From 10 feet away, Jo Hamilton’s carefully crafted portraits of the everyman—which include renderings of her family, friends and even suspected criminals—look like broad-brushed paintings. Step closer though, and it becomes clear they have more in common with sweaters than the paint-on-canvas artworks hanging in most museums.
“BAM has an intentional curatorial thread (no pun intended) that includes the display of textile art,” BAM Executive Director Melanie Fales wrote in an email. She added that past fabric artists showcased at BAM include Hildur Bjarnadottir, MK Guth, Devorah Sperber, Nick Cave and many more. “This has been a deliberate curatorial theme for [us] because of the incredible, important contemporary artwork being created in this area,” Fales said.
Hamilton came on the BAM radar thanks to Oregon Public Broadcasting, which aired a segment featuring her work and backstory in 2012. By then, the Oregon-based artist had moved from her original crocheted Portland cityscapes to the portraiture that has become her signature, combining her art school training with the crochet techniques she’d learned from her grandmother in Scotland.
Rather than working from one side of a piece to the other, as one would when making a sweater or scarf, Hamilton begins with the center of every portrait—the eyes—and then knits outward.
“She works like a painter would to create the illusion of mixing colors by placing them side-by-side and ‘mixing’ them with her crochet knots,” Fales explained. “She unravels and re-crochets many times to get the artwork just the way she wants it without having the benefit of building colors upon one another as she could if she were painting on canvas. She crochets in rows, changing each color of yarn as she goes, to match what she sees in a person’s face or a place to capture their character.”
The portraits are certainly affecting. Despite the barriers to realism created by her choice of medium, Hamilton is able to capture a unique, intense gaze and personality in each image. It’s almost as if real people are peeking out through the fuzzy stitches, particularly in the series of portraits based on mugshots taken in Multnomah County, Oregon.
Visitors to BAM over the next five months will get to experience Hamilton’s work for themselves, and can even add their own crocheted knots to a pair of community artworks mimicking her style. While the two pieces—one portrait, one cityscape—may not turn out as well composed as Hamilton’s works, they’re sure to have a similar depth of character, with the essence of Boise captured in every stitch.