piece, which was installed over two days and four nights, transformed an every day space into a neon yellow field, giving image to our virtual networking landscape. The piece has since been installed in a second version at the Hyde Park Art Center in their May 23rd-August 8th, 2010 exhibition Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism (artists & curatorial talk to be held August 8th). In this case, Schnadt took 56 hours to install the piece solo on scaffolding two stories above the gallery floor. Due to this unusual location, the piece can be viewed both from below, in the gallery space, and from the side, when on the center’s second floor catwalk. On July 28th, Schnadt will install a third version of Network, this time taking over the entire What It Is Project Space in Oak Park, after which the artists inhabiting the house will live among the piece for a month. The opening reception is July 31st from 3-8pm.

Other artists doing comparable work in the same media include partner artist team Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger. They too have an ongoing performance piece where they knit together in public. They began Untitled Performance (Pink Tube) in 2003 and have since travelled with it to a number of art fairs in Chicago and abroad. Like much of the rest of their oeuvre, its pink color evokes the feminine, which, when paired with the knit medium, does so doubly, offering a critique of stable gender roles. The tube, especially with its rosy color, also causes the piece to resemble some sort of manmade umbilical cord, connecting the two despite the growing distance between them. Pate Conaway is another male artist working in knit and crochet. His work, however, often incorporates a wide range of materials, as he applies the same techniques to hoses, electrical extension cords, tinfoil and tinsel that he would to yarn or string. He has also had fun playing with size and scale, in his MCA 12 x 12 exhibition knitting cotton gloves that could cover an entire human body and that he could sleep in, which he did. This summer, pieces he made out of twist ties and weed whacker are on display in the Greenleaf Art Center’s Group ShowSpring Thing (May 21st-August 20th). Be sure to also keep an eye out for Mia Capodilupo, Casey Ann WasniewskiIrene Perez and Rob Mertens, all of whom are either current or former Chicago artists who have made interesting work through knitting in the fiber arts.

Update:  We have since learned about a Pilsen Yarn bomber! A graffiti knitter – Thelma Uranga.