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One Row At A Time: Knitting An American Flag

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Saturday, July 02, 2005
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Excavators and aluminum light poles assist artist Dave Cole and his assistant Joel Taplin knit an American flag.
North Adams- Once witnessed, the sight is unlikely to fade from memory: two mustard-yellow John Deere excavators holding 25-foot aluminum light poles serving as knitting needles for artist Dave Cole and his assistant Joel Taplin. Cole and Taplin stand on a boom suspended about 30 feet in the air and, using a long fishing gaff dubbed “the large crochet hook,” cast yards of 18-inch-wide strips of red and antique-white felt over the needles. By July 3 noontime, the stitches are expected to have produced a 20-foot wide American flag. The knitting of the flag is staged at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art courtyard, and at noontime July 2, a small crowd had gathered to watch “Old Glory” take shape. The Knitting Machine Cole is an artist who works from a Providence, R.I. studio. The flag project is part of an exhibition at MASS MoCA titled “Dave Cole: The Knitting Machine,” which is included in the larger “American Traditions” series occurring this summer at numerous Berkshire region locations. Cole is known as a sculptor. His MoCA exhibit includes a miniature depiction of the knitting machine as well as Cole’s “Memorial Flag,” a 5-foot by 9-and-a-half-foot flag that was designed with about 18,000 toy soldiers melded together under a gleaming coating of red, white, and blue. “The Evolution of the Knitting Needle Through Modern Warfare,”described in media information as “a convincing display of hypothetical army-issue knitting needles—what Cole imagines knitting needles would have been had the Army mandated them as combat equipment for seven years, from the Civil War through the first Persian Gulf War,” also holds court at the art museum. Speaking briefly while on a July 2 break, Cole said that knitting has been part of his art for several years. “I’ve been knitting in my art work for a number of years and I’m always trying to make things bigger. I always want to see what’s possible, and I haven’t found impossible yet.” A July 1 Boston Globe article written by Cate McQuaid quoted Cole as saying his knitting experience began while Cole was a Brown University student. The work helped him focus on lectures, Cole told McQuaid. Cole’s work as a sculptor took the forefront after his 2000 graduation from Brown. But Sept. 11, 2001 launched a series of events that changed Cole, he reportedly said to McQuaid. “I spent the week after Sept. 11 in New York, doing search-and-rescue work, helping to run a supply depot,” Cole said in the article. “I knew enough to know I’d never be able to get my head around what was happening. So I went down to get my hands around it. That’s how I understand things.” In 2002, one year after the day forever known as “9/11,” Cole unveiled “The Knitting Machine” in Providence, after city officials asked him to design a public display that would acknowledge the anniversary. The flag has the power to generate differing perspectives, according to Cole’s quote in the Globe article. “Within the same piece, you might be making one statement and then making a contradictory statement. Both are true. It’s not something in between. Somehow it’s both. The flag is a symbol of hope and promise and what Army recruiters would like you to think. And it’s a symbol of shortsighted, greedy international behavior. It always has been. I like that the flag means a lot of things.” A Delicate Dance The use of construction equipment – components of building and of tearing down- offer their own thought-provoking contribution to the art. A process that brings construction equipment to knitting requires extra manpower, and in addition to Taplin, Clark Sopper, Karen Neves, and Dante Birch are at the museum to keep the project going. Neves and Birch were in the excavator operator seats just before noon. The excavators do not move from their positions during the knitting, but the buckets, which are attached to long “arms” known as booms, control the needles. Cole gives instructions to the excavator operators via hand-signals. “I can’t even describe it [guiding the controls], it’s like doing a very delicate dance,” said Neves. “It’s like pinkies on the controls.” Neves is a fully insured and licensed carpenter who works in Rhode Island, she said. “You have to think about it [working the controls] as an extension of yourself,” said Birch, a long-time friend of Cole. While Neves and Birch sat in the excavators and Cole and Taplin handled the up-in-the-air work, Sopper answered a few questions about the project and the people involved. Taplin has a background in industrial engineering and Sopper is a design student at the Rhode Island School of design, Sopper said. He explained that the felt is pulled from a long, rod-like spool and threaded through a loop so that the tension remains consistent as it makes it way upward for the actual knitting. And Watching From Below... Among the spectators were Cole’s parents, David and Nancy Cole of Hanover, N.H.. The couple said that they enjoy watching their son at work, and have traveled to see him create and showcase his art. “We’re typical parents,” David Cole said with a smile. Dave Cole shares an artistic, technical, and mechanical ancestry, according to his father. Nancy Cole’s father built a train car that has traveled on the famed Mount Washington Cog Railway, and he also ran a blacksmith shop, David Cole said. The shop was a favorite haunt of Dave Cole and his boyhood chums, a group that included Dante Birch. “Dave, Dante, and their friends spent a lot of time at the shop, fooling around with tools and engines,” said David Cole, and added that he taught his son to weld when Dave Cole was about 11 years old. Dave Cole had been sculpting since he was young boy, and welding skills added a dimension to the process. The elder Cole said he and his wife possess a sculpture titled “Gunslinger” that Dave Cole welded from scrap metal when he was about 14 years old. As a sculptor, Dave Cole has created teddy bears from metal sheets, which are cut into very thin strips and then knitted into shape. The bears are artistic pieces and not toys. “You should see them,” said Nancy Cole. “They are something.” An American flag, John Deere equipment, a sculptor native to New England whose background includes a family blacksmith shop and a father who taught welding skills: Dave Cole and his exhibit may well define all that the “American Traditions” series is meant to encompass. But if that’s not enough, MASS MoCA has another American tradition on tap for July 3. A cookout featuring hot dogs is scheduled to occur at the courtyard at about noontime, just after the expected completion of the flag. Susan Bush can be reached at 802-823-9367 or by e-mail at suebush@adelphia.net.
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