I spent from the time I was eleven until I was forty writing and publishing poetry. So it was with considerable dismay that I began to seriously consider knitting as a sculptural tool. I knew no one who knitted the way I wanted to, and the world that had previously honored what I did with words actually laughed at the idea that knitting could produce art.
Feminism is what helped me persist. Using a belittled technique to help overturn its own denigration seemed a personal challenge - one that I wanted to meet. I had written with no holds barred. What except my own fear could keep me from trying to knit the same way?
Magdalena Abankanowicz’ work has been a great encouragement to me. My first encounter with her work was photographs in a book of contemporary fiber art. This was in 1979, the early days of my having a studio at the Torpedo Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia. At that time I was feeling isolated about my work. The people working with fiber around me seemed to be largely motivated by sales. They concentrated on making pretty or practical things, clothing mostly. They were extremely competent - one woman even folded a full-scale brown paper replica of the Pieta – but most of them simply made what they hoped was in fashion, or remade what had previously sold well. The fiber arts guild next to my studio even subscribed to a service that told them what colors were currently “in”.
Though I was only seeing photographs, I was astonished by Abakanowicz’ work. Magda was standing in front of her huge piece Bois le Duc - which towers above and beside her. It was not that her work was big, it was appropriately big: I realized that I was not alone in my interest in certain subject matters and my use of materials. Indeed, here was someone who set me new standards. Instead of being reluctant about being called a fiber artist, I would work to become a worthy one.
Half my forebears seem to have taught English while the rest studied History or the Social Sciences. After making birdhouse collages in kindergarten, I had never drawn or sculpted anything. I had no practice, sense or idea whether I could relate what I saw in my head to what I did with my hands. But the more I studied the structure of knitting, the more I recognized it as a sculptural tool. Not only does a knitter work seamlessly and three-dimensionally, she makes her material and its surface design as she shapes it.
Even doing variations on a previous idea can be productive, as long as I keep from copying myself. Even commissions come with a caveat. I don’t make things to order. If you want a piece from me, it will be my design.
Perhaps the important word is risk. If I attempt what I have not done before, dialoguing with my materials and techniques I discover at least an impulse to work, and that leads to knowing what I can do and why I am doing it. I shy away from making pieces that are currently topical, on demand. It is easy to get such work exhibited but it takes me a long time to find an authentic visual language to express myself with. With any manual skill, there is always more to learn, more techniques to experiment with, and sometimes/often, playing around leads to new pieces.
Learn more about Katharine Cobey at www.katharinecobey.com.