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The Crafty Protester

In which our heroine quits bitching and starts stitching.

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"Check out this tunic emblazoned with AK-47s," begins the September 23 post on Lisa Anne Auerbach's blog, www.knittersforkerry.com. "I made it to commemorate the end of the assault rifle ban which happened last Monday."

The red and olive-green sweater, which she made on a machine, reads "Praise the LORD and pass the Ammunition" in swervy letters bordered by tiny machine guns. The sleeves sport little designs that look like explosions. "The pattern is adapted from a Swedish fisherman's sweater from 1898, which I found a photograph of in a book," Auerbach writes. "I like the simplicity of the style. Very basic."

Auerbach's ammo sweater and two others--including one that says "John Kerry will win" on the front and "George Bush will lose" on the back--were on display at ThreeWalls gallery last weekend as part of a show called "Political Textiles." It was curated by New York artist Sabrina Gschwandtner with the excuse of promoting issue four of her quarterly magazine, KnitKnit.

Gschwandtner learned to knit at about ten. As an undergrad at Brown, she says, she finished her honors thesis early and had some extra time, and since she was living with women involved with the textiles department at the Rhode Island School of Design, she picked it up again. "I do a lot of film and video work," she says, "so it's really nice for me to do something with my hands." Within a year her knitwear was being sold in fancy-pants New York shops like Henri Bendel and Steven Alan.

"I know a lot of people who do textile work as artwork," Gschwandtner says. These people are making "knitted things that are pretty far from the world of fiber, where the labor process is evident in the final product." She started KnitKnit to bring together such people. Among its fans are ThreeWalls directors Shannon Stratton and Jonathan Rhodes, who invited her to participate in "Set Up a Democracy in Your Own House," a monthlong series of events whose message is something to the effect of "democracy begins at home."

The show included a Victorian-looking dress by Griz, a new partnership between hotshot designers Gary Graham and Liz Collins, with knit (and therefore saggy) ribs instead of rigid boning in an American flag bodice. Part of a series of dresses they're working on to represent the seven deadly sins, this one was Pride.

I was particularly impressed by a needlepoint portrait by local filmmaker Jim Finn. Finn grew up in Saint Louis. "Girls there make needlepoint belts for their boyfriends and brothers," he writes in an e-mail. "And the women make needlepoint pillows and purses. My mom actually needlepointed a bench for the priest to sit on during mass with fleurs-de-lis and other Catholic symbols."

They all get their patterns from Sign of the Arrow, a needlepoint shop in the affluent suburb of Ladue run by Pi Phi sorority alums since 1966. "You either provide images to them or choose from a set of stock images and they actually paint the image on a canvas and then pick out the yarn," he explains. The shop donates all its profits to charity.

Finn sent them a series of portraits of "communist heroes of South America," including Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella, whose Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla has become sort of a terrorist textbook. "Besides representing Brazil, he also represents the idea of the urban foco--the idea that the main thrust of the guerrila movement would be where the majority of the population is in countries like Uruguay and Germany," Finn writes. "Part of the project was me commissioning the paintings, which included communist flags and images of rifles, and having these people pick out the proper red yarn for the red star."

Gschwandtner also invited Cat Mazza of MicroRevolt, an upstate New York knitting collective whose projects deal with sweatshop labor and capitalism, to bring the group's Nike Blanket Petition. Bright orange with a white swoosh in the middle, the 14-foot-wide blanket is a petition to Nike CEO Phil Knight in which each four-inch-by-four-inch square stands for a signature.

But for me, the most powerful piece was an as-yet-untitled work-in-progress, a quilt onto which were stitched tiny cloth coffins bearing the embroidered last names of U.S. soldiers who've died in Iraq. When North Carolina artist Sherri Wood started this last January, she says, there were only 450. At press time the count was 1,102. In the end, she says, there'll be one stitch on the quilt for every Iraqi citizen killed and the coffins will spell out "Repent."

Wood's mother died of pancreatic cancer last December. Looking for a way to channel her personal grief and the anger she felt about all the senseless death in Iraq, she started the quilt as a "prayer, protest, and memorial." At open craft circles at ThreeWalls, you could contribute by embroidering a last name on a coffin. "A stitch is a small action," says Wood, "a way to get connected."

On Sunday, Woody Sullender and Kevin Davis were performing a solemn improvised eulogy for the soldiers on banjo and cello. Sifting through all the still-unmemorialized names, written on small strips of paper, I decided on a Casey Sheehan because he had a good Irish name. My great grandmother had died earlier that morning. She was an avid craftswoman, talented with needle and thread or yarn, and served as a nurse in World War II. I thought she'd be proud of me for doing this. So I stitched "Sheehan" in white on a little red tartan coffin and, strangely enough, found consolation in the deliberateness of the activity.

At home I did a little research and learned that Army Specialist Casey A. Sheehan, a Humvee mechanic from Vacaville, California, died in his best friend's arms on April 4 after only two weeks in Iraq. He was 24 years old, an altar boy and an Eagle Scout. "It was kind of a natural progression to go into the military from that," his younger sister Carly told an AP reporter. "He said he was enjoying the military because it was just like the boy scouts but they got guns." She's since written a poem eulogizing him:

Have you ever heard the sound of taps played at your brother's grave?

They say that he died so that the flag will continue to wave

But I believe he died because they had oil to save.

Sheehan, it turns out, has become a poster boy of sorts against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. His mother, Cindy Sheehan, is featured in a stark TV spot that MoveOn.org purchased from Real Voices and paid to air about 500 times in several "battleground states," according to a Real Voices director who asked not to be named. "You and your advisors rushed us into this war," Sheehan says tearfully, addressing George W. Bush. "How do you think we felt when we heard the Senate report that said there was no link between Iraq and 9/11?"

It might seem kind of silly to think knitting on a chilly Sunday afternoon could have the political impact of, say, a mother crying for millions of TV viewers. But if you can wrap your brain around the needle arts as just that--arts, and not just a way for grandmas to kill time or underpaid Indonesian kids to keep you in pretty clothes--then maybe you can wrap it around the idea that art has a role in politics. If it doesn't, then why do oppressive societies keep such a close watch on their artists?

"Effective political action is what people can do on a really personal local level," says Gschwandtner. And even if it ain't that much, she says, "well, this is one thing I can do and it'll make me feel good."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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