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This "conversation" between Moira Roth and Modesto Covarrubias began as an e-mail exchange that was then edited and included as part of the year-long exhibition All Over The Map at THE POOR FARM in Manawa, Wisconsin from July 2010 through June 2011. The exhibition began with a long celebratory weekend in honor of Moira Roth's 77th birthday on July 24, 2010. This "conversation" was included as wall text alongside a work entitled Knitting Chair which was a participatory installation allowing anyone who wished to sit down and give their time over to the knitting.

I met Modesto Covarrubias for the first time in the Fall of 2007 when he entered the Mills College studio graduate program, and immediately became a great admirer of his work.

In August 2007, I was very open and ready. For what exactly, I couldn’t say, except that it was a very uneasy feeling. Not in a negative way, but in a very positive way. I had no expectations for myself or for the program, but I was looking forward to the time that was afforded me as a student, and particularly as a graduate student. I had studied architecture at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and discovered photography in my last semester. It was a revelatory experience, and it was my best grade during my entire time at UC.

After many years working at various corporations, I came back to study photography at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in August 2002. Susanne Cockrell was my instructor in a first-year core class and introduced us all to many artists such as Linda Montano, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Sophie Calle, Valie Export, Joseph Beuys, John Cage, as well as other art movements and groups including the Situationists, Black Mountain College, Fluxus, and various conceptual and performance artists. In expanding my knowledge of art and artists I began to consider what might be possible with my art. The idea rather than the technique began to hold more power for me.

Also, while at SFAI, I began to journal daily, both ideas and thoughts, and collaging images that caught my attention. This was part of an intensive class in January 2004. The guest instructors were Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, and they continued to introduce me to other artists who had inspired them. The two weeks of working all day with the ParkeHarrisons allowed me to explore new ideas I had about the nature of color photography. I also began the discipline of journaling daily and sketching out thoughts and ideas and continuing to look at where my ideas were rooted and to consider the possibilities of what I may do to further express these ideas, how I would allow them to grow. I started SFAI as an artist interested in utilizing photography as his medium; I left SFAI an artist who works primarily in photography, and also utilizes other media as part of his practice. I came to Mills College (Oakland, California) as an artist ready to further my ideas, and ready to experiment to see which media would best convey those ideas. I was open to pretty much everything, without a set course. I was ready to see my ideas take shape, and felt ready to take on exploring all techniques to flesh out these ideas. It was no longer ideas over technique or medium, but rather ideas and media together.

Immediately upon entering the program, Modesto had started to study the art of knitting with a friend of his, Lulu.

Lulu (Lucretia Ausse) was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1958. I asked her to teach me how to knit when I was about to start the MFA program at Mills in August 2007 and our first lesson took place in September in the art graduate lounge. I had decided to learn how to knit sometime during that summer before entering Mills. Lulu is a friend from a workout group in Berkeley. After workouts, some of the people in the workout group go to coffee, and it came up that a few of them get together and knit. All this talk stirred my curiosity and so I decided that it would be an interesting thing to learn and take on.

I also had a series of dreams where I had covered rooms with nets or webs of some sort, all made by hand, and so I associated that with knitting and decided to take that on as a way to stir things up for myself upon entering grad school.

What drew you to this knitting?

I had always thought it was a very inviting and creative medium. I had been discouraged as a child, rather as a boy, from knitting, and so simply had forgotten about it until I encountered this group of friends. There is something in the way knitting focuses attention between the hands that is very beautiful to watch, and, as I have discovered, very reassuring to do.

I teach a History of Performance Art class each year, and in the Fall of 2007, we worked on creating “Voices,” an ambitious, collaborative class performance. It was to be in honor of the fiber artist, Lenore Tawney—whose work I had become deeply drawn to, and had been corresponding with Kathleen Mangan, her close friend-assistant. Sadly Tawney died at age 100, shortly before our event.

I invited Modesto to be part of this “VOICES” performance without really knowing what he would do.

As you know, the Knitter came into being as a peripheral performer in the larger performance in honor of Lenore Tawney.

I remember being unsure about how to proceed. You would leave me the latest updates to the various Acts of the VOICES performance, and realizing the length of the program—some three hours—I started to consider how much knitting could actually be done and immediately realized I didn’t have enough yarn. I ordered a carton of it, and then had more than enough.

