Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Waste, Shame and Knitting for the Homeless

For the past ten years or so, I have been making art work that involves needlework on an ambitious scale. It was back in 1998 that I started a project called Baby Pictures that still hangs in our local family health center in Queens. The project consisted of about 65 little handknit sweaters that became backgrounds for baby pictures that I had collected and copied from people around the world. Each person also wrote their name, date of birth and three things about themselves. The piece was an attempt to encourage the people in the waiting room to feel less afraid, to remember that everyone has been a baby once, and that we all have more in common than we might think, especially in our wonderful, multi-ethnic neighborhood. At a certain point in making that project, a woman I knew said something along the lines that I should be making those sweaters for real babies not an art project because that was a waste of sweaters that could be doing real good. And she was an artist herself.

Since then, every time I have made a new project, sooner or later, someone and sometimes many someones tell me essentially the same thing: I should have been knitting or crocheting that for homeless babies instead of wasting all that yarn on art.

This pencil project has generated far more press than any of my past projects and so lots of people have seen it and commented on it and, inevitably, there are many who have said "what a waste, you should be knitting for the homeless".

To those who say that, I have ask this question in return: if you believe that it is a waste to use yarn and knitting skills to make art, then do you believe that it is a waste of ink and paper for a poet to write poetry? Should they be using their ink and paper to write first aid manuals? And what about painters? Should their paint be used to paint homeless shelters and the canvas to make clothing for the homeless?

I will probably always get those comments as long as needlework remains one of my main media. As a friend often tells me, I need to get a thicker skin. But then, if I had a thicker skin, maybe my art would be...even worse!


island sweet said...

well bespoke...xxx

OfTroy said...

i am not much of a christian, but i remember the story of the scented oil --it was used to wash jesus's feet --and he too was told, this could have been sold, and the money could have gone to the poor.

the poor will always be with us.. was his response.

man does not live by bread alone.. art feeds the soul.

how much poorer we would all be with art.

Patti Blaine said...

Jesus aside, Helen's point is apt. If there was nothing beautiful in the world, there'd be no point in what you do, but there is beauty and an urge to create more of it, so go to it!

And, back to Jesus, I see his remark "the poor will always be with us" as more of a challenge than a certainty. "You wanna bet?" I want to say to him, even as I work to make them less poor. :) He's right of course. As long as there is greed there is poverty. And I don't see a war on greed any time soon, do you?

In this, as in all things, there must be balance, but I suspect you knew that already!

p.s. I love love love that work of yours in the medical center. It's an arms-wide-open hug, even in my memory. I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees it that way.

Ann of Green Cables said...

Bravo! The world needs you, not the naysayers.

The Frog said...


dorina said...

i remember people making that comment about the gates, when they went up in the park. and i remember thinking, why aren't these people getting on the case of those luxury apartment builders, and all those fancy clothing stores whose clothes i'm shocked some people can afford . . ! there's always a criticism . . remember, make art, not war.