Weird, Wonderful, & Woolen
Forget the knitting you thought you knew. Forget baby booties, knit-one-purl-two instructions and patterns. Cushing artist Katharine Cobey is taking knitting places it has never gone before.
In her studio overlooking the Meduncook River, Cobey knits with fibers of all sorts, from traditional wools and silks to telephone wire, stainless steel yarn, plastic trash bags, and even unraveled copper Chore Boy pot scrubbers. In her strong hands, this humble craft more associated with grandmothers and sofa-sitting than fine art conveys significant ideas that demand to be taken seriously.Exhibited in museums across the country and abroad, her work merited a solo show in 2002 at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. "Katharine Cobey is part inventor, part scientist," says Christine Macchi, director of Maine Fiberarts, the statewide nonprofit promoting craftspeople like Cobey. "She may be unique throughout the world in how she looks at knitting."
At sixty-eight, Cobey has a mane of white hair and brilliant blue eyes. She's tuned in, engaged, passionate about knitting, conscious of the drama of her art, and still exhilarated by what can spring from the union of needles and fiber. "I've spent the last twenty years trying to do something with knitting and insisting that knitting could do anything," she says. "There's nothing about knitting that keeps it from being art." Her works are not merely representations of objects. They are the objects themselves, like coats, dresses, or masks, and she says she loves their relation to ordinary life. Purposely arranged, they become larger than themselves: no longer clothes, but ideas.
Her best-known installation piece is Boat with Four Figures. First shown briefly at the Portland Museum of Art in 1999 and again at the Farnsworth Art Museum in 2005, as well as at museums around the country, it is a haunting, suggestive work. Four tall wooden figures are arranged in an open boat. They are anonymous, featureless, yet clearly women. The work is sculptural, and depending on the viewer's angle, the veiled or shrouded figures appear huddled or separated, though they are linked by a long knitted shawl. Measuring some six-feet-wide and twenty-nine feet long by fourteen feet tall, the piece is made entirely of knitted wool except for the wooden figures and the plastic cord inserted in the fabric that is suspended from stainless steel struts to give the boat its shape. Subtitled fero, ferre, tuli, latus — the conjugations for the irregular Latin verb meaning to bear or carry — the work hints at the four stages of a woman's life and the relationships that are central to women's lives.
The piece was sparked by a single image, seen from her former studio at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia, where she worked before moving to Maine in 1989 with her husband, David. She says she looked out the window and saw two men standing up in a small boat, lighted from behind by the setting sun. Instantly, she knew that she would make a boat, that it would contain four women, and that they would be silhouettes. "It's when you get this visual idea and it clicks in your gut, meeting up with your soul. But I had no idea how to do it!" she exclaims. The project took her seven years to complete, beginning with teaching herself how to carve, then studying books on boat building, spinning all the yarn, and knitting 120 feet of fabric.
Finally executed in Maine, the work profoundly evokes the maritime roots and artistic heritage of a state with thousands of miles of coastline, an icy sea, and relatively few people. Boat with Four Figures suggests independence, isolation, loneliness, hard work, the nearness of death, and the human connection that defiantly knits us together. It is a remarkable leap for a craft too often dismissed as "women's work."
Although Cobey began knitting when she was eleven, her first calling was poetry. A native of western Massachusetts, she was educated at convent schools before finding herself "liberated" at Bennington College. "I loved it there," she says. "People were like me, and for the first time I wasn't an ugly duckling." Her first marriage to a diplomat took her to Europe and Africa, and she published two volumes of poetry. An avid walker and hiker, she was forced to reorient her life after a back injury made walking and even standing difficult, a limitation that continues to this day. At first, knitting fulfilled her need for movement. "By luck, I met up with a woman who became my spinner, and I became her master knitter. Totally inadvertently, it began to be more time knitting than writing, which was a shock. And quite frightening," she adds, "because it is more acceptable to say you're a poet than a knitter."
It had never occurred to her, she says, that she could create visual art. The first transformation from merely knitting wearable art to making installations with clothing came with Dream Shelters (1989), a shawl, cape, and two huge blankets stretched over sticks like teepees. At that point, "I became more and more convinced that I could do sculpture and say things with knitting, even more compactly than with poetry."
Learning to spin her own yarn opened another frontier. As she explains over the clack and shush of her Rio Grande spinning wheel: "When I spin, I can afford to knit what I want, and I also have control." The rhythm and repetition of spinning are meditative and fuel Cobey's imagination. "I can spin with the top part of my brain doing something completely different," she says. She designs as she spins, seeking the perfect marriage of fiber and idea.
As a teacher, she encourages her students to bring a whole life experience to knitting, to reach inside themselves for designs. Pattern, she tells her students, comes from the Latin word patronus, the patriarchal culture of how things ought to be done. She passes on knowledge and an understanding of the structure of knitting, not patterns, to allow her students to sculpt through knitting. "I teach geometry when I teach knitting. When you're making a circle, you're adding increments all the way around. If you're knitting a square, you're adding on an axis to the corner. If you know how big a stitch is, then where you put it is what will make the shape. If you can make a glove, you can make a body."
A willingness to experiment led Cobey to knit with plastic trash bags, with which she has created some of her most memorable pieces. Hand-cut into strips, this ordinary petroleum by-product becomes a wonderful material in Cobey's talented hands. "It drapes, it moves, and it's also quite sturdy so it makes shape very boldly," she explains. One such piece, Danger Dress (1996), now hangs from a crossbeam in her Cushing studio. A shiny black knitted bodice atop a flowing skirt made of red Danger tapes, it is simultaneously attractive, almost wearable, witty, and slightly threatening, a costume for a beautiful, bloodsucking vixen. It's also a perfect metaphor for our petroleum addiction: we're all dressed up, oblivious to our dangerous dependency.
Another strongly metaphorical piece is Portrait of Alzheimer's, which has been shown at several museums. Cobey, whose mother died of the disease, created a white shawl that rests on a wooden hanger. The intricate pattern holds together at the top, comes apart, reasserts itself, then fumbles, finally dwindling to a single thread. Knitting is both about connection and disconnection, she explains, and the shawl "never comes apart until the end. It's one; it's a life." It is a work of which she is particularly proud. "In life, we only get to make certain things about which we can say, 'You did it there,' " she says, quietly. "With a sense of great joy and gratitude, I can say, 'I did it here.' "
She works all day, every day, inside her studio. Every two months or so, she and David will look at each other and say, "We've got to get out of here," and they'll take a short trip. But she says looking out each day on the spectacular view framed by her huge picture windows — the Meduncook River, fringed by pines and maple, a long finger of blue stretching to an unseen sea — contributes enormously to her life and counterbalances her decreased mobility. "Because I cannot go places easily, I feast on what is around me here," she says. "Living surrounded by the beauty of Maine compensates for losing something that was very important to me."
Currently working on a book about diagonal knitting, she also teaches at craft schools around the country and offers advanced summer workshops at her studio. She usually works on one long-term project at a time, along with a few smaller ones, since "it's hard to go two or three years without finishing anything." Her big installation project these days is a series of ten-foot-tall Greek pillars that are actually knitted dresses, somewhere between clothing and sculpture. The fluting is knitted in and the ornamentation at the top froths like the detail on a Corinthian column. She has completed one: a graceful, headless woman. It is anonymous, powerful, and monumental.
Cobey calls her summer workshops "Knitting Matters," and she's right. In her hands, knitting does matter.