crochet body project

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

Monday, July 31, 2006

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.

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