Words by Bee Clinch
Amongst her many artistic talents, Jo Hamilton, the Portland-based artist, creates arresting figurative images of people and her environment using the unexpectedly domestic medium of crochet. Her formative training at the Glasgow School of Art was in painting and drawing but, by her own admission, she was never entirely comfortable with the traditional approach.
Following her move to Oregon in the 1990’s, she began to explore different means of expressing herself through a skill she has long forgotten but was keen to reacquaint herself with. ‘I first learned to crochet when I was six and my Gran taught me how to make a granny square. Ten years later a friend re-taught me, and I crocheted in a crafty way for years.’
She was first inspired to use crochet as a means of depicting her surroundings after seeing an exhibition at the original Portland Craft Museum. ‘I think (the exhibition) was called “Not Your Grandmother’s Doily” and featured art made using techniques that are traditionally considered to be craft.’ Excited that she had at last found a means of expression that allowed her to work in a way that she was comfortable with but at the same time was artistically expressive, she settled down that very day and began to crochet the first six city blocks of what would become the “I Crochet Portland” cityscape!
This gave her the confidence to broaden her remit to depicting her fellow coworkers using the same techniques. Despite their good-natured taunting, she started from photographs of the sitter which she then worked up in crochet.
Work can take anything up to three years, as in the case of the cityscapes but her enthusiasm for the medium never wanes. “Crochet is currently my preferred process, although I do look forward to seeing how it has informed my approach to other media.’ By using a craft that is more often than not pigeon-holed into rather a narrow category, she hopes to create a more appreciative audience that will see its artistic potential. As with Tracy Emin and her series of quilts, something that we traditionally see as a purely domestic activity becomes a far more challenging and thought-provoking process.
Her method of working is more like a painter with their box of paints than a person taking out their crochet for a few hours of relaxation.
‘My house is filled with balls of yarn, all arranged by colour on shelves. I can pull them out as I need them for my palate. A portrait can take up to fifty or more hours over the course of a month, but I haven’t actually counted, and I spend just as much time looking as actually crocheting. The pieces evolve from the inside out. I make no graphs, plans or charts; it’s a row-by-row organic process in which I don’t always know the outcome, but have learned to trust my way of working.’ Many people have speculated on how Jo achieves her portraits and what stitches or techniques she might use, so they will be fascinated to read of how she has to put herself in the hands of her inspiration and wait to see what is produced.
Obviously, she is confident to do this and is quite happy to go with the flow. ‘I’m working on a new body of work for my next show Bodies Are Bridges. It’s quite a departure from previous pieces, so I have a lot of work to do in order to pull it off. I will always continue to crochet, but I’d also like to return to drawing and painting and see how the crochet has informed my approach to those disciplines. I want to push the boundaries of craft and art, just to see what’s possible.’
For many crocheters, such an approach is completely new and alien but gives an example of how craft can jump the barrier between itself and art and give an artist new and exciting means of expressing themselves. It may not be something that everyone feels confident to do but Jo gives some advice which we could all follow, ‘Ditch your pattern books!’ So maybe next time you reach for the tried-and-tested cushion or blanket pattern, heed Jo’s words and with the skills literally at our finger tips venture into a new and exciting world of expression through craft.
Bee is a freelance writer in England and has a crochet blog: chaincreative.blogspot.com