This is the fifth article in our series on expert craftspeople in Berkeley, written and photographed by Melati Citrawireja, a summer 2015 photography intern for Berkeleyside. Don’t miss her stories on St. Hieronymus Press, the workspace of David Lance Goines; Klaus-Ullrich Rötzscher and the Pettingell Book Bindery; coppersmith Audel Davis; and ethnobotanist and natural fabric dyer Deepa Natarajan.
Amy Keefer is not your average rainy afternoon knitter, crocheter or embroiderer. Keefer holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts with an emphasis on textiles and fibers, and uses these patience-demanding crafts as tools for self-expression, as well as to provoke political discussion.
One of her patterns that has become popular in the knitting community is a sweater with large teeth stretching across the chest. She wears a white version of the sweater as we chat in her thoughtfully decorated home. Keefer works on an embroidery project as we talk, her cat weaving between our legs, frequently reminding us of his presence.
“At first I thought the teeth project was just about identity — your dental records, and stuff like that,” she says. “But then I realized — oh! — you’re baring your teeth in defense mode.”
Much of Keefer’s work reflects this attention to security and promoting resilience in the wearer.
When she isn’t designing and publishing creative and visually arresting patterns on Ravelry, Keefer spends time teaching at various schools and institutes, including the Richmond Art Center, Kala in Berkeley, A Verb for Keeping Warm, and the Harvey Milk Center in San Francisco.
“I want my art to be talismans of strength and safety. I want that to be for my students too. I want it to be that they feel differently [wearing] the things that they’ve made,” says Keefer.
It wasn’t Keefer’s mom who coaxed her into picking up her first knitting needles, but rather a charismatic professor at Arizona State named Mark Newport. Although Newport himself focused primarily on performance art — like knitting full-sized superhero costumes for shows — he reminded Keefer that, even in everyday settings, what you choose to wear can be considered a performance.
Keefer pays careful attention to how choice is an element in the art of handmade textiles and fibers. She recognizes that her involvement in these crafts isn’t just born of practicality, but is also an intentional process of exploring ideas.
“There is a huge, thriving community of makers and artists that are choosing to do it versus, say, the Dustbowl era,” she says.
“I think it’s really pretty amazing to stop and take a huge step back and think about the fact that everywhere in the world someone woke up and put something over their naked bodies in order to be who they are going be, or play a role for that day,” says Keefer, letting her embroidery needle come to a brief standstill. “It’s poetic to think of all of those iterations that come out. So, I think the process of making is important, for sure, but also being very conscious of choosing.”
While finishing her Master’s at California College of the Arts in 2012, Amy performed in a former sweatshop in San Francisco that had been raided by the INS. “The people in there were sick. They were not there on their own free will at all,” says Keefer. The space was in a windowless basement, locked from the outside, and still had hatch marks on the walls (to count items sewn, Keefer guesses). There were slats in the stairs where the workers slept during breaks from making typical tourist sweatshirts printed with the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I was wearing something I’d made that is [now] on view at the Richmond Art Center. It’s a hospital gown covered in sequins.” This gown was a project that took her three years to complete — one of her longest projects. During the performance she sat in the former sweatshop that was soon to be transformed into an art gallery. “I was tracing the hatch marks they made in the wall while they were still there, because they were going to refinish them.”
“It was really frightening … [the workers] might have been born here, I don’t even know,” Keefer admits, reminding us that sweatshop practices are happening everywhere. “They are very prevalent —especially in large urban places where they can go unnoticed.”
One of Keefer’s projects was aptly named after a Brian Eno quote — “Repetition is a form of change.” Reflecting on her work, Keefer says that an important aspect of working on a project is patience, considering it from every angle.
“If you spend enough time with one idea, the idea becomes broader. And I think that’s what most artists want: accessibility into their ideas. I have some projects I’ve made that were done quickly, but they have more of a one-note feel to me. I like thinking about things that I can work through the layers of.”
Lately, Keefer has been inspired by Sally Fox’s home-grown cotton from the Capay Valley, California. This cotton grows naturally in multiple colors and also takes on different hues when boiled. Keefer excitedly shows me several spools of the handspun cotton, tightly wound colors varying from hazy green to chestnut brown.
“[Sally Fox] does seed saving and cross pollinates, but they’re not dyed at all. That’s a very old way of growing. You can’t grow that particular type of cotton in places where white cotton is farmed agriculturally, because then it might cross pollinate. It’s special, and it’s kind of magic,” says Keefer.
Keefer carefully presses open a piece she crocheted from Sally Fox’s cotton, a coin-sized hot pepper flower. Tying into her mantra of embracing the local as a form of resistance — a similar philosophy to Gandhi and his khadi cloth, for example — these flowers are part of a larger project that emphasizes support for local purveyors as well as strength and protection (relating to their use in defensive pepper spray).
“I loved the idea of a woman 120 years ago creating something that was going to protect her from men, or any type of danger. I liked having those flowers speak in a way that was completely subversive … I thought the pepper spray might be too insular or feminine, but then I was speaking with a friend of mine and she said: ‘Everybody feels anxious on the BART at night and walking around.’ That’s a universal and always has been. It’s not a positive thing but I like the idea that people can be protecting themselves.”
Perhaps the most compelling aspect about Keefer’s practice is that she doesn’t shy away from the dark and gritty parts of the world. Instead, she purposefully focuses her work on provoking discussion on relevant issues, using this direct interrogation to produce something actually quite positive and meaningful.
Melati Citrawireja, a development studies undergraduate at UC Berkeley, is currently pursuing a career in visual journalism. She was a summer 2015 photo intern at Berkeleyside. More of her work can be found online at Melati Photography.
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