Tuesday, 30 June 2009

En Plein Air: Knitted Nature, Touchstones, Rochdale

A small room in an art gallery, hung with canvases in muted colours. Though they range from small countryside scenes to large paintings of the seaside, what they all have is that they were created outside, in the moment, and were chosen to show how art can be alive and transport the outdoors inside. The exhibition brings together artists who have drawn their inspiration from the outdoors, yet something's lost in translation. There's something flat about them, like the effect you get when paint dries and the colours become less vibrant.

Your eye, however, is drawn to something incongruous, over by the door. It appears to be a window box or plant pot on the floor, from which are climbing tens of flowers in every colour you can think of, with reds and fluorescent yellows and oranges leaping out.

This artwork almost dances through the air, fragile tendrils twisting against the pane of glass in the door. It's more alive, somehow, than any of the other works in the room. When you get closer, you realise it's knitting, but not as you've seen it before. It's sort of a pop art take on flowers, remade in wool, shiny, fluffy and multicoloured.

The flowers are cartoonishly real - gaps are knitted into the pattern where the veins of the leaves would be, thread winds through the blooms like filaments, tiny clear beads glisten like a trail of dew and silvery embroidery trails across leaves.

Others are more obviously stylised, with buttons for centres. It’s like nature magnified, complete with perching bumblebees. A starburst flower is like a giant sun, a lacy, frayed flower looks indistuingishable from the real thing, whilst also resembling la sea sponge or anemone. Another seems like a floppy starfish. Bluebells and poppies are easily identifiable, and other flowers are plaited, clumped in clusters, coiled like roses and balls of colour.

Knitted Nature, and an accompanying tree adorned with knitted Valencia oranges in Broadfield Park across the road, is an installation by the Manchester knitting duo ArtYarn who invited knitters across the world to knit a leaf or flower and send it to be part of their indoor garden.

It stands out as a reminder of the beauty that’s in the everyday around us, both in nature and in traditional crafts like knitting. Knitted Nature is so striking because it uses the imagery of nature that’s all around us and recreates it in an art form that is so often practical and useful - so conventional and accessible.

In her 1974 essay In Search Of Our Mother’s Gardens, the African-American novelist Alice Walker uses an evocative description of her mother's garden to explain how African-American women of her mother and grandmother’s generations, who were denied a basic education because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, and were therefore often unable to even read or write, expressed their creativity in the only ways they could, often conventional crafts.

Walker raises fundamental questions about what it is to be an artist - many of these women were anonymous and would have never considered themselved to be artists - and concludes that her mother’s art was her garden, describing a type of woman who ‘left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only condition her position in society allowed her to use’.

Walker asks when he ‘overworked mother’ had time to ‘know or care about feeding the creative spirit', and challenges conventional ideas of who can be an artist, saying: "The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years."

Like a painter, her mother ‘adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in…she planted ambitious gardens - and still does - with over fifty different varieties of plants that bloom profusely from early March until late November’.

This garden instilled in Walker a love of beauty and art that transcended their poverty. She even implies it alleviated the hardship they had to endure: "Whatever she planted grew as if by magic … because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms - sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spinea, delphiniums, verbenas".

This special talent wasn't unique to Walker's mother, though - according to Walker, every women is an artist. She quotes Virginia Woolf’s classic feminist novel A Room of One’s Own, which explores the notion that inside every women is the potential to create art, when allowed to flourish.

Walker distinguishes between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, arguing that inside the traditions that were handed down from generation could be found works of art. She says: "Many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high - and low."

Walker touches on the rediscovery of craft as an art form in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens by describing a quilt on display in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, saying: “It is considered rare, beyond price. Though it follows no known pattern of quilt making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination.”

Vernacular art is a common theme in Walker’s writing. In another of Walker’s shorter pieces, the 1973 story Everyday Use, Walker explores the reappropriation of folk art - in this case, quilts again - by scholars and the establishment.

She describes how quilts, whilst stitched from ostensibly worthless scrap fabric, can become more than a sum of their parts, often a stitched history containing within them the story told by their composite pieces.

The quilts in Everyday Use contain 'scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jattell's Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War'.

The story raises interesting questions about the value and authenticity of art, particularly folk art. The story is broadly based around the contrast between the old way of life and the new, featuring a mother with two daughters, one of whom, Maggie, stays at home with her mother and another, Dee, who leaves the family home to study.

Dee considers the quilts to be of no inherent value, 'old fashioned' and 'out of style', until she leaves the traditional way of life and realises their value as museum pieces. She reduces the role of the quilts to 'priceless' relics of a quaint way of life that is fast disappearing - once they are removed from the context in which they were made, of course, and hung on a wall.

Dee tries to remove the quilts from their place in the family home and is offended they are set aside to be handed down to Maggie instead of her. She says: "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts...she'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."

She rejects newer quilts offered to her, saying: "I don't want those. They are stitched around the borders by machine." Her mother counters "That'll make them last better", but Dee insists "That's not the point".

The quilts had been set aside to be handed on to Maggie on her marriage, but the artform itself is also passed from generation to generation. Whilst Dee is sent away to be educated, it is Maggie who is taught the craft of quilt making. Even though Dee accuses her mother of not understanding her 'heritage' by keeping the quilts in everyday use, her mother is perpetuating the tradition that enabled the quilts to be made by handing it on to Maggie to keep alive certain aspects of her heritage.

In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Walker pays tribute to her own mother for the gift she left Walker - her mother ‘handed on the creative spark' and instilled in Walker ‘a heritage of the love of beauty’. She acknowledges the debt she owes the women who went before her. She says: ‘Art is her gift, the legacy of respect she left to me, for all that illustrates and illuminates life. She has handed down respect for the possibilities and the will to grasp them.’

In one of the defining images of the essay, Walker describes how her mother’s garden shared and disseminated the beauty she created, just as crafts and traditions are passed on from generation to generation and shared: ‘And I remember people coming to my mother’s yard to be given cuttings from her flowers. I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned it into a garden. A garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity that people…came to stand or walk among my mother’s art.’

That's why it's so interesting to see crafts like knitting and embroidery in a gallery setting, in this age of mass production - whether they are created to be used or just conceived as objects of beauty, knitted and crafted goods strengthen the relationship between creator and product. By inviting knitted and embroidered goods into a gallery, the tradition of the handmade is celebrated and kept alive.

In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens can be read here.

Knitted Nature (part of UK DIY)

Touchstones Gallery
The Esplanade
OL16 1AJ


Until September 6


1 comment:

ArtYarn said...

thanks for posting about knitted nature Natalie,
best wishes
rachael, artyarn