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For Dear Life, 2011, 43"H x 31W" x 7.5"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn


Reaching Green, 34"H x 24"W x 23"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn, on artist made armature


Influences, 8"H x 6.5"W x 5"D, hand knit, fulled and sewn.




Artist: Chris Motley, San Francisco, California, USA

Interview 52: Chris exhibited in the 2012 World of Threads Festival exhibition De rerum natura (On The Nature of Things) at the Joshua Creek Heritage Arts Centre in Oakville for the 2012 World of Threads Festival.

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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.



Chris Motley has entered the art world later than usual, using her life-long avocation of knitting, with fulling, as her medium to begin life as an artist after a 30-year non-art career.  In the five years since she began her life making art, she has shown in juried shows throughout the United States, including Metaphoric Fibers at the Textile Center in Minneapolis, Fantastic Fibers in 2010 and 2011 at the Yeiser Art Center in Paducah, KY, National Fiber Directions 2011 in Wichita, KS, the Handweaver’s Guild of America Small Expressions 2011 show and Form & Fiber; A Contemporary Twist on Fiber Art at the Mystic Art Center’s show in Mystic, CT. She has also shown at other shows in California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland, and Virginia.  Armed with a life-time of technique and freed from any expectation of garments or patterns, she is free to develop knitting with fulling in three dimensions. Chris lives in San Francisco, although she is currently enjoying a change of pace living for 6 months in Washington, DC for her spouse’s work. Chris' Website


Artist: Chris Motley


Tell us about your work?

My first reaction is to say how much I love doing it.  It's an opportunity for me to create something artistic, a fact with which I'm still delighted. My work thus gives to me, provideing an opportunity for other people to see me—through juried shows and I've learned that people want to see my work. What a treat!!
My work is also a wonderful exploration of a new world for me. I learned knitting from my mother when I was a child of 10 or 11, and knitting was a natural medium for me since it's what I knew. I have no formal art training and was in a left brain job for 30 years, before I started doing anything as an artist. In the last few years of my career job, which I left only five years ago, I'd discovered I could make artistic things with knitting other items from patterns. Even if I did make lots of changes, I wasn't starting from scratch and I wasn't knitting in three dimensions. These were my bopple and pool neckpieces, which I was quite thrilled to learn, could be sold! This was my first foray into knitting other than garments and patterns. It continued from there to real three-dimensional knitting. When I was leaving my career, knitting came naturally to me as a means of doing something new.  And it became a medium for art, when I learned that I wasn't crazy to be thinking I could knit things that are three-dimensional.
The technique in my work is all knitting and fulling right now. Most people want to call it felting, however when the fibre is knitted or woven, as opposed to being raw fleece before it's shrunk together with agitation and heat, it's called fulling. I knit a piece with wool yarn, and there's always some excitement in fulling it, since it can turn out differently from what I expect. Sometimes that's good and sometimes that's not so good, but it's always a surprise. And sometimes it's initially not so good and becomes really good!
I'm interested that my work seems to be derived in some respect from words, odd as that sounds.  Words were a big part of my career, and thus I'm realizing that presenting words pictorially is part of what my work does. On Edge, Indecision, Living Alone, Help and For Dear Life are three-dimensional pictures of the words. 
On a practical side, knitting is repetitive so there can be relaxation to it. At the same time, I'm constantly pushing to see what works for three dimensions. I work from the point of view that if I can see it, I can knit it, but sometimes that takes effort and exploration. A certain piece can change immensely once I start making it and it can emerge as I knit. So my work has a nice balance of old and new, of known and unknown.


Helping, 67'H x. 46"W x 3"D, hand knit wool, fulled and sewn.


From where do you get your inspiration?

My ideas come from all kinds of places. The process of knitting can itself be a driving force in my art. Since hand knitting is a slow process, I can think of an idea for another piece as I knit. Having knitted my whole life, I can now knit whatever I want, free from any preconceived notion of typical knitted fabric and without any pattern. So an abstract or representational piece can emerge from not having any expectation or confinement. This is true for the piece Emotion I, which is a technique which combines sewing with knitting and fulling. But I'm always interested and amazed how much a piece can develop differently from what I have in mind when I begin. The project is confined by the realities of what works, which is itself a constant exploration.
Alternatively, I see something in the real world or in my head, unrelated to yarn at all, which triggers an idea.   An example of this is the piece Living Alone which is a torso scratching her own back with a backscratcher. It was, for me, the essence of my mother's life after my father died, since she'd never lived alone in her life. She had backscratchers and would sometimes ask me to scratch a place she could not reach. I was enchanted that people would approach this piece and find great humour in it.  At the same time, there was a sadness in it for me. How great is that duality?! 
I've been enjoying making body parts, in particular hands, arms and heads.  My piece On Edge is a pictorial concept of the feeling of being uneasy. When I enjoyed making those heads, I kept going with that development of pieces that turned out to be pictorial representations of different concepts. Who's There? and Second Thoughts reflect the concept that people aren't always who they appear. Reaching Green and Wide Open Ears reflect an expression of a goal. Sometimes a word, phrase or concept comes first and I try to create a pictorial reflection of the word, such as For Dear Life, Help and All Hands. As I said before, words seem to play a part in what I knit, an effort to make a piece that displays the title. These pieces also reflect my enjoyment of knitting a particular item, the hands, and seeing that they can be made into a piece. 

