Jo Hamilton Studio Visit
October 26, 2016
Jo Hamilton is our cover artist for “The Body Embellished” Summer 2016 Issue of Surface Design Journal. Editor Marci Rae McDade and I recently enjoyed a studio visit with Jo to see and discuss some of her new crocheted portraits.
The beautiful home studio Jo works from in Portland, Oregon, is filled with thousands of skeins of yarn. Organized by color, the shelves look like large-scale painter’s pallets. She often uses acrylic yarn because of its archival qualities and acquires her materials mostly by way of thrift shops, yard sales, and donations.
The use of color in her crochet work has become more complex over the years as her collection has grown. When adding new yarns, she looks for more unusual hues, such as a brown with hints of purple or green that could make a skin tone appear more vibrant.
Jo recently finished a new portrait for Russo Lee Gallery’s 30th anniversary exhibition, 30 Year (on display through October 29, 2016). Masks: Head and Neck – Dietician takes a bit of turn from her previous work. A continuation of her Masks series, the subject is a young Muslim woman who works at a hospital in the UK. Layered with references to current events and cultural identity, the piece is charged with more overt socio-political intentions than her previous depictions of friends and coworkers in the US. The Masks series focuses on women in ordinary situations with covered faces, like super heroines with secret lives. Anonymity surrounds these subjects with a sense of mystery. Depicting nurses and doctors who have to wear protective masks invites an interesting dialogue about the fear of germaphobia and “the other”, reflecting aspects of distrust in the world today in relation to religion, race, gender, and political beliefs.
Each portrait starts with the eyes—a focal point in traditional portraiture—and works outward, growing to be two or three times larger than human scale. The size of the eyes is determined by the amount of detail one row of crochet can express.
Diane Boell, a continuation in her series portraying members of the Our House HIV care facility community where she volunteers as a cook. Sadly, Diane died earlier in the year and was never able to see the finished piece, but you can tell from her glowing smile and lively pink outfit how excited she was to have Jo capture her likeness.
Jo initially wanted to be an oil painter, but soon realized the material and process wasn’t for her. “It takes a lot of experimentation and trial and error to find what’s right and then all of a sudden it hits you and you think ‘Why didn’t I think of this before?’ I went to school before the Internet, so I couldn’t just search for what other people were doing. And no one was interested or talking about fiber art at my school. If you went into textiles, you were a designer for fabric, fashion, and function.“
The softness and tactile qualities of crochet make it a more vibrant and vital medium than painting or drawing. Everyone has experienced the comfort of textiles in their lives; this familiarity with her chosen materials invites viewers to respond to the work more intimately than traditional portraiture or photography.
It is hard to imagine the scale of Jo’s work until you’ve seen them in person—the torso of a figure is often taller than most viewers. People really engage with this larger-than-life quality, which also elevates the work above the domestic realm of its origins.
Jo’s portraits pay homage to people and all of their flaws in such a loving manner. It is the unique qualities that make us unique individuals. Treating yarn as if it were paint—mixing colors and building layers—Jo creates monumental works from minute repetitive actions, without the traditional machismo of large-scale paintings. Instead, she carefully crafts a spirit of generosity in practice by getting to know her subjects to honors the lives that they have lived.
For more information on Jo Hamilton, check out: