An artist needs limits

When I went to school, I studied fine art and english. I left school believing that I was an artist and a writer, although I had very little evidence to support either point of view. My Uncle Tupper has always said that you may use the professional term “writer” or “artist” when you have paid the rent that way… so I guess that at this time in my life I am entitled to use both terms, though having not painted for a few years, I no longer think I am an artist or…maybe I still am. Can one stop once one has started? (By the way, I think this combination of visual artist and writer is really common…anyone else out there have their interest in the arts leak through various mediums?)

For many years I painted, I drew, I had some shows, I sold some paintings… I would have starved had the income been from art alone, and I’m really glad that Tuppers definition didn’t include paying the rent multiple times… but it was validating on some level to just hang up art and ask people to look at it. It would have been more validating if I had sold fewer paintings to my relatives and more to complete strangers, but you can’t have everything. When I was very young, still in school, I was a realist.


Not unusual. Many artists begin as realists, it’s the safest form of painting and drawing, and certainly the easiest to put in public. Both the artist and the viewer can tell (with very little emotional or intellectual effort) whether or not it is good. If it is good, it looks real. That foot really looks like a foot….good art. That hand looks like an octopus in heat…bad art. The limit of asking the artist to render real life accurately fences them in and makes making art easier.

Now, many artists continue to use realism as their limit for the rest of their careers. Nothing wrong with that. Obviously Michelangelo and Jules Bastian-Lepage were not any less great for sticking with realism for their whole careers. I however, did not stick to it very well. As of 5 years ago it was obvious (probably because of the shaky grasp on reality that all mothers have during those trying early years.) that I was beginning to enjoy the idea and images around fracturing realism. I still needed a limit (as I believe most artists do) to avoid being overwhelmed by an idea and to keep it reined it enough to make it possible.


It’s a snowflake. Somewhat departed from reality, reined in by a monochromatic palette (one colour) and strictly controlled by the lines.

Forgive these photos by the way. They are digital images of old photos of paintings long gone. They lack the detail and straight lines that I like to believe were present in the paintings.


This one’s trees. (Trust me. It is.)


Mosques. You can see that by the time I got to Mosques, I was obviously using only the suggestion of realism as my limit and relying more heavily on geometric form.

It should come as no surprise then, that this:


Was next. Pure geometric limit with no realism left at all. Just colour and line.

That limit was eventually pushed even further to this one:


Which is really just a colour study, using only a palette of colour as the limit.

(I admit that I didn’t even control myself entirely there…there’s a gold in that painting that is nail polish ripped off from one of the kids.)

Where am I going with all of this? Glad you asked. (I was starting to wonder myself there for a minute.) My point is that every artist limits their work in some way. Even the most avant garde artist bent on breaking down every perceived barrier or limit ends up needing to fence an idea in eventually, or they would never be able to call a piece “finished” and move on. Since I am not painting right now, but writing, I satisfy a great deal of my visual need for art and colour with knitting. What I am knitting is important to me, not just because it is expressive (and making something always is, even if it’s a washcloth) but because it keeps me in touch with colour, flow, line and artistic limits. Knitting has a natural set of limits. (It needs to be done on needles, it needs to be done with a continuous “thing” be it yarn or string or chain…) and it gives me a chance to divine new limits for myself, and sometimes I don’t even know what they are until I’ve been doing it for a while.

Apparently, and I should have noticed this some time ago, or certainly when Ryan pointed out to me at the Market at Madrona that what little stash I was buying was the same colourway over and over again, just in different forms…


When I got to choose my colourway in the mitten class:


When I got to choose my own colours in the plying class:


or as I have been knitting the Bohus, I should have noticed that I have a new limit I am working within.


Clearly I am choosing to express myself these days, by working within the limited palette of


Appliance colours from the 70’s.

Sigh. I was hoping for more depth.

Stupid job.

More than anything else today I want to snuggle up and knit on my Guld Sweater.


I’m into the colourwork and although I thought it was not possible, I love it more today than yesterday. I keep spreading it out and admiring it and smoothing it with my hand and patting the angora/wool like it is a small and endangered pet. The purl stitches amuse me to such a degree that I fear I am simple.


