HerStory August 2019: Judith Jamison

August’s HerStory recipient, Judith Jamison, is a world-renowned ballet dancer and choreographer. Born in Philadelphia in the early 1940s, Judith Jamison was introduced to music at a young age. Her parents had wide-ranging musical interests, which they enthusiastically shared with young Judi, but it was dance that captured her heart. Her earliest dance teacher, Marion Cuyjet, recognized and was energized by Jamison’s immense talent. Judith was surrounded by the best of the best in dance, made even better by the fact that this danceratti was also black; the whole representation matters thing writ large. Even now, when just this past year, ballet shoes were finally made in colors that reflected brown skin tones, classical ballet and dance in America has existed more fully for white people than for people of color, so the fact that this young black girl was able to experience her passion by being taught by a woman of color, then, later, by being welcomed into and showcased by a black dance company (which she later was in charge of) is so important.

Now in her mid-70s, Jamison has transitioned to an Artistic Director Emerita status at her old dance company, but was with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater for much of her career. She started as a dancer, whose failed audition for another dance company so beguiled Alvin Ailey that he offered her a position in his company, and Jamison later grew to become a close confidant and artistic muse of Ailey.  He choreographed the 1971 solo, Cry as a love letter to his mother, and specifically to be performed by Jamison. Ailey later dedicated it to “all black women everywhere, especially our mothers.” The dance solo, which Jamison had never performed in its entirety at once until the debut, celebrates feminine strength and resilience, and has been said to be very emotionally and physically taxing to perform.

Shortly before his death, Ailey asked Jamison to take over artistic directorship of his dance company. She had been building her own company, but realized that she could do such good work at the helm of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and she definitely did. She grew the company’s endowment many times over, helped launch a BFA program in collaboration with Fordham University, and was the driving force behind the building of the dance company’s permanent home, which is the largest building dedicated to dance in the USA. Her legacy is amazing and lasting, and she’s still going strong. She’s a true icon in the dance field, showcasing and uplifting the African American experience in dance and sharing her interpretation of that experience with the world. She’s won multiple awards, and continues to be recognized for her contribution to the dance world. We hope, as you knit your skein of Dancing Queen into beautiful pieces of your own art, you think about the doors this HerStory recipient opened for young black women all over.

HerStory July 2019: Amy Sherald

July’s HerStory recipient, Amy Sherald, became a household name when she was announced as Michelle Obama’s choice as portrait painter for her official First Lady portrait. Along with the artist tapped to paint Barack, they were the first black artists ever to paint official presidential portraits. Although she’s been painted (see what I did there?) as an overnight success, she’s been a working artist for decades, and has an amazing body of work. 

Sherald’s work focuses on the black experience in America. For the most part, her subjects are the only focal point in her paintings; backgrounds are mostly monochromatic (although some of her newer pieces feature backgrounds that are a part of the story the painting is telling) and it’s the person being painted you are drawn to. She exclusively paints black subjects, often stopping people in the street and asking if she can photograph them for her work, but deemphasizes their skin tone by rendering it grey (in her words, as a “way of challenging the concept of color-as-race”), while choosing bright colors and prints for their clothing and backgrounds. 

Sherald’s style has been described as “magical realism” or “stylized realism,” and she is a portrait artist, first and foremost; no landscapes for her. Her subjects seem to be gazing at the viewer, not smiling, not acquiescing, but merely existing. The result is arresting; most of her subjects look out of the painting, unapologetically themselves, not smiling for the viewer, but they are thoughtful and strong. If you haven’t seen her work, get over to her website (http://www.amysherald.com/) and spend some time looking through her portraits; they are compelling and telling. Strong and empowering.

Our July colorway, Believing in the Good, is inspired by the 2018 portrait entitled She Always Believed in the Good About Those She Loved. In it, a woman gazes out of the portrait with a look of satisfaction on her face. She’s not smiling, nor does she need to be. She wears a dark blue dress liberally sprinkled with lemons (harkening to the seminal Lemonade album by our first HerStory recipient of the year, Beyoncé). She looks like someone you want believing the good about you. It’s a stunning piece, and creating a colorway to pay homage to it was such a fabulous challenge.

HerStory June 2019: Nnedi Okorafor

Our June HerStory recipient, Nnedi Okorafor, is a Nigerian-American sci-fi and fantasy writer who delves into what she refers to as Africanfuturism in her varied works. She is a second-generation Nigerian-American who spent her formative years in the midwest, kicking ass and taking names both athletically AND mathletically. She fell in love with science fiction and fantasy at a young age, and considers Nigeria, which she visits frequently, to be her muse. It was her bout with scoliosis at 13, and the resulting short-term paralyzation, that inspired her deep-dive into creative writing, and caused a “what-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up” swerve from entomology to fiction writing. 

