Arts and crafts

Very, very occasionally, a book will grab me so that I can’t stop thinking about it. I go through my day living and thinking and breathing the issues that the book brings up for me. Usually it’s a book about history or theology, or some other deep issue that I want to look at in new ways. KnitKnit is the first knitting book I’ve read that’s grabbed me by the guts in this way.

I went off to art school in 1997, all bright eyed and bushy tailed and full of romantic ideals about Art-with-a-capital-A. In retrospect it’s kind of funny that I’d hung my hat on Art in this way, because I always planned on being an illustration major, and illustration is not usually given a place alongside the Fine Arts that make up Art-with-a-capital-A. I am, by nature, a narrative person, though, and the narrative aspects of illustration really captured me and combined with my love of wielding a brush and making images. I wanted to tell stories with pictures, to play with medium, to create and learn and make huge messy mistakes.

That’s not what art school is like, of course. I went in after choosing art over my other great loves of history and writing and found myself bereft without their company. Many artists are extraordinarily talented but uninterested in much more than honing their craft, and it became very difficult to go on viewing their (beautiful, remarkable) work with an unjaundiced eye when I came to know the personal limitations of some of the most talented people. It changed my ideas of art and life and craft, and when I dropped out in 1999, I left a pretty frustrated person who no longer felt sure she wanted much to do with the art world.

I took up craft when I found oil painting to be a difficult art to maintain with small children about. I’ve never thought of my work with sticks and string as art. It’s craft, something I do because I am compelled to make things, and because it fills a particular void. I’m occasionally thought of taking up the sticks to make something that combines art and craft, but I’ve not done so yet.

Enter KnitKnit. Sabrina Gschwandtner has found knitters who are already doing just that – perfecting their craft to create art. Not just any art, either. The art in this book reminds me of what drew me to art in the first place: an opportunity to play and learn and say something in a way that is tangible and touchable and visceral even without words. It’s art that doesn’t worry about whether it’s Art-with-a-capital-A.

I don’t think art and craft have to sit at opposite ends of the room, of course. Almost every great artist must first perfect her craft, and craft is the basis of art. But the two can be separate and often are. Art is one of those words that it’s nearly impossible to define, but I’ll do the best I can and say that to me, art is something that means more than what it is. In other words, no matter how lovely the sweater, if the meaning of the sweater is to be a sweater, then it is not art. A sweater that has a poem about domesticity knit into it might be a sweater, but it’s also art.

KnitKnit covers many knitters who happen to be artists and many artists who happen to be knitters. There’s work I wouldn’t call art, but it’s all innovative and interesting. One of the things it brought up for me is the memory of setting out to create without a specific end in mind. Art as exploration; exploration as art. Somewhere along the way, I lost my sense of direction, and I don’t often sit down these days to play when I create. I’d forgotten that art can be fun. I’d come to see the scene and not the joy of creation that drove me to art in the first place.

It’s not often I owe a book a debt of gratitude. But right now, I owe something to KnitKnit. I think the best way to repay it is to play.

For an actual review of KnitKnit, as opposed to my meandering thoughts, check out Needled.


3 Responses to “Arts and crafts”

  1. orata Says:

    It’s really good, isn’t it? But do you think it’s really true that art always has to mean more than what it is? I feel like there are many visual arts (i.e. non-crafty arts) for which that isn’t necessarily true, but I would be really uncomfortable not calling them art. Like, I don’t know, Maxfield Parrish paintings or something. Beautiful, but do they mean something more than what they represent? I’m sure you could read all kinds of things about the artist’s social background and psychological state into them, but that’s true for a sweater-that’s-just-a-sweater, too. The fiber choice, ease, color, style of garment, creator, and recipient could all equally well be analyzed in their social and psychological contexts… a gossamer Orenburg shawl means something drastically different than a fluffy instarsia mohair 80’s sweater or a traditional Fair Isle tam worked in Shetland wool.

  2. Kristen Says:

    Well, art is such a personal definition, but I suppose I was defining Art-with-a-capital-A there. Great skill is always appreciated, but from where I stand, I don’t think all paintings, even really well done ones, are necessarily art. However, I think it should be that not all paintings have to be art just by dint of being a painting, and that art should not be venerated too highly above craft. Maxfield Parrish showed great skill, but you’re right – I don’t think they mean more than what they portray. I suppose that would, for me, keep them out of the Art-with-a-capital-A category.

    I guess I feel like a lot of times, the parameters for art are too stiff. Paintings are art, but the reason they are art often seems to be a lack of use beyond being a painting. They’re art because they’re not utilitarian.

    I should have added that I think art is also experiment. I don’t like Jackson Pollock’s work and I don’t think it means anything beyond itself, but it’s definitely a new way of looking at the act of painting, and a new way of exploring what art can be.

    Oh heck! I guess I don’t know what I think art is. I thought I had it for a bit, but even though I don’t necessarily think Maxfield Parrish’s work was art (and to be straight, I also dislike it, in case that has prejudiced me) I do know that there are pieces I’d call art that are simply aesthetic exercises. Where we draw the line is so subjective. I suppose it’s like the old line about pornography: I know it when I see it.

  3. mloknitting Says:

    Mary Walker Phillips? Are you familiar with her work in fiber arts? She recently passed away but her work is amazing. Some of her now out-of-print books go for upwards of 100.00. (I’m hoping they reprint them!)

    I would argue that even some of Alice Starmore’s work could be considered “art.” It is an interesting conundrum – where is the line between art and craft?



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