A cityscape in crochet

Jo Hamilton's new public mural in SE Portland

by SEBASTIAN ZINN

Scottish fiber artist and Portland transplant Jo Hamilton endows yarn with the representational properties of paint. Using a traditional crochet technique learned from her grandmother, Hamilton creates staggeringly colorful portraits and whimsical cityscapes. Luckily for us Portlanders, Hamilton has crocheted a prodigious landscape mural out of parachute cord. Funded in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council and installed on September 24th, it now adorns the facade of the Slingshot Lounge on SE 56th and Foster (you can view a timelapse of the installation here).

Hamilton’s new mural contrasts depictions of construction cranes and condos with longstanding Foster businesses such as the Phoenix Pharmacy, I’ve Been Framed, and Bar Carlo. Materially, the mural represents a departure from Hamilton’s previous work: she typically crochets with soft yarn up-cycled from second-hand stores, yard sales, and friends. This mural, however, is constructed from thick, weather-treated parachute cord to withstand exposure to the elements for as long as possible. Thematically, the piece represents a return to Hamilton’s roots as a crochet artist. While her focus and best-known works are human portraits, her first foray into representational crochet work in 2006 was an image of a friend’s house and cityscape including Burnside Street and the iconic Portland skyscraper, Big Pink.

Jo Hamilton with her new mural
Jo Hamilton with her new mural at SE Foster Road. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell.

The Foster mural’s installation was orchestrated on a drizzly morning by an eclectic troupe of artists and musicians from the Portland community, all friends, colleagues or patrons of Hamilton’s. The installation crew included the prolific puppet designer and sculptor Michael Curry, of Michael Curry Design, Inc.; Curry’s wife, the textile designer and painter, Julie Hannegan; Dan Gluibizzi, an observant yet soft-spoken watercolorist and sculptor, who like Hamilton, is represented by the Russo Lee Gallery in NW Portland; and John Moen, a leading member of several rock bands including The Decembrists and Eyelids (Jo’s partner, Chris Slusarenko, is also a leading member of Eyelids). Using a cherry-picker, a wire frame was first bolted into the drywall of the bar’s South-eastern exterior to support the mural, which Hamilton had crocheted in three 10 foot sections. The sections were then secured to the frame using zip ties by Hamilton and Michael Curry.

By leaving a varicolored garland of untrimmed threads around all of her crochet pieces, Hamilton pushes back against the notion that an artwork must appear finished. “I’ve discovered that the idea of being finished is a myth,” Hamilton told me. “ “Being finished just happens when you decide to stop.” Standing below her monumental cityscape mural, I felt as if a gentle tug on any of the loose threads just out of reach above me would cause the piece to unravel into a colorful puddle on the sidewalk. But Hamilton’s pieces are tougher than they look––they have the structural integrity of a well-made rug.

Hamilton’s portraits are, like Chuck Close paintings, as abstract as they are realistic. A key difference between Hamilton’s work and Close’s is that her technique can be described as more organic. Whereas Close typically applies paint to a grid to produce a photographically realistic image, Hamilton works directly from photos of her subject without using a grid, template, or computer image. She starts by crocheting the sitter’s eyes and works outward. “Nothing is planned ahead,” she says. “I make it up as I go along.” Likewise, when she begins a cityscape project, she chooses a few landmarks to ground the piece in reality, sometimes referring to a sketch, but improvises the final composition. Crochet, she tells me, has taught her to thrive in synchrony with imperfection. The medium demands that she either feel satisfied with the results, or unravel the polychrome threads and start over, embracing a process of addition and subtraction.

Jo Hamilton with her new mural at SE Foster Road. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell

While many contemporary painters fashion richly layered and textured canvases which hardly qualify as two-dimensional, Hamilton’s knotted works are fundamentally sculptural. Each individual knot has the quality of a three-dimensional, pointillistic brush stroke, with its own form, grain, and contours. Although she hasn’t worked with other media in over a decade, Hamilton said that she wouldn’t be able to do the work she makes now if she hadn’t painted for 20 years first. Painting and drawing, she claims, taught her how to express the shades of light and color she sees in real life to an audience by creating compositions from yarn. “I see tones as colors,” Hamilton says. “So, rather than simply finding a lighter or darker shade of a particular color, I tend to use different color entirely, that does the same work tonally.”

One of the awe-inspiring features of Hamilton’s work is the amount of time, energy and concentration it takes her to produce a single piece, in spite of her mastery of her craft. Over 30 feet in length and five feet tall, her Foster mural is her largest piece to date, and took over four months working to complete. When using yarn, Hamilton says, she is able to work steadily for as long as 12 hours. But with the heavy parachute cord, her hands would begin to cramp after just five. As with many fine artists, the time most of her viewers will spend admiring one of Hamilton’s pieces is drastically incommensurate with the hours of labor she actually invests in her work. In 2012, she created a 30 second stop motion video documenting her portrait-making process and uploaded it to the streaming platform Vimeo. It went viral, receiving over 150,000 views, and was reposted by The Huffington Post. The video’s popularity boosted her online presence. She began finding images of her work on Pinterest, and received requests for interviews from international periodicals based in Turkey and Eastern Russia.

detail of Jo Hamilton's mural
Jo Hamilton, SE Foster Road mural detail. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell

After graduating with a B.A. in Fine Art from the Glasgow School of Fine Art in 1993, Hamilton moved to Portland, Oregon in 1996, where she began working in the restaurant industry. In her first series of crocheted portraits, she used her coworkers as subjects. This project instilled in her the belief that fine art portraiture alters how the public views people who don’t receive much recognition from society. Over the course of her 23 years in Portland, Hamilton has deepened her connection with the city and its different communities through her portraiture and landscape works, and by volunteering on a weekly basis at organizations like OutsideIn (which provides drug addiction treatment to young houseless people) and Our House of Portland (a residential HIV/AIDS care facility). She has subsequently produced portrait series based on mugshots of people processed through the Multnomah County Jail, residents at Our House of Portland, and women she views as matriarchs in her community.

Hamilton’s portraits ask their viewers to reimagine specific demographics in their community who might otherwise remain invisible. Similarly, the Foster mural asks Portland’s ever growing population to reimagine the relationship it would like to have with the city’s roots. Troubled by the construction boom, displacement, and gentrification, Hamilton hopes to draw attention to the widening socio-economic and cultural gap between old and new Portland in her parachute cord cityscape. She hopes it will start conversations that slow our rapid descent towards a less human landscape and help us make decisions about our city’s future that we can be proud of.

Sebastian Zinn has a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an allied field in Art History from Reed College. Since graduating in the Spring of 2018, he has been working as a freelance writer and editor covering a diverse range of topics, including economics, medicine, food, music, literature, film, fashion, and visual and performance art.

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