Emotion, 17"H x 10"W and 8"D, Knitted wool, Fulled and Sewn



What other mediums do you work in, and how does this inform your work?

I am currently not using other mediums in my art. I have always bought art, both painting and ceramics, so the aesthetics from other mediums help me somehow, I'm sure, in terms of what 'looks right.' And, I enjoy looking at sculpture to see three dimensions in other mediums to build into my work. 


Influences, 8"H x 6.5"W x 5"D, hand knit, fulled and sewn.

Who's There, 2010, 9"H x 7.5"W x 6.5"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn

What specific historic artists have influenced your work?  

I can't say what historic artists have influenced my work since I don't make a conscious connection between my work and others. Sometimes I see a piece and wonder what I could do with fibre around it, such as Louise Bourgeouis, perhaps.  Now that I'm pondering the question, perhaps the piece I'm working on right now came from my seeing her piece Spring at the Chicago Art Institute. I've enjoyed art my whole life and go to galleries and have art in my house, but I can't connect it up with mine. Perhaps that's a function of having no formal art training.
One influence that is important, however, is seeing art that was untraditional and which could make me confident that knitting could be a medium for art. Ruth Asawa is important to me since seeing her pieces gave me confidence that art can consist of very different materials and techniques. Her hanging wire sculptures in the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco are very inspirational. The fact that they so compare to knitting and that they look simple at the same time as they look complicated, make them very interesting. They make me think it shouldn't be totally apparent how something happens with a piece of art. Eva Hesse is another artist whose pieces can make someone who knits, think that knitting can be a medium for art. Her pieces are made of all kinds of different materials and are very untraditional.



For Dear Life, 2011, 43"H x 31W" x 7.5"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn

For Dear Life, 2011, 43"H x 31W" x 7.5"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn



What specific contemporary artists have influenced your work?  

Most directly, the artists that have influenced my work are those artists from whom I learned that sculptural knitting wasn't just in my head, as they provided an affirmation for me to continue.  I took workshops with Karen Searle, Adrianne Sloane, Lori Goldsmith and Tracy Krumm. The important part of these workshops was not the technique at all, since I knew those with respect to knitting. But its application to three dimensions was new.  And most important of all, was sitting with a group of people and hearing them talk about it. It was a new language for me and it was exciting and the camaraderie around something we all enjoyed, was also lots of fun and inspirational. 
The work of Karen Searle, who lives in Minnesota, especially her work around bodies, must have been an influence, given the number of pieces I've done which involve heads and hands.  I remember her being in the workshop knitting wire bodies and the possibilities of three-dimensional knitting came alive for me. Her work spoke to me about communicating through your art. She knits with wire and I knitted a wire wine glass in her workshop, which of course would not stand upright.  I combined that glass with two other knitted glasses, of wire and waxed linen, for the piece A Long Night. That inherent inability to stand upright, turned the piece into one which reflected for me, my experience with someone I know who drinks too much!
Secondly, it has been the artists in my critique group who have had the most direct influence on me. I met three of them in the first workshop I ever attended. They had a group already going and invited me to come along. I had to get up my nerve a bit the first time I went, since it was all so new to me. Having had no art training, I wouldn't have known what a critique group was, except to extrapolate from "book group."  That group is still together four years later and I attribute much of my growth to that group. Heavens, I didn't even know what a 'call for artists' was, so for me it's been a miraculously fun journey. 


Living Alone, 2010, 19'H x 18"W x 13"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled, on artist-made armature  


What role do you think fibre art plays in contemporary art?

I think that there is still reluctance on the part of some people to consider fibre art as art. This issue compares with the continuing examination of the intersection of craft with art and whether craft is art?  While there's no issue in my mind, it remains out there—look how recent was the change in the name of the Museum of Art and Design in New York. Fibre itself plays a part in art if you look at Matisse paintings. But fibre art having an influence on art?—That's something I'd have to study; I really don't know. 

On Edge, 10"H x 33"W x 5"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled, on painted board   

Ears Wide Open, 2010, 9"H x 44"W x 11"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn


Can you talk a bit about the commercial viability of fibre art and do you find it more difficult to show and sell your work than non-fibre artists?

I don't know much about this. In the five years I've done this, I've sold one piece other than my neckpieces. I understand that it's more difficult to sell fibre work that has no purpose e.g. something that is not a garment and more difficult than more traditional art, since it's not obvious how to care for it. I'm lucky enough to already have worked and prepared for retirement for thirty plus years, so I'm free of those pressures and haven't explored it very much.   


Second Thoughts, 2010, 10.5 x 12 x 8, Knitted Wool, Fulled; Knitted Wire and Sewing

All Hands, 2011, 48" x 10"w x 8" (on top), Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn


When did you first discover your creative talents? 