Sadly, I must go to the dentist (we shall not speak of this) and work at my job, which is at least about knitting if it not actually knitting, but still pales in comparison to the wonder that is drinking coffee, watching it be cold outside and knitting the bohus. I am therefore copping out and doing a Q&A. Forgive me.

Laustin asks:

The sweater is gorgeous and the tee-tiny stiches and color work on the yoke look like they’ll be very amusing to an advanced knitter such as yourself. However, I’m a tad concerned about the potential boredom level of knitting the body. Is it really miles of one color stockinette on itsy bitsy needles?

Yup. It really is, and seriously, the miles and miles of stockinette with beautiful soft yarn are the reason that I started this sweater. I can’t imagine anything more pleasant for filling little moments in the day than all that plain knitting. I admit that it would be boring if I was just going to sit there and knit it, but I won’t. I’ll knit it on the bus, at movies, watching tv, at Knit Night….I’m really, really looking forward to it. (Yes. Feel free to quote that back to me in a few weeks when I am threatening to feed this sweater to a pack of roving Patas monkeys.)

Laurie asks:

I read “
Poems of Color” and was very impressed with the art in the Bohus. One of the things that impressed me was the way they made use of the knitters’ wide range of skills. The advanced knitters would create the patterened part, and the less skilled knitters would work on the plain stockinette part.

So who’s going to knit your plain stockinette?

See above. I’m saving it for myself. There’s something really nice about simple things well executed. It’s like…apples or bread or….some pasta dish with just olive oil and perfect tomatoes. You know?

Note: I used the Amazon link so you could get the particulars, but they seem to not have the new printing. Poems of Colour, by Wendy Keele is back in print through Interweave and available at Schoolhouse Press. I called them up yesterday (Meg Swansen answered the phone. I almost swallowed my own tongue.) and asked them to mail it. It was not (although I forgot to ask how much it was because it was Meg Swansen) $70 like at Amazon.


Wow that sweater is unbelievable! Can’t wait to see if finished. Are the instructions in English???

Yes. While the original patterns are in Swedish, when you buy them, you can get the English translation with it. Susanna does the translating, and while she doesn’t charge for it, I made a donation to Knitters Without Borders equivalent to what I thought the translation was worth. You certainly don’t need to do this, but I know Susanna likes it.


That sweater is GORGEOUS! Is it a kit that you order straight from the maker? I would love to get myself one but I can’t decipher the website. Any tips?

Dee answers her:


Go to

Click on Kontakta mig, which will take you to an email form, which now has English translations for the boxes

Email Solveig. Her English is fine.

Credit card – some people feel comfortable emailing their credit card number, etc. I don’t. I telephoned Solveig and gave her the information. Again, her English is fine. The telephone number is on the home page. International phoning was exciting for me. I know; I need a life.

Wait for your kit(s) to arrive, which, for me in northern California, was *way* quicker than I expected.

Knit happy and knit long.


Are those KnitPicks Options needles I see?

Correction added later… They are Knitpicks circular needles, not Knitpicks options. The options don’t come down to a small enough size.

Yes ma’am. I like them very well. The pointedness pleases me deeply and profoundly. Also, I like shiny things. (Oh dear. I am simple, aren’t I ?)

Four minutes

That’s how long, on foot- it takes to get to the grocery store, but Joe and I were just sitting here discussing how we could possibly avoid it. (There’s no way to avoid it. Dinner would just be too strange made from what we have left and we’re going to run out of toilet paper.) Over the last few weeks the temperature here in Toronto has become – well. Normal…and this morning when I woke up only sheer force of will got me up and into the frosty house. Our furnace is very old, and while it is very fuel efficient, it was never meant to heat the whole house…there are no ducts in the rooms where there used to be woodstoves, for example (“used to be” is a very important part of that sentence) and the ancient beast truly groans along when the temperature gets into the -30 range. (Yes, it has occurred to me that the reason it is so efficient is because it is only heating half of the freakin’ house.)


