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In one of Munroe Center for the Arts’ small studios in Lexington, Adrienne Sloane spends hours knitting as NPR plays in the background. Drawing inspiration from the stories she hears, Sloane creates sculptural works whose incisive political commentary on issues ranging from same sex marriage to the Iraq war contrasts sharply with the softness of their materials.
Though Sloane is a lifelong practitioner of fiber arts, she began using knitting in political fine art relatively recently. Sloane’s early works were knitted, sculptural hats that she sold at craft fairs. But when her studio building burned down in 1999, Sloane stopped knitting.
Nevertheless, she continued amassing a fiber collection. When it took over her dining room table in 2004, she decided to start knitting again. Instead of creating craft-based objects (traditionally defined as handmade, functional works), Sloane decided she wanted to create fine artworks that conveyed her politics.
Her most recent piece, titled “The Unraveling,” is currently on view at the Society of Arts + Crafts in Boston’s Seaport until July 7. It is comprised of a knitted American flag that obscures a copy of the U.S. Constitution, which is printed onto a delicate mesh fabric.
The piece is accompanied by a performance in which Sloane unwinds her stitches, allowing the flag’s threads to gather in ever-growing red and white heaps on the floor. When she reaches the blue area of the flag, the stars will fall off one by one.
An outgrowth of work that she completed as the Society’s artist-in-residence in 2017, Sloane says “The Unraveling” tackles the decay of democratic institutions under President Trump. The destruction of the piece is a durational protest performance that she says will last until Trump is impeached or concludes his term. Sloane hopes to convey to viewers that despite its international stature, the United States — like the brittle materials she uses in her piece — is fragile.
“I'm seeing the flag as a symbol of what's happening governmentally,” says Sloane. “What I'm doing here is really a representation of how the underpinnings of our democracy are being ripped out from under us.”
As I did background research for the interview, I came across a different artwork that looked a lot like “The Unraveling.” Sonya Clark’s similarly named “Unraveling” was made two years before Sloane’s in 2015. As the piece travels from museum to museum, Clark invites visitors to help her pick apart the Confederate Flag thread by thread.
The pieces look jarringly similar. Both artists engage in long-term performances of destroying the flags. And, the partially deconstructed flags both have fibers dangling and accumulating beneath them in color-coded piles. Although Sloane thinks she has seen Clark’s piece before, she says it did not inspire “The Unraveling.” The pieces certainly have their differences. Clark’s destruction of her flag is generative. Unweaving the racist symbol alongside others diminishes its power and breeds new understandings of racism itself. In contrast, Sloane’s piece is more like a mirror, an emotional reflection of a charged political climate and a warning of its potential escalation.
Sloane also knits her flag. This choice, Brigitte Martin — the Society of Arts + Crafts’ executive director — says infuses her work with references to lesser known and deeply political histories of craft.
“I think art should provide a way to create meaning and really be an expression of what is relevant for humankind these days,” Martin notes. “And I think this piece in a very poignant way shows an aspect of craft that people really don't know much about, which is that craft can be extremely political.”
Specifically, Martin goes on to tell me, Sloane is creating fine art work that uplifts a lineage of female artists who re-situated knitting — a skill often diminished as domestic and feminine — into piercing political commentary. Her work is in dialogue with that of predecessors, such as suffragettes who embroidered banners with voting rights messages. It also speaks to her peers, who create protest art through yarn bombing and knitting — albeit problematic — pussy hats.
Over the course of the exhibition, Sloane will give artist talks that situate her work within the historical context of craft and fine art. The next one is June 15.
However, toward the end of our interview Sloane reminds me that this history, though important, is a secondary aspect of what she hopes viewers will gain from “The Unraveling.” Her first priority is to encourage them to recognize the urgency of the political climate and take action.
“Democratic institutions are fragile,” she warns. And strengthening them will “take a buy in from everybody.”
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