Nell Painter

I Knit Socks for Adrienne

Last year of 2020 was a once in a lifetime for me—probably for you, too, though you’ll probably be around in this world longer than I. Such upheaval! so much death and suffering, and in the nationwide, worldwide demonstrations against racist violence and White supremacy, for me, hope. All of this piled up together over the course of the year changed my art. Some of it became more political and talky, as in American Whiteness Since Trump made in February-March, and From Slavery to Freedom made in June. Even with the hopefulness, I was so exhausted that by the end of 2020, my art came out in a new way. Still with drawings, still with text. But newly confessional.

I Knit Socks for Adrienne is the most personally declarative piece of art I have ever made, more personal, even, than self-portraits, precisely because it is personally declarative in words that wrench the artist Nell Painter out of the closet as a knitter. For a long time I stayed closeted as a knitter. I thought, Let you see me as an artist, as an historian, as an artist who uses history, not let you see me as a knitter: a crafts-woman, an old lady sitting around with her needles and yarn. That mental image wasn’t one I had been able to expose.

But 2020 opened my closet door to reveal me knitting to hold myself together. There was all the death, searing painful deaths by the hundreds of thousands, especially of Black people. There was economic want. There was hunger. There was hope, in the hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets calling down racism, denouncing White supremacy, declaring Black Lives Matter, roughing up, tearing down monuments to the Confederacy. The dead scared me. The demonstrators made me feel safer in the USA than ever before.

Even so, by Thanksgiving I had been away from home, away from Newark, for more than eight months, a coronavirus refugee in the far North Country of New York State, and missing my Newark people as I knitted—yes, to hold myself together. I knit socks for my husband; I knit socks for myself, and reaching across the miles to touch my friend in Newark, I knit socks for my Newark friend Adrienne. This piece in three panels shows self-portraits and, in the third, Adrienne’s mural on McCarter Highway in Newark.

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