At -30 the girls willingly wear hats and mitts and scarves and longjohns under their pants to go to school. Exposed skin freezes in fewer minutes than it takes to walk there and they are Canadian. They know that frostbite is not good looking. Amanda was laughing today as she put on her layers. She has a new friend in her class, a recent immigrant from Africa, and as she was telling him that he was going to need hats and a scarf for this week, that soon it would be very, very cold, she mentioned -20 to -40 as common for this time of year and he laughed. Laughed and laughed. Thought for sure she was having him on. “Amanda” he giggled “it only gets that cold in the Arctic sometimes.”

I asked Amanda what she had said to him then. “Welcome to Canada” was her reply.

I avoid going out when it gets like this. I hate the cold. Hate. It. There are not enough layers in all the world to make me happy outside when it gets to be this cold. Up to about -20 I can consider happiness, swathed in hats and scarves and longjohns and long undershirts and thermal tops and hoods, I contemplate skating and winter walks in High Park…but the minute the windchill takes it down a millimetre past that I can’t do it. I go outside…since the whole world is out there, but I don’t like it, and I sure don’t go for fun. Every bit of my being tells me that these are the days to make tea, cook soup, bake bread and hunker down, taking refuge in all my warm soft wool, waiting for the big ball of fire in the sky to be worth something to me again.

There’s no point fighting your instincts, so I finished these:

(As an aside, you can tell I finished these a few days ago because the snow clinging to them is “warm snow”. You know, the fluffy bigger stuff? The snow we have now is “cold snow” and it’s small and gritty and squeaky. Far less attractive to pose with mittens.)


The Delicato mitts, modified to fit my wee hands, Alchemy Alpaca Pure, colour 35e- Fauna.


These are an absolutely genius idea and were pressed into service immediately. I don’t know if they are useful on their own in this climate, but as a layer put on under your full mittens, they make boarding the TTC, opening a door, taking out your keys – all slightly less painful. All those times when you have to pull off your mittens to perform an urban function? These are brilliant for reducing the amount of skin that has to be out in the open.

That done, I went into the stash and came out with a box I’ve been saving. Something the colour of sunshine.


Oh yes.




Bohus. Bohus with soft, soft, super warm wool (50%angora, 50% wool) hand-dyed by Solveig Gustafsson. The Bohus movement was a solution to the depression in Sweden in the 1960s…you can read more about it here if you like, (or here at the Bohusläns Museum) and the garments are truly unique. Hand knit on tiny needles (2.5mm are the “larger” needles in the pattern) out of yarn that duplicates the original fine yarn (it knits to a gauge of 34 stitches to 10cm) and the patterns have purl stitches incorporated into the intricate and beautiful yoke patterns. This kit is “Guld” and I love it with a stinking unholy passion that burns brighter than a thousand glowing afterburners on Colonial Raptors.

There’s a picture of the finished sweater on Solviegs website. (I couldn’t figure out how to link to that page. Go here, then click on “Nyheter” at the top, then look for “Guld” among the examples of the kits that she has recreated.) I’m completely enchanted and over the moon with it. The yarn is so soft and the needles are so small and it’s satisfying the way that baking bread is. It can’t be rushed.


It’s not hard…it’s just, small.

Now. Off to the grocery store before the snow comes. Have any Canadians out there figured out how to get salad greens home before they freeze?

Silent Poetry Reading

Today marks the Second Annual Brigid in Cyberspace Silent poetry reading. (Good name) Last year I shared some of the work of my favourite poet. (I have a few others, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, Isabella Valancy Crawford, Daisy Zamora or other women with long or unusual names.) This poet however, continues to capture my imagination, mostly because I find him a person who is frequently a surprise.

This poet, Joseph Dunphy, is my father-in-law.

If there were a contest that I held in the world, a contest to pick sensible men, my father-in-law would be a fine contender. He makes good decisions. He manages money well. He is responsible. He is the sort of man who knows how to fix a leak quickly and will not swear while he does it. He will also not sweat. I have never heard him raise his voice. He wears clean clothes. He exercises regularly, wouldn’t wear an un-ironed shirt, listens to the radio, and does not waste time. He is respected by his co-workers and excels at his job. He is a dearly loved father and husband. If you look up the word “steadfast” in the dictionary, Joe Sr. is there.