Her books, and the histories and backstories of her characters, are deeply inspired by African themes and culture, and thus are so very different than the histories and cultures that have long dominated the genres she writes in. Both sci-fi and fantasy have long been the realm of the white male, focusing on Euro-centric histories (see: JRR Tolkein, CS Lewis, etc), and it’s only recently that women and BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color) have been gaining a foothold in the mainstream of these genres. Reading Nnedi Okorafor’s work, one gets a sense for the magic and mysticism that informs the lives of her characters. She deftly weaves deep-rooted tradition with far-reaching technology (as in the Binti series) or a magical world that’s co-existing quietly with non-magical society (as in the Akata Witch series). And then there’s the straight-up feminism inherent in her books. Her heroines are young women, working against a still-existent and oh, so pervasive mysogyny that threatens to stymy their abilities to reach their full potential. But, through hard work, inherent skill, and learned knowledge, they survive and thrive. Much like real-life heroines like Nnedi Okorafor.

Our June HerStory colorway is inspired by the book cover of Akata Witch, the first book in Nnedi Okorafor’s young adult series about a young woman coming into her own in a world she never knew existed (but explains so much). It’s been referred to as the “Nigerian Harry Potter,” but it’s so much more. The story is so rich and beautiful, and Sunny’s journey is so amazing and fraught with stress and tension. If you are a fan of sci-fi and fantasy (or just a fan of good storytelling), grab the book and cast on a pair of socks to honor it and Nnedi Okorafor today.  

HerStory May 2019: Emilie Flöge

Here’s the thing about our May HerStory recipient, Emilie Flöge: she was amazeballs on her own, and we are plotting out pretty much all of the sewing projects in her style as we type. But, she was one of those women lost to history, consigned to a supportive role in a man’s story. Most of us recognize the name Gustav Klimt, and even if we don’t, his iconic painting style is surely familiar. But less familiar to us is likely his companion, his partner in life AND artistic expression, Emilie Flöge. And this is a not-uncommon predicament we find ourselves in here at Knitted Wit as we explore HerStory: the artistic (or scientific, or insert-anything-here) talent of a woman is often hidden behind the man she was associated with during her lifetime. Not because she objectively has less talent, and not because her entire reason for being was to “support her man,” but because we live in a patriarchal society, shored up by white supremacy and misogyny. 

At any rate, we are in love. Emilie Flöge was a trailblazer. She eschewed the established rules of fashion design AND what a woman’s life was “supposed” to look like. She threw away restrictive corsets and close-cut silhouettes in favor of voluminous a-line dresses and empire waists. She used bright colors and bold prints. Along with her two sisters, she founded a retail store that catered to women who were also status-quo-breakers, and created absolutely amazing pieces of wearable art that broke the rules, fashion-wise. She never married, and had a lifelong partnership with Klimt that seems to have been based on mutual respect and admiration. They collaborated and inspired each other; she’s often referred to as his “muse,” but it seems more likely that each was the other’s muse, in a very egalitarian way. The reasons she’s not a household name whereas he is are multifold, but come down to what she was making (clothing for women) and what sex she was. Plain and simple. 

So, drink in the beauty of Klimt’s painting of her. Realize that the colorful and flowing pieces his subjects wore were directly inspired by the colorful and flowing pieces his life partner created. And let’s all try to learn more about these artists on the margins, and bring them to the center of the stories, where they belong. And let’s all make long, flowing dresses in honor of Emilie Flöge, ok? Our Boho Chic colorway is directly inspired by the painting Klimt made of her. She’s powerful, and beautiful, and colorful. Let’s use this colorway to make something that will reflect all that Emilie Flöge was.

HerStory April 2019: Maud Wagner

There are so many acts that, once upon a time (and not that long ago), were considered revolutionary for women. Wearing pants. Having short hair. Wanting to vote. Working outside the home. Choosing not to marry. And tattooing. Which brings us to our April HerStory recipient. (Hell, tattooing is STILL considered a revolutionary act for women, and it’s 2019!!) Maud Wagner was an American circus performer (cool!) and, more importantly for HerStory, the first known female tattoo artist in the United States.

Born in Kansas in 1877, Maud Stevens began traveling on the carnival circuit, perfecting her techniques as an aerialist, acrobat, and contortionist. She traveled the country, also a revolutionary act for a woman in those days. In 1904, she performed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (kind of a World’s Fair type of situation), and there she met Gus Wagner, aka The Tattooed Globetrotter. According to legend, Maud agreed to go on a date with Gus in exchange for a tattoo lesson, and the rest, as they say, is history. Before long, Maud was covered in tattoos, and the Wagners were a power couple on the carnival circuit. Maud began tattooing, along with her circus work, focusing on hand-poked tattoos as opposed to using the now-available electric tattoo guns, precursors to what we have now. She and her husband have also been widely lauded as influential in bringing tattooing inland in the United States; until they began their tattoo-and-tour situation, most tattoos were done in coastal towns. 