Another thought occurred to me as I realized the performance would move from one area to the next, that the knitting would grow expectantly, but what if the source, the ball of yarn, also grew? And, what if the knitting grew exceedingly long, not just by a few feet, but by several yards each time?

So, the concept of time in relation to the creation and process seemed to grow together; the ball of yarn got larger as the knitting became rapidly larger. The Knitter was to be present at each venue prior to the arrival of the main performers and audience, and when the performance entered the next venue, the knitting was laid out below the Knitter’s feet as if he had been there for hours or even days, and the yarn ball resided just below where the Knitter sat, growing in circumference and mass from one venue to the next.

As for the Knitter, he is not me, nor is he to be a single person, nor merely a “he” forever. I’m interested in seeing the Knitter as other people, perhaps groups of people, in a circle or at the same time in various locations. The basic premise of the Knitter is focusing on the knitting and having the knitting become the only activity and object in the Knitter’s presence; everyone and everything else is unseen and unheard by the Knitter (or Knitters). The Knitter is not hurried, time is of no consequence. Maybe time is a material used by the Knitter(s), but not important to the performance. It is not directly about time, although the results of time may be said to be produced in the knitting. The Knitter may knit for a half hour, 1 hour, 2 hours, 10 hours, it is entirely given to the circumstances.

Our long VOICES performance wended its way through various parts of the Mills College campus, including the Rare Book Room, and ended up at a pond near the Music Department, where we listened to recorded accordion music by Pauline Oliveros, and watched the launching of a small boat, decorated with candles and leaves, containing letters addressed to Tawney. Throughout the event, Modesto sat silently, absorbed in his knitting. It was a stunning performance.

The next day I wrote a poem about this performance:

The Knitter & The Barge, October 18, 2007

He sat,
Dressed in white,
Knitting diligently,
Seemingly indifferent to those around him.

During that evening,
I often wondered about
What he was thinking
And feeling—

This Knitter in modern Oakland,
Who reminded me strangely
Of Clotho
(the second of the three ancient Greek Fates)
Spinning on her distaff.

I last saw him that evening
Sitting by the water on a bench
—knitting, as always,
diligent, as always,
silent, as always—

While we
Listened to the accordion music
A small, frail barge
Sailing around the pond
With its cargo
Of candles, cards, letters and leaves
Dedicated to Lenore Tawney.

The next morning
I drove by the pond.

The Knitter was gone,
But the Barge was still there.

At the beginning of 2009, a selection of my poems about an imaginary Library of Maps, together with drawings by Slobodan Dan Paich, and music by Pauline Oliveros, were installed at Bonnafont, a small gallery in San Francisco’s North Beach.

At the opening of “The Library of Maps” on January 31, 2009, I invited Modesto to perform as The Knitter. For three hours he sat outside the Bonnafont gallery with a long knitted “scarf” that wound its way down the stairs to the gallery.

Do you see threads and the act of weaving as a central medium for you?

I’ve never quite thought about it in these terms. I’m usually not so concerned with the exact materials with which to make work, but rather tend to surround myself with many materials that are usually more utilitarian. Paper, particularly tracing paper, is one of these, and definitely thread and yarn. All of these are very light in mass but when bunched or wrapped or woven in large quantities they can be visually overwhelming and physically overpowering. As a child I used to wrap thread around my sister’s fingers and mine. We would get into our mother’s sewing kit, with all the dozens of spools of thread (wooden, not plastic or styrofoam as you find today), and I would be so taken by the various thicknesses and colors. I would bend my ring finger in a tight hook and wrap it with an entire spool of thread . . . so it was impossible for me to straighten out that finger. I would then wrap my sister’s thumbs, again using a spool of thread for each thumb, and dare her to bend her thumbs. She couldn’t!

In my work, though, it’s more to do with utilizing these materials in ways not normally thought of. Tracing paper is usually something an artist or architect uses to sketch ideas, but I have used miles of it to create towers and other walled-in spaces. The yarn in my knitting is woven in big open loops, that are hardly able to cover or conceal or even keep anything warm, and certainly nothing comfortable to wear, let alone carry. It takes time just to gather the length of the knitting to move it to and from the studio. I am drawn to the seemingly delicateness of certain materials and interested in transposing their use to be more insistent. I was going to say more powerful or forceful, but I’m much more interested in how these materials become persuasive as structural elements.

edited by Moira Roth, July 18, 2010

"Conversation" with Moira Roth
June 2010