The Red Thread Project

This essay was written for the exhibition "Red Thread: Visible and Invisible" held at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis in the fall of 2005.

The invisible red thread, a filament of life and destiny, according to a Chinese legend, links those who will meet. The exhibition, Red Thread: Visible and Invisible, which includes the product of the community-based Red Thread Project, encompasses in Lindsay Obermeyer's knitted sculpture, intimate and social themes.

At one level, Obermeyer's work addresses personal subjects in a medium associated with women's hearthside handiwork. Knitted in mohair and resembling a sumptuous boutique inventory, her fuzzy sweaters, mainly in jewel tones of red, pink, peach, purple, russet and white, suggest a multi-ethnic assembly of mommies engaged in conversation about parenting: about wonder, delight and love, about identity confusion, about separation anxiety, about holding and letting go. Obermeyer's red thread need not be knitted in red yarn or knitted at all; the umbilical cord, the thread of life, is evident. In several works, a knitted cable physically connects large and small sweaters, sweaters and caps, sweaters and mittens, but the nurturing link is clearly implied in pieces with arms stretched to surreal extension in gestures of reaching, embrace, protection or loss, breasts bulging earthward in ceaseless sustenance, arms and shoulders "weighed down" by dense orbs of responsibility, hands vanished in the connected sleeves of parent and child sweaters.

The social unit expands from the intimate hierarchy of parent and child to small assemblies of peers in two closed circles of sweaters with linking arms. One, a ring-around-the-rosy of child-sized sweater bodies, celebrates play groups/peer groups, the first step in the formation of associations beyond parental bonds. Another ring of mommy-sized sweaters acknowledges the community of parents helping each other struggle with identity and independence in the relationship with their children.

In all of these works, the hand-knitted sweater is a representation of the contemporary human figure. Clothing, a kind of second skin, takes the form of the body part it is intended to cover and employs material appropriate to the function to be served-coverage, warmth, decoration, presentation, ritual, expression of status or self-regard. These sweaters, unadorned but luxuriously colored and highly tactile, evoke bodies that are warm and comforting yet fragile, sensual but not erotic. The relationship of the sweaters to living bodies, however, is sufficiently distanced that distortion of the arms or the exposure on the exterior of intimate or interior features-breasts, umbilical cords-is more amusing than shocking, and the anatomical manipulations are as humorously self- mocking as they are expressions of anxieties.

Two body parts, the hands, are active even if absent in Obermeyer's works. The generative performance of knitting, the homely, repetitive gesture of a hand looping yarn over one needle and the other hand pulling it onto a growing row of stitches, emphasizes the patient labor required to sustain children, ourselves and our places in the world. Displayed on matching hangers, the sweaters seem responsive, not only to each other, but to visitors, whose urge to touch the furry softness brings them close enough to create air currents that flutter the filaments and subtly move the sculptures. The conversation among the works invites everyone's participation; as we are all children and most of us parents or potential parents, the knitted bodies engage us to consider these intimate and universal experiences.

Textile metaphors frequent the language of community, and the interlocking structure of knitting is, perhaps, more apt than others. Interdependency is as necessary a characteristic of the loops of sweaters as it is of societies' members. The Red Thread Project, Lindsay Obermeyer's participatory art work and performance piece in Memphis, is a practical, as well as metaphorical, exercise in community.

During the spring and summer before her exhibition, Obermeyer traveled to Memphis several times to initiate the project, which consisted of eliciting volunteers to knit hats that would be given to charities for distribution to people in need of warm winter clothing. Thanks in part to the recent explosion in the popularity of knitting, the emergence of new knit shops and knitting groups and a media interest in the craft, the response to Obermeyer's invitation was enthusiastic. She visited shops, guilds, elementary schools, senior centers and University of Memphis students. AMUM provided knitting frames for the littlest knitters, knit shops donated yarn and Obermeyer trained volunteers throughout the city in the basic techniques of making hats. Most of these hats were destined for the Love Caps program of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA). As the survivor of a rare childhood cancer, the artist was particularly interested in involving children in treatment at St. Jude Hospital for Children. Parents and siblings at Ronald McDonald House, a temporary residence for families of the sick children, also participated in the project, making hats for young cancer patients.

The original goal for the Red Thread Project was to collect 250 hats, which seemed in advance like an over optimistic expectation. In fact, over 500 Memphians (and some visitors) produced and donated hats of amazing variety and hues, including sophisticated, boutique-worthy chapeaux, hilariously sculptural artworks and a great many colorful and warm head covers. The hats were collected at participating knit shops and organizations and then at AMUM, where they were connected to each other by cords knitted of, you guessed it, red yarn, in a linear assembly more than a quarter mile long. On a brilliant Saturday morning in October, 260 volunteer knitters of all ages, their friends and families and anyone else who wanted to join the fun, including at least two dogs, donned the hats in the University of Memphis' library plaza to take part in a choreographed performance piece-a celebration of community. A videotape of this amazing spectacle was displayed as part of the exhibition, and the 500 plus colorful hats on the Red Thread covered an enormous wall at the entrance to AMUM. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the hats were separated and given for distribution to Ronald McDonald House and MIFA.

Red Thread – Visible and Invisible addresses human relationships on a social scale from intimate to urban. Knitting, the patient action of a pair of hands guided by thoughtfulness and care toward the production of a tangible garment, is a potent metaphor for the process of creating families and communities. Lindsay Obermeyer's two hands made the beautiful and eloquent sweater sculptures in the exhibition, and 1,000 or more hands made the hats that will adorn and protect many heads. The Chinese legend of the Red Thread inspired the tangible red thread that united the hats of the Red Thread Project and the invisible thread that brought together 500 Memphians in a common purpose.

Leslie Luebbers, Ph.D.

AMUM Director

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