Catalog: THOU SHALT KNOT by Christina Connett, PhD, Chief Curator
A review by Catherine K. Hunter, Independent Museum Consultant
To the average person, knots are a tangled mass or a simple way to tie a shoe; to a 19th century sailor, knots were essential tools, a folk art and a measure of nautical speed. The exhibition THOU SHALT KNOT: Clifford W. Ashley introduces the universal world of knot tying with a surprising collection of nautical, domestic, military and creative objects that are multi-media, multi-cultural, beautiful, sobering, sometimes humorous, and relevant today.
The exhibition began as a tribute toClifford W. Ashley, a New Bedford area native, marine painter and author of the definitive book on knot tying, The Ashley Book of Knots, also known as the “bible of knot tying.” The exhibition title is not meant to be religious; rather, it reveals itself as a wonderful play on words.At the start, the title suggests that devotion and humor were necessary personality traits for Ashley to document more than 3,900 nautical (and occupational) knots with over 7,000 hand-drawn illustrations.
Special emphasis is given to nautical examples. Knot tying was at its prime in the 19th century when sailors, sail makers and riggers were the greatest experimenters with rope.At sea for years at a time with access to rope broken on the whale hunt, men became folk artists. Thou shalt not be bored. Thou shalt not waste rope. Thou shalt knot. (The other material available for folk art was whale teeth or bone to make scrimshaw.)
Ashley’s sample knots are cleverly displayed in-the-round, elevated and suspended on pins (up to fourteen incheshigh) like a collection of air-borne insect specimens or alien puppets (casting anthropomorphic shadows). With a copy of The Ashley Book of Knots availablefor reference, note the “ABOK” number on each museum label, then examine illustrations that dissect its topology. Be sure to visit the museum’s Learning Center for knot tying activities.
Ashley’s humor is evident in his book as heintroduced small icons (the emoji of their day) to indicate the merit of a particular knot. For example,“EASY TO UNTIE” is a pretzel and “DIFFICULT TO UNTIE” is a wedding ring, an amusing choice when “tying the knot” was slang for getting married.
Sailmaking was a man’s craft. To better understand the makers and their materials, Ashley’s painting “Corner of a Sail Loft” (1915) is a cozy view of sailmakers near a wood stove, seated at workbenches with tools close by and cloth in hand. Their concentration is clear but I am curious about their conversations. This appealing image provides a valuable context for multiple displays of work chests; sailmaker and knot tying tools; as well as cords or ropes of linen, cotton, and hemp.
The specialized terminology for knots, tools and knotted objects is filled with intriguing names that are as curious as the objects themselves: sinnets, harpoon, bodkin, seam rubbers, sewing palm, draw bucket, chest beckets, cat o’nine tails, and bell ropes. The common element among the objects is knots.Turk’s Head, Monkey Fist, and Sheepshank are exotic names for fancy knots; however, many knots were life-saving tools chosen by sailors with the instincts of engineers who understood their strength.
The use of functional and decorative knots is universal. From the collections of ship captains, there is a whale tooth necklace from Fiji and fearsome Kirbatian swords with shark teeth from the Gilbert Islands. Cat o’nine tails are beautiful then repulsive, as one realizes they were whips to punish sailors. Domestic lace and fishing lures were knotted. The related practices of braiding and weaving are represented by Victorian memorial hair work and decorative braid for a Massachusetts Volunteer Militia officer’s bi-corn hat.
The Whaling Museum has a panoramic view of New Bedford Harbor and its fishing fleet, but I really wanted to imagine a “greasy” or profitable wooden whaling ship. The Whaling Museum made that easy, featuring ships in progressive sizes.Contemplate a handsome painted portrait of the “Sunbeam” by Ashley, then go on to examine the same ship as a boat model one yard long. (Scale: 3/8 inches = 1 foot) In an adjacent building, walk on the 89-foot long “Lagoda,” a half-scale model, the largest ship model in the world.You might feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland at the changing perspective.My sense of perspective adjusted yet again when I noticed two sixteen-foot long industrial-strength rope fragments (suspended on the gallery walls) that served a Korean War ship and barge.
The exhibition continues into the 21st century with the work of artists who adopt ropes as metaphors for the human experience.
Inspired by the anatomy and sinewy tangles of an abandoned hawser or towing rope from a Korean War ship, Hugette Despault May’s created larger-than-life charcoal drawings “The Core” (2009) and “Umbilicals” (2009). The artist explains:
“In the drawings, I encountered abundant physicality: “muscle” “hairy-ness” and “sinew” which led to meditating on the many evocative rope-derived idioms and aphorisms embedded in the English language. These often referred colorfully and metaphorically to the human condition: “end of one’s tether”, “at loose ends” and “all strung out” being but a few examples. Beyond its former utility at sea, this industrial-strength tether has served anew as an elegant model for my graphical musings on the strands of our human strengths and frailties.”
Julia Mandle’s “Tied on the Bight” (2016) is a ceramic sculpture. The ‘bight’ is any slack part of the rope, curved or looped, between the two ends. After moving to the Netherlands, Mandle attended language classes and investigated her Dutch heritage. Studying at nautical museums, she realized that “…boats became like human bodies in my imagination.” Mandle adopted ropes as motifs in her own artwork:
“… My body of work also includes making and casting and coiling rope. I love its unwieldy nature. It seems to refuse to be controlled or regulated. The coils are awkward and to me express the longing and futility to attach to a solid ground…I hope to reflect my experience of moving, which has been a mixture of both struggle and opportunity, of holding on to familiar aspects of my homeland while shedding old ways of being and embracing a new sense of freedom to reinvent myself in a new land.”
THOU SHALT KNOT: Clifford W. Ashleyexcels as it links Ashley’s work to utilitarian, industrial and artistic endeavors. The excellent exhibition catalog examines Ashley’s career, links Ashley to Melville, includes an excerpt from “Why knot? by Philippe Petit, and connects knots to science and mathematics. Ashley would have been impressed by the emergence of topology as an important branch of mathematics and the discovery of elegant “molecular knots” in DNA strands, proteins and polymers. Ashley’s passion for knots began with hands-on discovery as a child; in turn, his book encourages visual, logical and creative thinking skills. Why knot? Because knots have the power to connect the creative hands and minds of craftsmen, artists, mathematicians, scientists and people like you.
The exhibitionwill continue at the New Bedford Whaling Museum until June 2018.
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