I'm still discovering them and loving it!! I had a 30-year very left-brain job that I just loved, but I was ready to leave that. I knew I wanted something else going on and my avocation of knitting seemed like a good segue. I started making and selling my 'bopple' neckpieces and 'pool' neckpieces in the last couple of years of that work life—but it was the workshops I took and my critique group from where I got most encouragement and discovery. 
And for those of you wondering what my career was, I was a lawyer for 30 years, in the public sector. My particular job was terrific, and I loved it, but the "rules", the schedule and my day-to-day life now, are very different, a wonderful change.



Barn Swallow, 13"h x 14" x 8", Knitted Yarn, Fulled and Sewn, with Nailed Stained Boards

Bopple Neckpiece, 2008, 24" long x 2"W x 2"D, Knitted Wool and other fibers, Fulled and Sewn, with magnetic clasp    


How does your early work differ from what you are doing now? 

Since I've been an artist for only four or five years (and it took me a couple of years to be able to say I was an artist without stumbling over the words), that question doesn't really apply to me except to say that it's gotten more sophisticated I think, and I have more confidence.  When renowned jurors want to include my work, how can I not be encouraged?  And I didn't know what a call for entry was five years ago. That confidence makes me feel freer to explore all kinds of things. 


Reaching Green, 34"H x 24"W x 23"D, Knitted Wool, Fulled and Sewn, on artist made armature


Please explain how you developed your own style. 

Since I didn't know any style using knitting as a means of creating sculpture, I think I've been free of influences that make my art derivative.  I'm not formally trained except that knitting comes second nature to me, so it leaves me free to see what I can do.  It is new enough that there aren't any rules of which I'm aware, so I don't apply any. If I see it, I can knit it, so I start with a wide-open attitude.  I'm sure the importance of words in my career life, make me very tuned into words as part of my inspiration. 


Red and Black Bopple Neckpiece, doubled, 20"L x 2"W x 2"D, knitted wool, and other fibers, fulled, with magnet clasp.


Tell us about your studio and how you work. 

My studio is my daughter's old bedroom in our house in San Francisco. It's the front room upstairs in our Victorian home, with good light. When I left formal work, I equipped the room with a sofa and an armless chair, armless so my arms weren't confined, and I could spread yarn around it and get to any of it.  And, I went to a yarn store that was going out of business, where everyone else was checking out the yarn. I immediately asked about the wonderful glass, stacked cube shelves and bought them rather than the yarn. My studio has two sides lined with these shelves.  These hold my yarn, organized by content and colour (though I prefer a yarn store to be organized by content and gauge). 

If I'm in the first stages of developing a piece, or when I'm seeing what works and doesn't work, I knit without doing anything else. I lay colours out if I'm doing something in which colour progression is important. I do samples of how various yarns knit up and full if it's the structure that is important. So during the development of a piece I'm concentrating on the piece itself.  But when I'm actually knitting it, or experimenting more casually, I accompany my knitting with other things. All of my 'reading' is done audibly—I have a subscription to Audible.com, and I listen to books and knit. 


Sculptural Knitting, 10" H x 36"W x 3"D, Knitted Wool Hands, Fulled and Sewn, with ceramic sculpture tools


What project has given you the most satisfaction and why? 

Each piece has a certain place, but I'm particularly attached to Living Alone. The duality of the humour in it, as well as the sadness, along with the connection to my mother, makes it particularly interesting to me. It was my first real piece and the first piece that got into a juried show, so I'd say Living Alone for sure. 
I'm also very fond of my piece For Dear Life. Combining with other people and friendship is such an integral part of what makes life meaningful, it's a picture of that concept for me, as well as a play on the importance of "hanging in there."

Hugging Scarf, 77"L x 4.5"W, hand knit wool.



Where do you imagine your work in five years? 

You're asking me to imagine 5 years into the future when I wouldn't have dreamed I'd be where I am now 5 years ago. So I don't think I can say much about this. I'm toying with adding stitching to my pieces, so perhaps that'll occur. And I've learned about Solvie, so I may integrate working with Solvie into my work somehow. That's just percolating in the back of my brain at this point. 


Artist: Chris Motley


Is there anything else you would like to tell us about you or your work that we haven't asked? 

I'd like to convey the exuberance and possibility of having a 'second life.' I lived a life full of schedules and demands, and that's even with working three-quarter time while my children were young. I loved my job as a lawyer and I'm proud of that time, but the new life I'm discovering is a wonderful change. I 'retired' (a verb) when I was 58 from that world, but it hasn't meant I need to be 'retired' (an adjective).  I'm in a new world and I'm in my 60's with whole new opportunities opening up. The ability now to make art and do what is not scheduled, except by my own inspiration, is wonderful. 


A Long Night, 2010, 3.5"H x 13"W x 12"D  Knitted Wire and Knitted Waxed Linen


What interests you about the World of Threads festival? 

I was enthusiastic about it the minute I started reading about it. It's a forum presented for fibre artists to present their work, and at the same time provide an opportunity for artists to learn from other artists and see other artists' works.  The size and variety of the festival will make it a wonderful exposition of the myriad of ways fibre can be used artistically. I applaud it!!!  I already have dates calendared. 


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Interviews published by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.