As anyone who has fallen headfirst into tattoo obsession (Shannon and Lorajean have both had this experience), once Maud started, she didn’t want to stop. She was covered up to her neck in tattoos, from all accounts done exclusively by either her mister or herself. She had a daughter, Lovette, who also became a tattooist (she started at age 9!), but was unique in that she was a tattoo artist with no tattoos on her own body. Maud wouldn’t allow Lovette to be tattooed by Gus, and Lovette stated that if she couldn’t get tattooed by her father, she didn’t want to be tattooed at all. 

Old Lines is our Maud Wagner-inspired color; it’s inspired by flash you would see at a tattoo shop. A kind of a tea-stained paper with traditional tattoo colors: mostly red and blue/black, with a little bit of teal and yellow poking through. We’re pretty pleased with how it came out, and are looking way forward to seeing it knit up into your lovely creations. 

HerStory March 2019: Ava DuVernay

Each month this year, we are exploring a different artistic avenue, and for March, we’re heading into the movie theater to spend a bit of time with A va DuVernay. She’s an American director, producer, and screenwriter, best known for 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time. Like many HerStory recipients, Ava DuVernay has a big stack of “firsts” to her name: the first black woman to win the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival (for Middle of Nowhere); the first black female director to have a film nominated for a Golden Globe (for Selma); the first black female director to have a film nominated for an Oscar (again, for Selma); the first black female director to be nominated for an Academy Award for a feature (13th); and the first black female director to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million (for A Wrinkle in Time).

Although our March colorway, Tesseract, celebrates DuVernay’s work on A Wrinkle in Time, it is her life’s work calling out racism and centering the black and female experience in America that secured her place in HerStory. Her work has even inspired what’s known as the “DuVernay test,” which is the race equivalent of the Bechdel test. (The Bechdel test is a way to look at women’s roles in films: are there solely to support the main male characters, or are they are fully-formed characters in their own right?). In 2016, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis coined the phrase the DuVernay Test, asking whether “African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.” It is in service to the DuVernay test that we celebrate A Wrinkle in Time for what it has done for characters of color in big film productions. Meg, the main character of the film, is a mixed-race child, and the fact that she is black is just that, a fact. Her blackness is not the central focus of the story; she’s the main character who happens to be black. 

Representation matters, and DuVernay is working every day to help ensure that representation happens. In 2010 DuVernay founded an organization called African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), whose focus was to distribute films made by or focusing on black people. The driving force of her work in this organization is activism. In 2015, the company rebranded itself, and is now ARRAY, bringing into its work the elevation of women filmmakers as well. She has a podcast, The Call-In, centering and showcasing black and female filmmakers.  Last year, she launched the Evolve Entertainment Fund, whose mission is to promote inclusion and provide an opportunity for under-served communities to pursue a dream in the entertainment industry. 

She also continues to create her own projects exploring race. Her 2016 Netflix documentary, 13th, explores the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the US. The film’s title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which freed the slaves and prohibited slavery, with the exception of slavery as punishment for a crime. The film has won both critical and popular acclaim, and won an Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special in 2017. 

Ava DuVernay is a force to be reckoned with, and a still-rising star to keep your eyes on. The aesthetic beauty of A Wrinkle in Time was breathtaking, and her commitment to helping other black women rise in the entertainment field is inspiring. We hope you watch one of her films as you knit away on your Tesseract project, although, if you see the air shimmering slightly ahead of you, think twice before bounding into an alternate universe, ok? Unless, of course, the Mrs’ Who, Whatsit, and Which are there with you.

HerStory February 2019: Teresita Fernandez

 We still have the music of January’s HerStory recipient, Beyoncé, accompanying our knitting (and life) as we head into February with visual artist Teresita Fernández. Teresita Fernández is an American-born sculptor known for large-scale installations that challenge the way we think about and perceive our surroundings. She was appointed by President Obama in 2011 to serve on the US Commission of Fine Arts, and is the first Latina to ever serve on the commission, and only the second person of Latino heritage to ever serve on the commission (her precursor served in the early 1970s). Her art explores the paradox of using easily-found and sometimes-disparate physical objects to represent formless elements: silk thread, stretched and suspended, to represent fire (in 2005′ Fire), or tens of thousands of hand-made mirrored glass cubes to reflect and represent the landscape of a dramatic Japanese inland sea (in 2009’s Blind Blue Landscape), for example. 

