A Summer-Camp Craft Becomes High Art

Portland artist Jo Hamilton crochets larger-than-life portraits and wall-sized cityscapes—you'll never look at a ball of yarn the same way.

By Angela Sanders July 1, 2014 Published in the July 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

In Jo Hamilton’s portraits, laugh lines crease purple. Crow’s feet erupt in green shadows, evoking the intensity of painter Lucian Freud. She works not with paint, however, but yarn. Yes: crochet, medium of pot holders and thrift-store afghans. “Fine art looks down on craft as being lesser, but now craft is applied more to art. I like that,” Hamilton says.

Inspired by a textiles show at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in late 2006, the 42-year-old from Scotland grabbed skeins of yarn. Over the next two years, she crocheted a wall-size cityscape of Portland, complete with Big Pink, Burnside, and a granny square in honor of her Gran, who taught her to crochet when she was 6 years old. Her career as a fiber artist was launched.

Hamilton’s coworkers at Le Pigeon teased her about her new artistic calling. “Shut up,” she replied, “or I’ll crochet you.” And she did. Beginning, in each case, with the left eye (“If I get the eyes right, I’ll capture the person”), she stitched the restaurant’s chefs, servers, and kitchen staff. Each portrait took more than 200 hours. 

Since then, she’s crocheted dozens more portraits. The Portland cityscape traveled to Paris’s Printemps department store for its London Mania exhibition. (Hamilton, a Portlander since the mid-1990s, says, “They thought I still lived in Scotland.”) Right now the cityscape hangs in Contemporary Oregon Visions at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, where it joins five crocheted faces and a full-length nude. Next, Hamilton will crochet portraits at a facility for people living with HIV/AIDS, where she volunteers.

“It’s nice when work celebrates how it’s made,” she says of her craft/art combination. Lucian Freud—and everyone’s yarn-crazy aunt—would agree.

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