crochet body project

A writer and art educator sets out to crochet a full-body self portrait.

Monday, October 16, 2006

a small break in the crochet talk

You know how they say that if you see standing water on the road, you shouldn't attempt to drive through it? They don't tell you what to do if it's raining so hard that you can't see that water until you're actually in it, or how to turn around safely in the stuff without getting hit by all the cars that are already proceeding in the stuff--and those cars are not going to stop for you, no way.

And so it was that I inadvertently ended up in the middle of a flood, with a car that stalled before I could get out of the water, and had to abandon my car midstream.

A kindly soul in a nice big truck noticed me right away, stopped for me, and took me to my destination (my son's daycare). Another kindly soul happened to have an extra pair of pants for me to wear (mine were thoroughly soaked up to my hiney by my short wade through the floodwaters). And yet another, also driving a nice big truck, brought my son and me safely home. Our house is safely above the water, which was lapping at the front steps. My car was towed away by one of the few drivers that would brave the water, though we have no idea yet of the damage it may have suffered.

I'm still waiting for my husband to get home. He stayed at work late in hopes of giving the water time to recede, and left the office about 45 minutes ago. I begged him to stay at work overnight, but he's a stubborn sort and would not be convinced. I'm hoping that he'll arrive within the hour.

ETA: My husband got home safely--the water had gone down quite a bit, and he had no trouble getting home, thank goodness.

Monday, October 02, 2006

learning to crochet

I've been so overwhelmed with my "real" jobs that I haven't made much progress on this blog or on the crochet body lately. Hopefully this week will allow me a little more time to focus. Now that the practice head is complete, I've got new yarn for the next stage.

I recently wrote an article about crochet artists in Houston. What struck me while interviewing artists (and in talking to many people about crochet) is that most of us learned to crochet from a family member when we were children, but did not develop a love for the medium until later in life.

My mother taught me crochet when I was about nine or ten years old. My mother is an active crafter who can crochet, knit, embroider, and tat, among other things. No matter what else is going on in her life, she always has some sort of project in process. "I can't just sit and watch TV," she says, and it's true. If her hands aren't busy, she just doesn't feel right.

At my mother's insistence, I had learned embroidery and cross stitch by the time I was ten, although I gave up on both after resentfully completing a couple of minor projects. I also learned to sew, which I somehow stuck with through the years, and which has been a most useful skill. I still feel the frustration of the hours I spent learning to stitch a straight line by guiding sheets of notebook paper through an unthreaded sewing machine.

My interest in crochet, however, started with a long piece of yarn. I had been playing around with a friend of mine, and we discovered we could make a "braid" by looping a strand of yarn around our fingers in a particular way--essentially, we were making a chain stitch with one finger serving as the crochet hook. I immediately became obsessed with creating a long "braid," as long as I could manage, and soon I had made one that was several feet long. When my mother saw it, she decided that I needed to learn to crochet "the real way," and she started her tutelage.

For my mother, exploring a media is not of much use--one must have a defined project to complete. Soon I found myself confronted with a book of crochet patterns, a tiny hook, and thread. Forced to choose a project from this book, and told that my first few choices were too difficult for a beginner, I ended up with the task of creating a trivet shaped like a bunch of grapes--the "grapes" were crocheted rounds that covered bottle caps. I struggled with that tiny hook and thread, invested several hours in creating a single "grape," and decided that I was done.

All I'd really wanted to do was to make a long long chain of yarn, to feel it scrape against my fingers as I lost myself in the process. The intrusion of the hook, the unmanagebly small thread, the stoilidly utilitarian goal of a trivet--none of this had any appeal.

In college, I taught myself to knit for a while. Approximately half a scarf later, I got too busy with other things, and by the time I returned to the scarf, I found that I'd forgotten how to knit.

It wasn't until about seven years ago, while going through a divorce, that I picked up a hook and thread again. I was living in a new city where I knew no one, I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was tired of crying into mugs of hot tea while watching TV. I was still healing, and wasn't ready to try to date, or even to do much socializing. I thought of my mother's busy hands, and I realized that mine needed to be busy as well. I soon found myself at a craft store, spending what little budget I had on a few skeins of yarn, a hook, and a little "how to" pamphlet that contained several patterns. I was determined to make a blanket that would be my comfort now that I was alone.

The wonder of this purchase was immense. I spent my evenings rocking and crocheting. It came easily to me now, and required enough of my concentration that I could no longer dwell on my misery. I stitched every bit of resentment and pain into that afghan, and when it was completed, I felt renewed in my accomplishment. I gave it away to a friend. I started another, but soon the divorce was finalized, and I was ready to move on. As my social life took shape, I wasn't home often enough to complete another large project.

Over the years, I turned to crochet whenever I needed to work out some stress. My second graduate degree produced a bevy of cotton dishcloths, each a sort of sampler as I experiemented with new stitches. As soon as my son was conceived, I began work on a baby blanket for him. Delighted with it, I started another, but had to give it over to my mother when I realized that I was too preoccupied with other preparations to be able to finish it. She completed it in the hospital waiting room as I was giving birth.

