At the Evanston retirement community where he taught art, Pate (pronounced "Patty") Conaway used herbal tea and show tunes to lure his students into his basement classroom. "The ladies," as he came to call them, sipped their tea and listened patiently as he presented workshops on bookbinding, papermaking, collage making, and drawing. But the ladies found the vats of paper pulp too messy, too cold. They didn't like getting graphite under their fingernails. No, the ladies were quite content with their own form of artistic expression, thank you very much: knitting.
After months of failed attempts to capture their attention, a vexed Conaway threw up his hands, pulled out a chair, and asked one of the women to show him how to knit.
After mastering the basics, Conaway, an interdisciplinary artist who teaches part-time at Columbia College, wondered what would happen if he manipulated the traditional scale of knitting. Armed with a pair of homemade three-and-a-half-foot knitting needles and a 500-yard spool of cotton fiber cording, he crafted a washcloth as big as a queen-size bed. A four-by-six-foot baby's cap followed, as did a scarf that measures 5 by 33 feet. This month, as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art's yearlong "12x12" series, he'll knit a pair of mittens large enough to cover an adult.
Conaway, who's 40, lives in Rogers Park, and is openly gay, knits on el platforms, in coffee shops--"Anywhere, really." He says that "in the 80s wearing an earring was one way that people could peg you as a gay person. Now it's not about what I wear, it's about my actions. I allow myself the freedom to knit where I want to. I'm not in the closet about doing my art.
"The majority of people that approach me usually say they've always, always wanted to learn how to knit." If anyone has seemed put off, it's been other gay men, a few of whom may consider knitting an expression of femininity and, possibly, weakness.
"Some [gay men] are carrying their own brand of homophobia and they probably don't even realize it," says Conaway, adding, "Knitting a huge object--like the mittens at the MCA--requires the use of my full body. It's a great workout, it really is!
"My work gives voice to what I feel is important," he says. "Knitting is about repetition and balance. It's about taking the time to do something right, like when you're weaving together relationships. As a gay man, I could easily go to a bathhouse to have sex, but is that what I'm looking for? No, I want to take the time to get to know someone. It's about having the patience to let something evolve.
"It's also about allowing myself to make mistakes," he deadpans. "Doing a sculpture in this environment, at the MCA, I know I'm going to get interrupted."
Conaway's Knitting for My Soul opens Friday, February 1, at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago. The museum is open Tuesday from 10 to 8 and Wednesday through Sunday from 10 to 5; Conaway will knit in the gallery until the mittens are finished, which he guesses will be about two weeks, and the completed mittens will be on display through February 24. Museum admission is $10, $6 for students and seniors, and free to children 12 and under; it's free to all on Tuesday. Call 312-280-2660 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rpbert Drea.