CUSHING – Longtime Maine fiber artist Katharine Cobey has enjoyed the kind of year that many artists dream about.

In May, the Maine Crafts Association named her the recipient of the 2010 Master Craft Artist Award.

In the fall, Schoolhouse Press published Cobey’s instructional book, “Diagonal Knitting: A Different Slant.” The book explores her insight and use of a shaping technique that forms the foundation of her sculptural approach to knitting.

And through midwinter, Cobey is showing one of her best-known sculptural pieces in the austere brick-and-wood beam setting of the gallery at Maine Fiberarts in Topsham.

The trio of accomplishments makes for a triumphant year for one of most revered figures in Maine’s fiber art community. Cobey, who has lived and worked alongside the muddy waters of the Meduncook River since 1992, is a visual artist who uses knitted fabric as her medium to create sculpture.

Her work alters the popular perception of knitting. Some of her pieces can be worn, but most are sculpted installations.

Many years ago, long after Cobey raised her children, she began thinking about knitting as art. Rather than simply create something beautiful, she wanted to create something beautiful that also made a statement.

She remembers confronting a Pat Monks sculpture of an old woman, made in clay. Life-sized, the wrinkled old lady was sitting cross-legged by a pond, laughing.

Cobey thought to herself, “If he can speak with clay, I can speak with yarn.”

The insight was liberating. From that moment, she launched her pursuit of what she calls “art weaving.” If Cobey didn’t discover the movement, she certainly defined it.

Over the years, she has created a series of installations that have received attention across the international fabric art community and throughout the Maine art world. The Portland and Farnsworth museums have both featured her work.

Through Feb. 25, Cobey is showing one of her monumental pieces, “Ritual Against Homelessness,” in the front gallery at Maine Fiberarts in Topsham.

The piece includes five body-length shawls knitted from Navajo churro sheep wool. Cobey drapes each on a cross-like wooden frame.

For the Topsham installation, the human forms are arranged in a loose circle. As soon as one enters the gallery from the outside, one must decide whether to walk through the installation or around it.

Either route is acceptable. A walk among the forms makes for a more intimate, tactile experience. A walk around the outside offers a less personal discovery.

The rest of the gallery resembles a blank slate, with bare walls. Christine Macchi and her staff at Maine Fiberarts even covered the heat registers in burlap to create a neutral background.

The austerity of the setting gives the piece dramatic impact. “Ritual Against Homelessness” takes over the room, and asks that attention be paid to its simplicity and dignity.

“It demanded its space,” said Arlene Morris, who helped Cobey install the piece, along with volunteer Paul Hollingsworth. “The minute you started to put the pieces together and to shape them, they took on a life of their own.”

In an interview at her studio in Cushing, Cobey reflects on her decision to embrace the art world with such vigor. She said she must have been “a damn fool for taking the risk it kind of shocks me that I am still doing this.”

Tracy Michaud Stutzman, executive director of the Maine Crafts Association, said the Master Craft Artist award recognizes Cobey’s mastery of her craft, her courage as an artist and her standing as a respected member of the crafts community in Maine.

“You see a lot of new, emerging artists who are coming out who you can tell have been inspired by Katharine,” Stutzman said. “Katharine’s body of work has been long-standing and cutting-edge and just wonderful. We were happy to give the award to her.”

Before she made her way with knitting, Cobey wrote poetry. No matter her medium, she has always managed to express herself. It is her job as an artist, she says.

“I risk and I dare to talk about things that are important to me.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]

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