Social engagement at Social knitwork, 21 April - 6 May 2023 at Social Scaffolding, Create@#8, Shepton Mallet

(Please visit the Social knitwork,Shepton, Installation page for documentation about the site-responsive installation)

An invitation to participate:

Social knitwork Shepton Day 1.16

These delightful photos speak for themselves, really, but they are just a snapshot of the absorption, creativity, stillness and fun that were all part of the first iteration of the new, larger scale, Social knitwork. One important thing that they couldn't capture, of course, were the conversations that took place about and within the space - with me, with the other artists, between friends and strangers. Connections were made. It provoked thought, converstaion and action, as I had hoped and intended.

It was delightful to witness the transformation of the space through co-creation and participation. From Day 1 to Day 12, the den became more and more hidden and private because of everything that had been added.

Flesh colours:

Inside the den were several piles of materials for visitors to add to the netting:

  • ripped strips of sheets that I inherited from my parents and had dyed in a range of flesh colours - skin and entrails - ranging from pale pinks to maroon to mauve to dark browns.
  • some of my long, thin Entrails, sculptures which I had knitted beforehand in a similar palette, in another pile inside the den. 
  • some brown luggage labels, a clipboard and pen and an invitation to leave a comment. 


I chose this flesh coloured palette as I wanted the installation to provoke a range of conflicting reponses. Provocation is at the core of my practice. I want to explore the spaces between a number of binaries -comfort/discomfort, presence/absence, embodiment/disembodiment, masculine/feminine, and ultimately, life and death. I've written more about this on my MA Fine Art website. My current research with Social knitwork is focussed on combining the darker side of my sculptural practice with a brighter side of social engagement. It seems, in a way, like a strange quest, but I feel strongly that life isn't neatly divided between bright and dark or happiness and sadness, but that everything is knitted together, in reality. I want my work to demonstrate this, and so far feedback suggests that it does. Of course, some people will just see the joy in it, and others, the creepiness, but I think that many others will recognise the somewhat precarious, and real, balance between the brightness and the dark side.

Imagination station:

Just outside the entrance to the installation was an 'imagination station' with a basket of flesh coloured yarn, some knitting needles, crochet hooks, pompom makers, scissors and a couple of chairs. I had imagined that I would spend my time there, knitting more entrails, and facilitating conversation and our visitors' creativity. In reality, I did very littel knitting as it soon became clear that it was too hard to teach someone to knit in 20 minutes so I started offering pompom making instead. That was a great success, although it also became clear very quickly that most particpants wanted to take their pompoms home. This was the beginning of the pompom revolution! Some people knitted and crocheted with me, many became absorbed in weaving/tying, plaiting etc alone in the net or with friends, but many pompoms were made too.

Because of the way that the exhibition was curated, the entrance to Social knitwork, and the installation itself, was illuminated by Juliet Duckworth's wonderful moving light installation, which is part of Urban rookery. The light changed from purple to pink with various colours in between. I think it made the space even more atmospheric but it didn't make it easy to work with colour in my making corner! I did bring in an anglepoise lamp, which helped a bit, but it wasn't possible for the light to be brighter as it would have had a detrimental imapct on Juliet's fabulous moving shadows on the walls around her work. It made it hard to see the colours and what we were doing, but people seemed to manage. 

Change in control:

I think it was on the second day, though, that one of a group of Y5s from the local primary school said 'Haven't you got any good colours?' and I realised that I probably needed to provide a wider range of colours, including some bright ones alongside the flesh tones. This did mean, of course, yet another change in control, as soon the fleshy palette of the installation became punctuated with bright, fluffy pompoms! 

Co-creation inevitably involves relinquishing some control over creative decisions, form, and aesthetic; Limiting the colour palette had been my way of directing the outcomes but I felt that being responsive to the participants' needs was actaully more important that me being in control. I know that being able to work with colours that one likes brings so much pleasure and calm and it was a joy to see that delight as makers rummaged through the basket looking for their favourite colour combinations.

Now, in retrospect, I wish I had kept a tally of all the pompoms made which subsequently went out into the world with their happy and satisfied makers. I definitely imagine them as a stream of bright, fluffy manifestions and memories of the joy of making together and conversation. Viva the pompom revolution!

Pompoms and a question of balance:

Initially I was reluctant to focus on pompom making as I felt that pompoms were rather trivial and would change the tone and aesthetic of the growing installation. I very quickly changed my mind though! It soon became clear that pompom making, with the reusable devices that I have, is perfect for all ages and abilities. Pompom-making has a nostalgic appeal to older people who remember making them with two doughnuts of cardboard; everyones likes the chance to make something fluffy and love selecting colours and designing patterns. I was delighted that many men were also happy to make pompoms, some alongside their children, but many with their female friends. I had worried that it was too gendered/trivial for some men specifically. 

Another obvious benefit is the repetitive nature of the winding; its absorbing and calming, just like knitting. I have written more about knitting, thinking and Csiksentmihalyi's state of flow here.  Many people commented on how relaxing and calmimg it was. I think there's also an enormous sense of satisfaction about making something unique, fluffy, colourful, with your hands in a relitavely short time. It ticks lots of happiness boxes! Csiksentmihalyi suggests that the flow and creativity lead to happiness. I totally agree so I think that pompom making could be one strategy for improving wellbeing. 

I have also enjoyed researching pompoms both in theory and practice. In practice, I think that flesh coloured pompoms seem to set up the tension that is evident in much of my work. The pompoms mad with 'better colours' also provide a bright and fluffy counterpoint to the darker side of my sculptural practice. And I think they're funny! To use pompoms as part of a fine art installation brings a different range of meanings -irony, humour, happiness, comfort, trivialisation... a pompom revolution, indeed!

In theory, I discovered that in some cultures that pompoms are used to ward off evil. That brings us back full circle to the everpresent and alluring dark side.

Someone also reminded me about Phyllida Barlow's fabulous and gigantic cloth hanging pompom sculptures. That made me think about future developments too... 

Comfortable silences and connecting conversations:

I think that making side by side is also a critical part of this kind of social engagement. While our hands are busy our minds are set free for comfortable silences or conversations that foster connection. Much of the time the conversation, in reality, is light and focussed on the process of making, but that in itself can't be undervalued. We are talking to one another, strangers who have possibly just met and are connecting through our shared experience. Sometimes, naturally, the conversation meanders into deeper streams and we share some darker thoughts or ideas. That's the reality of life, and I feel privileged that through Social knitwork, these moments are captured too.

All in all, I was delighted with this first step in the development of Social knitwork as part of Social Scaffolding, in Shepton Mallet. I think it has great potential as a way to combine the darker sculptural side of my practice with the brighter side of social engagement. Now to plan for Weston Super Mare!

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