A quiet road in Cushing leads up to the home and studio of artist Katharine Cobey. The simple buildings are separated by open ground and a short walk. The backdrop is the Meduncook River. And in this beautiful place, Cobey literally knits her life’s work. A self-described “outsider artist,” she lives among people “much like us, who just want to be here”—no country clubs, no golf courses, just people living their lives, in love with the place they live.
But Cobey’s work is not the work of landscape. A fiber artist with a wide-open view of fiber—plastics and handspun yarns, wool and silk, all kinds of wire, deconstructed copper Chore Boys that grab sunlight and warp it into a bolder reality—she knits every day, often every night, creating pieces with something to say, pieces with titles like To Shine, Ritual against Homelessness, and Portrait of Alzheimer’s.
In the 22 years since she began this work, she has created hundreds and hundreds of pieces, some of which have taken as much as six years to complete, all of which have a voice one cannot refuse to pay attention to. She insists that knitting can say anything, do anything. “What is a glove but a hand?” she says, and so sees that it is all sculptural work she creates—be they the wearable sweaters, hats, and shawls, or pieces like Boat with Four Figures, the 30’ x 14’ x 6’ piece that took six years to knit.
A left-handed dyslexic whose right-handed mother first tried to teach her to knit, she learned how at age 11 from a neighbor with no children “hankering to pass on a considerable amount of craft expertise.” But it wasn’t until after a back injury changed her way of moving in the world that knitting became her art.
Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at places like the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft and the Textile Museum, in Washington, DC; included in shows such as the recent Trashformations at the Ohio Craft Museum; and exhibited worldwide.
Your original choice of creative expression was poetry. [Cobey had published volumes of poetry and read at many venues, including the London Poetry Society, before knitting replaced writing as her art.] What is different about what you can say with wire and wool from what you could say with words?
I don’t believe there is a difference as to what I can say. But I do know if I could say what I need to say better with words, I would still be writing poetry.
So you stopped writing poetry?
Yes, if you’re really committed to something, you don’t doubt it. Or I don’t doubt it. I had written with every bit of my strength, my life, and I decided I could knit that way. What could stop me? Nobody could stop me.
You learned to knit as a child, but didn’t see knitting as an art form until the 1980s after your mobility was limited by a back injury. Would you be creating this work if you hadn’t been hurt?
Absolutely not. It’s interesting how many people are forced to take turns in their lives that turn out to be simply wonderful. You can’t say it’s lovely that I have a damaged spine. No, I don’t say that at all, but it’s what got me here.
At the time you began knitting sculptural pieces and creating installations, no one else was doing this work. What made you see art in the click and clack of your needles, in what is often seen as traditional “women’s work”?
As a woman, you take this thing that people have belittled and made pretty and cute and a symbol of domesticity, except for my beloved Madam Defarge [a character in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities who knits codes throughout], and you say, “No, no, what you think about women is wrong and what you think about knitting is wrong, and I will show you.” But then again, I’m an outsider.
What do you mean, an outsider?
Well, my father built tennis courts, and he took care of us all beautifully and was a wonderful man, but he didn’t make much money. He would take us south in the winters and north in the summers, following the trade opportunities. So we changed schools three times a year every year. That made me an outsider. That can be very painful, to never be from where you are, but at the same time it makes you observant. I know now that’s why I do outsider art. You see, everything in our lives comes together.
And you have no “art” training?
I’m a lit [literature] major! Lit majors are really well trained for all sorts of things!
You teach a lot. Do many women follow your lead into these voice-driven pieces?
First, let me say, all pieces have voice, but, that being said, I know what you mean. I have been surprised that more knitters, more of my students, have not said, “Yes!” and been hungry to use [knitting] in this perfectly possible and exhilarating way.
Why don’t they?
It’s a women’s problem. They don’t see knitting as a way of making art. Most knitters follow patterns. It’s quite a change in attitude—not following, but leading.
You have said that we “read what people wear.” I love that.
Well, we do. You’ve figured out things about me. And I’ve figured out things about you. Yes, how we dress speaks us, even if we’re just hiding. There is a whole vocabulary of clothing.
And you’re currently working on?
What’s it called?
The title will be A Different Slant.
So what’s different about this knitting book, particularly since I expect there will be no “patterns”?
There’s a thing called diagonal knitting. I’m literally writing the book about it. There’s a lot of geometry in how you build these things, but I’m very math challenged and so this book could even be a way of teaching geometry. You learn how rectangles work, how triangles work. [She pulls a beautiful hat diagonally knit with no seams from a basket of pieces and samples, all with great textures and beautiful colors.] Look, you can turn a triangle into a seamless hat, and that’s geometry.
Do you think you will ever give up knitting wearable clothing and only make the communicative, expressive pieces?
They’re part of the same thing. We’re back to reading what you wear. Right now, I’m interested in making an installation of nine sweaters. It will be a sweater for each of my nine grandchildren. They’re young now, and I will be envisioning them as adults—that will say, that will speak. I know I can make those sweaters talk, but they will be sweaters.