Democracy Through Craft

Knitting Is for Pussies
Jenny Ustick

Waking up to news of scientists and defenders of science marching in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan, kicking off yet another wave of global gatherings whose epicenter will be in Washington, D.C., I remember clearly the swarm of people descending en masse in January 21, 2017, helping to make history.

On a day that was balmy by comparison to the one prior, when an embarrassingly small number of people attended the rainy inauguration of our 45th President, I and more than half a million of my closest friends filled the National Mall, spilling out into the surrounding streets, over into the Ellipse, and right up to the White House fence—the personnel and infrastructure of the city allowing it to swell and flex and receive its citizens who know that there is no better way to get across a message like showing up together and marching in the streets.

I am no stranger to marching, but in recent years most of my activism has taken place in the university art classroom.

On any given day at work, I expect discussion about the nature of art and creativity. I manage and teach foundations courses in a school of art at a large university where, in their first year, students are asked to consider the very definition of art: what qualifies, what doesn’t, who decides.

Learning how to identify quality in their work and in others,’ inevitably, they find themselves in a debate about the notion of art vs. craft. They realize that craft (or crafts)—something that in their lives up to this point included low-stakes activities yielding baubles, souvenirs, or gifts for relatives, perhaps using beads, glitter, or yarn—is relegated to a lower status than art, and certainly fine art. Crafty, along with self-expression and catharsis, has become a dirty word.

Faced with the question of craft either as an artist or as a viewer, few students are willing or able to fully admit that crafts traditionally and largely exist within the feminine domain. That seems obvious. What is perhaps more precarious is trying to ask students to consider transitive implications that go something like: crafts = less serious and important; crafts = women’s work; women’s work = less serious and important.

As if having what may be mainstays of their motivation to pursue art (pleasure, praise) wrested away from them so that they may become serious intellectuals, students are getting an education in how some in society value their chosen field, (which is to say, not highly). They are confronted with stereotypes (think: starving artist) and issues of resource distribution, class disparity, and value—and that’s just in the institution.

In the normal course of this frustration and friction, students’ ideas begin to turn and open. They learn that the sticky elements of sincerity and vulnerability, and the universality of commonplace materials are quite relevant in contemporary art. They learn that the medium is the message; that by using certain images and materials, they can delight, enrapture, or even devastate the viewer.

They travel and study artists who have made a life at this. Successful artists like Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe, who demonstrate that things like glitter and yarn were never really against the rules, but that they can be used in subtle, surprising, and subversive ways.

Eventually, these students understand that self-expression and catharsis are alive and well, but that restraint and structure are what gives such elements clarity. They gain confidence that encourages them to advance, compete, and distinguish themselves from their peers and from other disciplines—ideally, they learn to both nurture and manage their egos.

This is the normal course of things. But in some ways, these are not normal times.

The stakes feel different—more intense this year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2017 was not the beginning of politically-charged discussions in the classroom; we foster abstract and critical thinking in our students, asking them to consider points of view that may differ from their own on a daily basis.

We address privilege, intersectionality, and social awareness in our studios and seminars, so that our young artists may have a vocabulary with which to identify and discuss meaning and motive in current art practice. But after the election there was a precipitous change in the classroom. What was an understandably high level of initial shock and fear in and for women, LGBTQ individuals, people of color, non-Christians, and immigrants, quickly transformed into a fiercely protective sense of righteous indignation. The students knew exactly what was up.

Conversations shifted, drawing attention to the notion that being an artist is about more than what someone does, it’s about who they are. We speak about art and artists being radical and dangerous, acknowledging the history and context of “degenerate” artists of Nazi Germany, and of propaganda. It helps for students to understand the rationale behind 45 prioritizing cuts to the NEA, NEH, CPB, and IMLS, when they represent a mere .02% of our federal budget.

Art is dangerous because it speaks truth to power and encourages people to think critically. It is the antithesis of complacency and conformity, and our students are realizing the responsibility that comes with their chosen field. Many have reacted by forming online communities, organizing art and community events and exhibitions, benefits, and protests; they are embracing the long partnership between art and activism. This aligns with and drafts off of a resurgence in interest in inherently social, democratized materials: protest art, signs, public art, and fiber crafts are back with a vengeance.

Women’s work—so often relegated to the sidelines—is on the front lines of activism.

As a member of a fiber art collective of “yarn bombers” who call ourselves the Bombshells of Cincinnati, our group formed under playful premises of softening the edges of the urban environment.

Taking a cue from yarn-bombing, public installation artist Olek, who, when asked why she preferred crochet over knitting, snarkily replied “knitting is for pussies.” The Bombshells likewise created ambitious knitted and crocheted street art, installations, and performances. Known for covering the Wall Street Charging Bull with crochet, I wonder if Olek knew how her work and words would loop back around the way they have.

The Bombshells came back together as plans for the Women’s March on Washington were forming. We knitted, crocheted, sewed, and collected hundreds of pink pussy hats for women from Cincinnati going to the march. I made plans to drive to Washington D.C. and march with three other artists and designers. I knitted pussy hats for the four of us, nonstop on the ride from Cincinnati to D.C. and late into the night before the march. We wore our pussy hats and capes that read “Pussy Patrol” and “Pussy Power.” We carried giant googly-eyed tampons, a handwritten sign, and a giant uterus banner.

And then we went home.

In the intervening months, it’s felt imperative to cherish the euphoria of the Women’s March on Washington, but to temper it and find ways to maintain the momentum of the energy generated and concentrated there.

So I’m getting to work. Preparing for some upcoming projects, and thinking about images to paint I’ve been expanding upon my knowledge of fiber art as an element of protest, demonstration, and a symbol of freedom—or conversely, of oppression.

I feel optimistic when I see my students making confrontational political work, when I see them marching for things like marriage equality, or in protest against building a border wall, deporting or banning immigrants, or limitations on reproductive freedom.

I feel optimistic when I see them showing up for one another in large and small ways; I’ve been doing my best to be a role model for them, sharing what I’m reading, discussing difficult topics. Helping them channel their ideals into work that reaches beyond reflexive impulses, and out into the world, where it has impact and builds community.

So we make art, with whatever we need to - yarn, glitter, even found cardboard and sharpies. We know that crafts are the original social media. Democratic at their core because they are accessible to almost everyone, we use them as a vehicle to share experience and understanding. We take care of ourselves and each other, and we don’t let the bastards grind us down.