I understand now that I am making him sound boring, and for that I’m very sorry, because Joe Sr (like the Joe Jr I married) is one of the least boring men that has ever lived. He is not at all what he seems. In exchange for putting in the time to get to know him, you can find out some pretty remarkable things. Like he found a way to finagle himself the purchase of some hand knit socks I did not make. Like he would only eat leftovers if you let him. I think he would eat pickled anything. A huge passion lies in him for St. John’s harbour. He’s a little weird about the fridge and though he has little to say in person, he’s pretty verbose on the phone. One time early in our relationship he called me cross-Canada about some video on MTV he was watching, made me change the channel and watch it with him and then wanted to discuss the fact that some of the people in the video were naked and dancing. It was like being transported to some alternate universe, considering that up until then most of our conversations had been me babbling like an idiot and him saying “Alright then.”

Inexplicable. The biggest discovery was finding out that he was writing poetry. Good poetry. Tons of it. Working at it, researching it….passionate, loving, enormously gripping thoughtful poetry. I think the whole family was speechless. It was like having your favourite rock, a good sturdy rock, suddenly split open and reveal a universe of sparkling gems. Who knew?

Well, one person maybe. (Though I think she was pretty stunned herself.) Carol, his wife. Carol and I share something in common, something that the rest of the family will wonder at, I think. We are both married (she to the father, me to the son) to deeply, deeply odd men, men as odd as fish, who are not at all what they seem. At all.

Joe (both Sr and Jr) tromp around the world doing their business in their own strange ways, looking for all the world like one kind of man, while revealing only in the intimacy of their closest, most secret relationships…these otherworldly surprises. Men who seem brusque are tender, men who occasionally appear too private are found to be close personal friends with a hamster, and men who do little or no public revealing are found to be writing very good poetry. In honour of that, the stunning element of surprise in some people, Joe Dunphy (the senior) is this year’s poet. Again.


The house gets a fresh coat

Of paint every fall, even though

I am old. It helps me to recall

Amid the waning light

Mother at the stove, steam rising

From soups and stews, and water boiling

The brook running, gurgling,

The water hoop, the metal tub

In the kitchen, her hands in my hair.

Father reaming the stem

Of his pipe with a stiff bristle,

Flat cut strips of tobacco nestled

Lightly in a blue tin,

His hand cupped loosely round the bowl

The matchbox tamping, the silver spoon.

How, after rosary, when

The pipe was lit and mother slipped

Stitches on smooth needles, they would talk

Of black backs glistening in

Ice-green waters, fine mists falling,

Ripe fruits lying low in the fen, sweet

In dappled days now gone

For them and me. So, I paint it

Yellow, it reminds me of sunshine!

-Joseph Dunphy

The Mittens of Rovaniemi

Warning: This post is picture heavy. My sincere apologies to my friends on dial-up.

While I was at Madrona, I was lucky enough not just to teach some classes, but to have enough holes in my schedule that I could take a couple. (This is a job perk that to a knitter, is the equivalent of having a company car. It rocks.) My favourite was The mittens of Rovaniemi, with Susanna Hansson. Now, by way of disclaimer, Susanna and I are friends. (Or, I think we are. If we are not, she is doing a very good job of making me feel that way and I’d rather not have any illusions shattered.) I admit that one of the motivations for taking her class was that I would get to be in a room with her, and that doesn’t happen real often, she being in Seattle and me being in Toronto.

The second motivation was that the last time I was with her in Seattle, she had showed me these incredible mittens from Lene Alve in Finland,


and when I had tried to ponder out by what magic they had been knit, Susanna had declined to tell me, saying that it was A) too complex to show me over lunch and B) the only thing she had to dangle out as a carrot to get me to take her class where she would teach this.

I was gripped.