She also forces the viewer to see things in alternative ways; in 2015’s Fata Morgana, in New York City’s Madison Square Park, she created a massive outdoor sculpture, which consisted of installing a five-hundred-foot canopy of mirrors. As people walked the paths, they were forced to see the park they were strolling through as a “ghost-like, sculptural, luminous mirage that distorts the landscape and becomes a reflective portrait of urban activity.” (https://www.madisonsquarepark.org/view-do/calendar/mad-sq-art-teresita-fernandez)

Fernández’s 2012 installation, Night Writing, at gallery Lehmann Maupin in NYC (https://dailyartfair.com/exhibition/1199/teresita-fernandez-lehmann-maupin) is the inspiration for this month’s Preconceived Notion colorway. The installation is a bold vision in pinks, blacks, and greys. It’s constructed of a series of large works on paper, representing the very human impulse to look up to the night sky for information, guidance, navigation, and time-keeping, and how and why we interpret what we see. Fernández used Night Writing, the precursor to modern-day Braille, to translate text that became a constellation pattern of perforated holes backed by mirrors – making the work a dynamic, reflective surface. 

We hope you enjoy spending a bit of time being inspired by Teresita Fernández’s view of the world, and we hope you are able, through the knitting of this skein, to experience a bit of the turning-on-its-head of your usual preconceived notions that she would surely want you to feel. Maybe pair this skein with an acid green, or a bright yellow. A deep blue or a blood-red. Or knit up some socks that take you on a journey, like Skew or Sidewinders. Or just knit something mindless while you stroll through an exhibition of Teresita Fernández’s work. 

HerStory January 2019: Beyonce

Welcome to HerStory 2019! This year, we are focusing on artists of all stripes from all over the world. Our line-up is absolutely amazing, full of inspiring women, ass-kicking empowerment, and the most transcendent art you’ve experienced in many different mediums. We’re honoring women who create art in all kinds of ways, and our first artist is one the inspires the fearless leader of Knitted Wit daily, singer/visual artist/dancer/producer/everything, Beyoncé. She’s one of the few people in history who need only one name.

Why is Beyoncé our first HerStory recipient of 2019? Oh, let us count the ways: she is unapologetically herself, a black woman in the United States today. She tells the story of the struggle, and celebrates her culture in a way that is empowering and uplifting. Her recent work is all about telling stories of and for the women who have been left out of so many conversations, those who haven’t had a seat at the table. She uses her art to broaden feminism and center blackness in a time in which we are seeing more in-your-face racism and misogyny than we have seen in a long time.

Beyoncé’s public persona has taken on almost-mythic proportions, striking even in a society that lives to mythologize its celebrities. And she has taken full advantage of that mythologizing, using her celebrity to elevate the black voice, to celebrate black womanhood, and to refuse to allow even those who have put her on that pedestal to write her narrative. In short, Beyoncé is everything we need in today’s society, plus her music is catchy as hell.

Our Beyoncé-inspired colorway, Goddess, takes both its color inspiration and its name from Beyoncé’s centering of black feminism, black beauty, and black motherhood. The gold in the skein is directly inspired by her 2017 Grammy performance, in which an unapologetically pregnant Queen Bey paid homage to multiple goddesses who signify womanhood and fertility, from the African water spirit Mami Wata to Yoruba water goddess Oshun to Hindu goddess Kali. All three of these deities embody feminity, sexuality, and fertility, and Beyoncé channeled every single one in her performance. If you haven’t watched that performance, we strongly suggest you do so, and quickly. The other end of the skein is inspired by the stunning floral arrangements that surrounded her in the pregnancy and birth announcements she shared on Instagram in 2017. We are constantly struck by how much meaning she injects into everything she does, and these images were no different: in both her pregnancy and birth announcements, she mashed the Madonna/Venus archetypes together into her own beautiful interpretation. She deconstructed the Madonna/whore complex, enthusiastically stating that, in her and in all women, both and neither can be and are true at the same time, and womanhood and motherhood and sexuality are all a part of who and what she is.

Whew! We are inspired to listen even more closely to Queen Bey’s music and spend some time watching her visual works, to suss out even more of the meaning she infuses into everything she does. All while knitting socks out of Goddess, of course. How about you? Are you feeling as inspired as we are? Show us! Remember to share your projects on Instagram, by tag @knittedwit, and use hashtags #knittedwit and #herstory2019kal. On Facebook, join the Knitted Wit Knitalongs Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/knittedwitkal), to be inspired by what your co-HerStory knitters have made, and inspire all of us with your creations.