John Crane answered the phone to find a friend in crisis — before you get too alarmed, it was a knitting crisis. Beth Brown-Reinsel, a celebrity within the insular world of knitting and a dear friend of Crane’s, was heading to New Zealand to teach a workshop at the same time that she was supposed to meet a deadline for a guidebook on sweaters. There was, she told Crane, no way she could finish the manuscript without him.
After Brown-Reinsel finished the design for the book’s final sweater, she mailed it from New Zealand to Provincetown. Crane got to work. A 74-year-old retired librarian who, before moving here with his husband, lived in Vermont, Crane spent eight hours a day for five-and-a-half weeks knitting the sweater. “It was crazy,” he says, seeming to flush with adrenaline at the memory, “but it was also lovely.”
The result of this Herculean effort is a taupe fisherman’s sweater with a thick mock neck and intricate cabling. It is a chunky wool sweater, but it’s somehow seductive. The sweater, as well as more of Crane’s work, will be on display at Bowersock Gallery as part of a show of works by gay men who knit, opening on Friday, June 3.
Does knitwear in a fine arts gallery seem odd to you? Well, that’s part of the point. Steve Bowersock, the owner of the gallery and the curator of the show, says he wants to question the hierarchical binary that has, for centuries, subordinated craft to art. “Who gets to define what ‘fine’ is?” he asks.
“If I educate people on the art of knitting, which most people don’t even consider an art because a lot of stigma surrounds it, then I’ve done my job as a curator,” Bowersock says.
To help with that job, Bowersock enlisted Crane, who turns out to be not only a knitter but a knitting history buff. He rattles off facts and stories about knitting with a familiarity and zeal most of us can muster only for our personal lives. He’ll give a talk on knitting’s rich history during the show’s opening night.
That history, according to Crane, is almost as old as we are. “When we came out of the caves,” he says, “we met the sheep.” Sitting under a wisteria in his backyard, one leg folded over the other, delicately laying out some of his knitted works on his patio table and possessing a mild but energetic disposition that brings to mind a mug of green tea, he explains the first rule of being a master knitter: if you want to know knitting, you’ve got to know sheep.
The wide range of knitted designs available today, Crane explains, have arisen not so much because of the creative genius of humans but because we’ve been lucky to live among all sorts of sheep breeds indigenous to different areas. Even in Florida, Crane marvels, there’s a breed of sheep that has “adapted to warm, damp weather.”
If Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgwick, then John Crane has these sheep. They not only provide the raw material for his artwork, they are his muse for it as well. He pulls out a pair of gloves. Knitted into them is a repeated pattern depicting gray and white sheep.
Nature motifs appear in works from other knitters featured in the show. In a pictorial work by the artist Mac Lippert, the individual stitches of pumpkin-orange wool come together to form the outline of birds sitting together on a branch. The needle and yarn act together like a pencil here, drawing a picture. But this isn’t a drawing, it’s a beanie.
The show at Bowersock is not just about knitting and nature. It’s also about knitting and gender politics. In fact, one could go so far as to say the show proposes a feminist message.
Crane brings up the masterful work of the Bauhaus textile designer Anni Albers as he explains that the dismissal of knitwear and other textiles from the fine arts world has had less to do with aesthetic sensibility than with chauvinism. The distinction between craft and art has often been made along gender lines, with one devalued and stuffed in the cupboard and the other mounted on a white wall.
If the knitting show is feminist, then why does it feature only men? Things like knitting that are seen as feminine, Crane says, often spill over into gay male culture. And gay men are often made to feel, by the outside world and even by one another, bad for being effeminate. What looks like homophobia, is, in this case, when you get to the root of it, misogyny.
The show at Bowersock tries to rebut that, to say that girly is good and that a feminine touch can be a forceful thing. Gay men with muscular bodies are a dime a dozen in Provincetown; the show at Bowersock, with cashmere and cotton and alpaca, is a chance to celebrate the soft.
The show doubles as a fundraiser for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. The collaboration between the ASGCC and the knitting show brings to mind the AIDS quilt, when a textile project became not only a way to memorialize those lost and to comfort the mourning but was also, when stretched out along the National Mall, a political statement.
Prim and proper, Crane holds out a small, red, unfinished knitted item: “I’ve knitted the ball sack,” Crane says in his mannerly voice. “Now I just need to finish the shaft.” At the opening night of the show, those who make large donations to the ASGCC will be gifted with “willy warmers.” They are soft and thermal. And they are available in three sizes: “large, extra-large, and humungous.”
Wear Your Purls
The event: “Men Knitting, and Then There’s Jeff,” opening reception with a talk by John Crane
The time: Friday, June 3 from 7 to 9 p.m.
The place: Bowersock Gallery, 373 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free