As adults we must all at some point endure grief, although the loss of a loved one affects each of us differently. For some people knitting can provide a lifeline that helps to process loss, a mechanism by which the knitter can deal with overwhelming sadness, and a way to mark off the time it takes to heal. This was my experience. Knitting provided me with a safety net and a way of reconstructing my life, a turn from the personal space of grief to the political realm of art.
Knitting carries with it the legacy of care (for it takes time to knit by hand), patience, empathy and love. Hundreds of knitting patterns have been passed down through generations, one to the next. Knitting can be a powerful metaphor for sustainability, continuity and remembrance, and also for loss.
I began by knitting a single human skeleton, and went on from there to knit a skeleton of a horse (a memory of a school museum visit), then a snake, a dolphin, kangaroos, emu, frogs and children. Thirteen years later, I am still knitting, and the work is ever more urgent.
This year more tuskless than tusked elephants were born. The trade in ivory has been a significant cause of this evolutionary turn. Yesterday I read that giraffes were being added to the endangered species list, and that a mother orca carried her dead calf on her nose for more than a week. There have been many stories like this in the news recently, as we begin to see our part in nature play out in climate crisis, habitat loss and species extinctions on a massive scale. Humanity sweeps and swarms across this pretty blue planet, leaving no stone unturned, no environment untouched. At present, science is pretty much on its way towards conquering and confounding nature. We are producing a catastrophe of our own making. We are reaping what we sow.
In my series “The Anatomy Lesson 2005-2018”, several islands are inhabited by knitted skeletons, each meticulously hand-knitted from bone-coloured yarn. Each bone has been carefully observed, and is rendered in tiny stitches from 100 percent wool.
This series represents both the end and the beginning of time. But these are not the skeletons of dinosaurs; they are contemporary animals on the edge of oblivion and we humans are in their midst, responsible through entanglement. Knitted skeletons representing long dead animals and humans cling and sink into the surface of a life raft made of ruined colonial furniture, emerging from (or sinking into) the rubbery black surface (like a mammoth in the La Brea Tar Pits). The islands resemble flotsam of the congealed plastic kind, floating off the coast of Miami: miles of plastic, fathoms deep, an island of shopping bags and Disney toys, an island without a name.
In the famous painting by Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolas Tulp (1632), from which my series of knitted works takes its title, we now know there are anatomical mistakes. The missing and wrong information evident in the painting’s detail has been lost in translation from one material (medical knowledge) to the next (painting). It is this idea of loss that the knitted skeletons demonstrate. Similarly, other works in my series refer to the tradition of romantic landscape painting and poetry (“The Wreck of Hope” or “The Waste Land”), but turn these grand narratives on their heads. Instead of a sense of glorious conquest over a sublime landscape, the feeling that pervades my work is a sense that it is too late for us all, and that only geological time will erase the mistakes we human animals have made.
Michele Beevors is an Australian artist and a Senior Lecturer at Dunedin School of Art in New Zealand. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University, and a Master of Visual Arts from The Australian National University, School of Art and has exhibited in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.