This year, in addition to starting the crochet body project, I crocheted a purse, scarf, and a few hats as raffle prizes for my nonprofit's fundraiser. I created my own "sock monkey face" pattern (not satisfied with the one given in The Happy Hooker, which doesn't look much like a sock monkey to me), and even created a baby hat that was a wearable sock monkey head. I like picking up yarn and a hook and seeing where I can go. It's not very far from the feeling I got when making that long chain, discovering for myself what dimensions can be created from a single strand.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

mark newport's superhero costumes

A friend recently sent me information about artist Mark Newport's work. When I started my crochet body project, I was unaware that there was another artist working in bodysuits. Newport knits superhero costumes, as you can see here (there are some great detail shots in the previous link).

At first, I was disheartened by the similarity of his work to my project. However, I started to realize that although our products are similar in some ways--that is, we're both using yarn and traditional techniques to create bodysuits--our work addresses a suffficently different set of issues. I'm working in self-portraiture, performance and portrayal of women's bodies. He's working with iconography and portrayals of masculinity.

It's a weird thing to discover someone doing something similar to your own work. On one hand, I worry that now my own work will seem derivative. On the other hand, it shows that the basic idea is good enough that an established artist is engaging it. So that's encouraging. I think.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

update: practice head

Last night I worked on the practice head in the company of a couple of artist friends, and added eyebrows and some hair. I still think the lips are too large, but my friends like them as is. What do you readers think?

We each had a project we were working on, and it was so good to get together and discuss our work. I got some great feedback which I think will help me as I expand on the crochet body concept. We also bandied about ideas for a performance/film aspect of the crochet body.

I had such fun chatting and working on the head that I managed to stay out well past my usual bedtime, which I hadn't at all intended to do. Today I am very very tired.

Monday, August 07, 2006

practice head: some ideas for improvement

I've done a bit of reworking on the practice head. I'll post a photo later, when Winston's free to take one.

I took off the misplaced ear, but haven't replaced it yet.

I made the eye, nose, and mouth holes smaller. This improved the appearance of the nose and mouth quite a bit, but something is still off about the eyes--they pull down at the outer corners. I'm going to have to rethink how I create the eyeholes, maybe doing a more defined gradation of stitches to create more almond-shaped openings.

I added lips to the mouth. They look a bit too cartoonish, though, so I need to scale them down. The right side (my right when wearing the head) of the upper lip is nice, but the left is not so graceful. I think I have an idea for using a different stitch to create a texture that approximates the vertical lines of the lip. I'll have to do some practicing to see if I can figure out how to create what I see in my mind's eye.

I also started the back slit too high on the head. On the next practice head, I'll start the slit further down, below the "hair" color, which I think will make the head fit better.

As I've noted before, the chin and jaw are too large. I need to move into the chin about one row earlier, and join it into the neck more quickly. (This shows that the skin below my chin, which I hate so much that I've considered plastic surgery, may not be as large as I think it is.)

I still need to add ears, eyebrows, and hair. I want to get these elements in before moving on to the next practice head.

Also, right now, the entire head is worked in double crochet stitches. I'm wondering whether to switch to single crochet for the face to create a smoother appearance. However, my experience is that single crochet takes so much more time, and I worry that I'll get frustrated with the slow progress. Part of me likes the more homespun look of double crochet. I've got to think about this issue for a while, especially since I'm not sure whether it would make shaping the orifices easier or more difficult.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

inspiration from Andrea Zittel

An artist friend of mine, Christine, recently reminded me that I need to include another influence here: Andrea Zittel. While working in an art gallery, Zittel came up with the idea of creating a "personal uniform" that she could wear every day, thereby eliminating the hassle and expense of maintaining a large wardrobe. This spurred a series of "personal uniforms" that grew increasingly simplified as she imposed constraints upon their creation. One series is the "single strand" uniform, which she crocheted (sorry, but I could not find any clear digital images of those--they're toward the back of the installation pictured). I remember seeing the Zittel show at the CAMH and being particularly enchanted with these pieces. Although I am a big fan of her work, I bought the show catalogue mainly so that I could have a good look at her stitchery any time I wanted.

Zittel's uniforms are the convergence of visual art, design, craft, performance, and conceptual art--and that convergence is part of what fascinates me. I'm also wondering how my crochet body will become a convergence of several aspects of art and craft.

While Zittel's uniforms are, in a way, tools for presenting oneself to the world, my crochet body conceals as much as it purports to display. The nudity of the crochet body is also deceptive; it is really a covering for my body. I will not be nude while wearing the nude crochet body, even though my crochet body will be created as a nude. The nude crochet body will cover my own nudity.

The crochet body is more akin to a mask than a uniform, I think. Already, when I put on the practice head, I feel imbued with a certain sense of freedom and elevated humor that one gets from wearing a mask--even though it's a mask of myself.

