I moved to Portland from Scotland in the mid-nineties after graduating
from the Glasgow School of Art with a B.A. in drawing and painting. A few
years later I began to experiment with crochet to make my art. This
traditional process of hand-crafting fabric from loops of yarn with a
small hook was originally taught to me at an early age by my Gran. As I
made my first crocheted works depicting the city of Portland and its
people, I developed an intuitive crochet technique and a new kind of art
My aesthetic stems as much from the traditional home-crafts that
were handed down to me as my later fine art training. Although what I do
could be described as painting with yarn, the versatility of my
commonplace materials enables me to create tactile objects that reference
everyday life while exploring conventions of western fine art and
traditional craft. My work is large scale and may appear realistic at
first, but the saturated colors, textures and hanging threads reveal my
process and medium. I work directly from photographs and use no sketches
or patterns; I begin in the middle and work out from there until the piece
is complete. I look, I work, I unravel and rework until I think I have
secured the substance of the representation in my knots. The act of crochet itself is meditative and time-consuming, prosaic and repetitious,
but knot-by-knot the images materialize from rows of color and pattern,
the products of humble beginnings. The walls of my studio are lined with
my palette of balls of yarn arranged by color and tone, mostly collected
from thrift stores. More recently I have also begun to explore different
media and dimensions with a stop motion animation of my portrait process,
and installation work featuring a new series of three-dimensional masks.
To date I have completed dozens of large scale crocheted works, often in
series, including portraits, nudes, masks, cityscapes, Multnomah County
Jail mug shots, as well as commissioned works. Many of these will be featured in an upcoming 2 person exhibition: CONTEMPORARY OREGON VISIONS: JO HAMILTON AND IRENE HARDWICKE OLIVIERI at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, April 1st thru August 3rd.
In what ways does your environment influence your work (present and/or past)?
My upbringing in Scotland definitely influenced my current practice. My Mum and Gran were always knitting and crocheting, so I grew up watching them constantly make things, and learned both crafts when I was about six. Then I became interested in fine art and went to Glasgow School of art to study. But it wasn’t until I moved to Portland and had been out of art school for a few years that I managed to combine my interests into a new practice.
What is the best part about being an artist?
Being self employed
What is the worst ?
Being self employed
What inspires you?
Light, colour, looking… Also I am surrounded by my materials in the studio, so that keeps me thinking about what I want to make and what colours and textures I should use. I love to use my hands; I find the crochet work satisfying and real in a different way than painting, perhaps because I’m making an actual object from scratch, as well as creating an image.
How would you describe the initial impulse to make a new piece?
I spend a lot of time thinking in images and imagining what the work will look like. Of course this does not mean that what I see in my head bears any resemblance to the finished work, but it helps to get me started. Often it’s a photo that has struck me as a good subject that inspires a new piece. I save a lot of photos over time and it can take a few years to get to the ones I want to crochet.
Are there some rituals you follow in your creative process and/or special tools you use for your work ?
I like to clean my studio really well between each piece. It’s not a large space, so I can only comfortably work on one at a time. When I start a piece I pull the colours of yarn that I’m going to use from the shelves that line my studio walls and lay them out on the futon where I work. As get further into each piece I need to grab more and more and so by the time I’m finished I have a big pile of everything I’ve used; all the yarn that constitutes the palette for that particular piece.
How did you learn your unique way of working?
With a lot of trial and error really, and it’s still like that years later. I came up with the idea of trying to ‘crochet a painting’ after seeing a show at my local craft museum. I had never been totally satisfied with my paintings, and always felt that I still had to find ‘my’ medium. The first attempts I made eventually became the monster cityscape ‘I Crochet Portland’, which I worked on over the course of two and a half years. I also began to experiment with portraiture around the same time. With both the cityscape and the first portrait series I think you can really see the learning curve as I began to solve technical problems and was able to achieve more realistic results as I went on. Because I made art originally with painting and drawing, I don’t ever graph or plot my work ahead of time or during the process. I use only the photo as my source and eyeball it from start to finish.
How closely do you follow your original idea in the process of making a piece?
With the cityscapes, not so much; there’s more room for experimentation and playfulness. For portraits I do refer to the photos quite closely, for instance if it is a commission piece, obviously I need to achieve a good likeness of the person. With my self-driven work I have a bit more leeway in the choices I make.
Do you typically work on one piece at a time or have several going at once?
I usually only work on one at a time because that is all I have room for in my studio. Each work uses many different yarns and I like to keep them all out in front of me until that work is finished. If I had a bigger studio, I might jump from piece to piece.
How does the internet affect your work?
The internet has actually been very good to me. I set up my website in 2008, just before I first exhibited the crochet work for the first time. My work began getting posted on blogs almost immediately, and later I started to get a few inquiries for articles and commission work, and eventually offers to show my work nationally. After I made my stop motion portrait animation and posted it online at http://vimeo.com/41159734, it was featured on the Huffington Post which made a lot of people suddenly aware of my work. So for quite a few years I managed to develop my career solely using the internet and my website, without any kind of gallery representation. It’s great to hear from people all over the world and to make connections because of the work.
How do you balance your personal life with your work as an artist?
My husband is very supportive and helps a lot with ferrying me and my work around. He’s a musician, and so it’s easy for us to talk about our creative projects together.
How do you get through artist’s blocks?
I don’t really get artist’s blocks, just occasionally overwhelmed at the work ahead of me when I’m first beginning a new project. When it happens I try not to think too much, just to work “a little every day, without hope and without despair”, to quote author Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen.
How do you deal with the disappointment/despair when your work isn’t selling well?
I haven’t yet had the experience of my work selling well, so I’m just happy when it does happen!
What are your vices?
Buying yarn, and wine.
What kind of pets do you have?
I recently got a little dog- Dougal, a rescue terrier.
What is the last wild animal you saw?
I saw an urban fox in Glasgow the last time I was home in Scotland. We were walking in the west end of the city and it just trotted right past us on the street. It was a very beautiful creature.
Jo is represented in Oregon by Laura Russo Gallery
ARTIST TALKS: Jo and Irene will be giving talks on Wednesday April 16 @ 5:30 pm with a reception afterwards.
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