The Maine Crafts Association named Katharine Cobey Maine’s 2010 “Master Craft Artist.”

Cobey is a knitter.

If you haven’t yet wrapped your head around the idea that fiber, clay, glass, wood and other media traditionally associated with fine craft can handle edgy artistic content as well as painting, stone and bronze, then you should definitely see Cobey’s “Sculptural Work and Clothing” at Maine Fiberarts in Topsham.

Cobey’s installation “Ritual Against Homelessness” is sparer and more powerful than any current gallery show in Portland.

Maine Fiberarts is located in an 1840 mill bank building just across the river from Fort Andross. The front gallery is extremely handsome with its broad-planked floor, exposed beams, latch-bolt door and woodstove.

“Ritual” features five knit tunics draped over towering poles of naturally raw and time-wizened wood. Leather straps hold the vertical wooden elements up so they form diamond shapes over the pole tops. Moreover, the fabrics drape from the horizontal branches and — following their diagonal logic — drift down to complete something of a diamond, figurative form.

The five figures each project a very powerful totemic presence. They are knit from raw Churro fleeces spun by Cobey herself with deft respect to their tan, flaxy brown, gray, burnt umber and vanilla-bean white colorations. Their raw beauty and exposed, unspun hair edges complement the coats’ elegantly simple forms so that they exude a fundamental quality.

There are no buttons or seams in the hand-knit coats, though there are ties of basic bone or shell. (My favorite element is a knit belt with pocketed ends.)

The somewhat colonial setting and otherwise empty room evoke Andrew Wyeth’s creepy witching hour paintings a bit — but with a more positive sense. Rather than a political taste, the grouped installation presses a cultural tone of community spirit. I first took it to be a moment of prayer in the face of outrage. For all its power, however, Cobey’s installation is fleeting and evades lectured clarity, so it could strike 100 people in 100 different ways.

“Ritual” has no obvious or direct reference to homelessness itself. It is not shrill, but rather quiet and contemplative. Yet with surprising boldness, it almost insists you bring your own thoughts to bear before it.

One of the amazing things about “Ritual” is how basic the technique is. From what I could tell, the decorative elements are simple, raised garter stitch bands on a stockinette ground (think Knitting 101), all in service of an insistently fundamental aesthetic. This is analogous to thinking about a Mark Rothko painting as opposed to a rectangle drawn by a child. Cobey somehow wields the simplest forms with unexpected power.

Moving from the front gallery’s “Ritual” installation to Maine Fiberarts’ office gallery might momentarily puzzle some viewers, but a quick glance at Cobey’s new book should be enough to inform even a casual visitor of Cobey’s expansive vision.

The eight pieces in the back gallery (along with several handsome photographs of Cobey wearing the “Ritual” coats) might look like a knitter’s commercial products, but they are not for sale, since they are all pictured in Cobey’s new book, “Diagonal Knitting: A Different Slant.”

The eight sweaters, coats, shawls, scarves and hats are not the products of (or the models for) patterns. Cobey, instead, writes how they came about using fundamental approaches and ideas. Her book is more art advisory than pattern patois, and yet it’s eminently practical.

While I think some of Cobey’s content points spin a bit off the mark, I have to say it’s the best guidebook for following craft techniques towards a sophisticated understanding of art that I have ever seen.

Cobey’s “Sculptural Work and Clothing” is a compelling testament not only to why MCA named her Maine’s “2010 Master Craft Artist,” but to so much more as well: fiber, Maine Fiberarts, craft and the strength of the Brunswick-area arts scene.

Whether you think of knitting as craft, fine craft or art, or you never thought about it before, Cobey’s exhibition at Maine Fiberarts is an amazing (and handsome) show that is very likely to change some of your ideas about art. 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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