This, perhaps, is what has always drawn me to performance: the chance to play myself as a character. I'm a very shy person face-to-face, but am never shy about speaking or performing in front of an audience. At an early age, I found comfort in making people laugh because then I knew that they weren't laughing at me, but at my performance. They were laughing at what a character, a version of myself that I invented on-the-spot was doing, and therefore I was protected. I could divert derisive laughter by causing amused laughter. I'm sure that's the story behind many a ham like me.

I've been thinking of ways to incorporate performance into this piece. I have several ideas, but need to "sit on them" for a while to see what hatches. And of course, I need to actually finish the body before I can perform it.

Monday, July 31, 2006

progress update: practice head

We writers like to say that writing is rewriting. And I think also that crocheting will be recrocheting.

I'm happy that I was able to figure out how to shape the chin and guide it into the neck without having to make separate pieces that would be joined with seams. However, I made the chin too large and didn't cut it into the neck quickly enough, so I have a weird Neanderthal look going on here. I also misplaced the ear. I'm going to have to get in better touch with my own proportions.

Since this head is just a draft, I'm not sure whether to frog the stitches or just move on. I'm leaning toward just chugging away on this one, finishing out the details as part of that learning process, and then moving on to the next draft to see if I can do better. I have a feeling that once I get the head down, the rest of it will be smoother sailing.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying wearing this thing way too much.

drafting the body

On the left is the first concept sketch I made for this project. I scribbled it out while indulging in French toast and coffee at a local diner. On the right is a sketch I made the next day. Surrounding the sketches are the yarns and hooks I'm using to make the practice head.

I made more progress on the practice head, and will post a pic of the work thus far tonight or tomorrow. I'm getting a little hung up on how I want to do the transition from jawline to neck, but hope to work that out today.

inspiration from Grandma Rosie

I like to think that, if she had ever been given opportunities besides the marriage, motherhood, and housekeeper track, my Grandma Rosie would have been an artist. Grandma Rosie has a flair for making things and an aesthetic sense that is just a bit off the beaten path. Years ago, for example, she made a little crocheted duck toy for my brother. Instead of stuffing it with batting, she filled it with M&M candies. The candies made their exit, one at a time, from a hole in the duck's behind. Grandma Rosie hadn't really intended for it to appear as if the duck was pooping candy; somehow her desire to make the toy more appropriate for a boy that was really too old for stuffed animals had just gone down a path that she didn't forsee.

Many of Grandma Rosie's creations are like this--they follow a certain logic that isn't always clear to anyone except Grandma Rosie, and sometimes surprise even her. Her use of found objects can verge on Dadaist in their inventive reappropriation, yet they also retain a certian sense of kitsch inspired by her library of well-thumbed craft books. She has a particularly astute eye for re-used material, and has incorporated everything from communion cups to breakfast cereal in her various creations. Some family members laugh at her work, and I have to admit that I used to, as well. These days, though, I've arrived at a sincere appreciation for the strange and wonderful things that she makes. I was delighted when she presented me with two wildly patterned baby blankets when my son was born in 2004, especially because I don't think her hands or her eyesight allow her to do much crochet any more.

I also don't think Grandma Rosie buys new yarn, or needs to. Mainly, she seems to work from the remnants of old projects, choosing colors in ways that interest her as she goes along. She saves almost anything that she imagines might be of use, and had a massive amount of leftover yarn and other craft materials from the past forty or more years. This stash is the basis for her work. She never shopped at specialty yarn stores, but bought good old Red Heart and other inexpensive stuff to suit her needs. Although she can skillfully follow all sorts of patterns, the real magic occurs when she subtly riffs on a design or tries a new combination of materials. Part of my renewed fascination with crochet comes from a sense of connection with her and her particular aesthetic.

Like many crafters, Grandma Rosie seems to need an imagined utility to drive her work. This utility isn't always apparent, however; another one of my favorite creations of hers is a gift she made for my husband--a little denim bean bag in the shape of a pair of pants, with white contrast stitching. It's a wonderfully executed object, even more so in its lack of apparent use. Bean bags are generally used for play, but what play could be done with a bean bag shaped like a pair of pants? It's pleasantly puzzling and altogether charming.

This is also part of the connection I feel with Grandma Rosie as I create my crochet body--the false utility impulse, which includes the tradition of crocheted "cozies," covers for everything from teapots and toasters to toilet paper. I remember visiting homes where Barbie dolls dressed as Southern belles perched on the backs of toilets, cleverly concealing a spare roll of toilet paper under their skirts. I remember Grandma Rosie's swans with arched pipe-cleaner necks, whose bodies were crocheted around oval bars of soap. Grandma Rosie and many women of her era made these things, obsessively covering stationary objects out of a baroque sort of decorative urge. In a way, my crochet body is a cozy, a decorative covering for my body. Among other things, it's a body cozy.