Now, what those are, and I imagine that you cannot quite grasp this just yet, is mittens, knit in several colours in the round, in intarsia, only continuing in the round (never turning back to purl), without carrying any colour at any time (with the exception of the base colour) and without ever twisting them together. They break all the rules. All of them. I’m going to show you some pictures of how this happens, but I’m not going to tell you exactly how to do it because it is A) too complex to show you over lunch and B) the only thing she has to dangle out as a carrot to get you to take her class where she would teach this.

Before Susanna started, she gave us a little historical and cultural context, and tried to divine how it is that Rovaniemi, Finland might have come up with this unique approach. (Credit where credit is due here, Susanna owes much of her knowledge to Lene, who actually lives there and puzzled the thing out with her. Lene is, in case you are unfamiliar with her, a genius and an artist.) She drew a parallel between this sort of knitting and weaving, which was totally lost on me until Susanna showed us a mitten in progress.


That knitting needle holding the yarns holds them like that the whole time, without them ever becoming tangled. (If you do it right. Mine got tangled once or twice as I learned this brand of knitting voodoo.) The class was marked as “advanced” and I was stunned to discover that we were a room of advanced knitting students all being challenged to learn. Susanna is a very good teacher, since none of us ran ourselves through or threatened to put needles in our eyes. (I realized that it was a really hard thing when I listened to Karen Alfke, sitting in front of me doing Yoga breathing – or maybe it was Lamaze, to get through a row.)

They are knit with that seriously lovely Finnish yarn Satakieli (No. I can’t pronounce it either, but it’s good yarn.) and (in my case) 1.5mm needles. (That’s size 000 for my American friends.) This is enough to make you a little bit woozy, and Susanna, in her infinite wisdom, had decided that approaching this challenge – difficult knitting on tiny needles with wee yarn, would be rendered insurmountable if you hated the colours, let each of us choose our colourways from her stash.


At least half of the fun of this class was watching people pick their colours. (It was remarkable how many knitters chose yarn to match their outfit.) Then we coloured our charts to match our choices –


and went forth. It was stunning. It was compelling. It was clever and addictive and the cumulative sound (it’s very quiet) of 18 knitters completely resetting their brains was boggling. There was no chatting. There was no conversation. There was only the silence of learning and deep thinking and the occasional expletive. (I am guilty of that.) I paid very careful attention, since while I could execute the technique (after a while) I was extraordinarily concerned about dropping a stitch, since I knew for certain that there was no way I would ever pick it up accurately again.


Just looking at the work, how would you ladder back up a mistake? I was careful to avoid this dilemma. Once you get the hang though, once you integrate the new way of doing things, it was not doing this manouver that was hard….it was stopping. A portion of the patterned part of the mitt demands the effort, a part does not. I know that I wasn’t the only person in the room who, when confronted with an ordinary knit stitch that didn’t need special treatment…stared at it like we had never seen it before. Knitters kept just….stopping.


Every once in a while someone would stop and look at exactly what they were doing, puff up with pride and wonder and smile gleefully.

We put them all together on a table at the end (nobody finished, naturally, even though we were doing mere wristlets instead of full mittens) and the sight of them all together gobsmacked all of us.


The strands, the ends! The size of the plan….the potential for disaster….


it was huge. (Not one person had a tangle, thanks to the freakish knitting needle weaving thing. Ever knitter picked their cuff back up our of this orgy of strands and walked away unharmed. Wild.) I snapped this picture while we were at it.

Three knitters working the same pattern, with the same yarn, on the same size needles.


If anyone ever asks you if you think gauge matters much, think that shot over.

I finished my cuff at home this morning:


and I admired the way this technique leaves you with an inside as beautiful as the outside:


I reflected on something Susanna had told us. She had travelled to Finland to learn this. She and Lene had worked hard to turn it into something teachable, they had prepared all the handouts, worked up the charts, done the reseach…amassed the yarn and taught the class and at the end of the whole thing…when Susanna was done teaching this to the 18 people in her class, Susanna figured that this meant, herself included and to the best of her knowledge, that since this was the first time she had taught it, that there were now 19 people in North America who now knew how to make the Mittens of Rovaniemi.

It’s an honour. The world is shrinking all the time.