CLINTON, NJ — Some of us experience awe at the sight of an agile ocelot, hanging in a tree; others may have the urge to shoot the animal for an over-the-mantel trophy. Australian-American artist Ruth Marshall feels compelled to knit these wild creatures. At the Hunterdon Art Museum, where her work is displayed in Knitting the Endangered, viewers may at first react in horror at seeing the pelt of a Chinese tiger pinned to the wall, until they discover that it’s been knit with the same fiber we’ve come to associate with comfort and warmth.
For 14 years, Marshall worked as an exhibition sculptor at the Bronx Zoo, where her office was next to the snow leopard enclosure. She was reminded daily of the threats the creature faced, and expressed her concern by knitting a life-size “skin.” At Pratt, where she received her BFA and MFA, Marshall returned to the medium she learned at her mother’s knee, innovating ways with the yarn’s texture, pattern, and form.
The “skins” are pinned to the wall or hung from a suspended bamboo frame. Little tags hang from each, explaining not only where the pelt was studied — Marshall visited zoos and natural history museums from Berlin to Melbourne — but where the animal was collected, much as a specimen might be identified for study.
A wall of ocelots — that small but ferocious feline — depicts the creature in a way that makes us want to nurture this animal, setting aside for a moment that its diet consists of snakes. (Marshall knits snakes in her spare time.) At one time hunted for the fur trade, the ocelot is native to the Southwestern US, Mexico, and Central and South America. Aside from the usual threats to its habitat, border fences obstruct ocelots’ ability to roam freely. Marshall hopes her knitted incarnations of endangered and extinct animals will remind viewers how to care for wildlife and habitats.
She spends months researching the animals, charting their pelts onto grids and transcribing them into designs. She knits these intricate patterns in the teeniest of tiny stitches (size one knitting needles). Even an all-black jaguar has subtle gradations in tone. Techniques such as intarsia and fair isle are used to create pattern. With their glass eyes, the animals encourage you to get close enough to examine whether or not they’re real.
Each is an homage to nature’s designs of spots and stripes. The way these creatures hang, the soft curves of the body, suggests power, beauty, and vulnerability.
After overcoming a burning desire to possess one, I realize that each is a memorial to the animal that lost its life. “What did we do to these animals?” asks Marshall, in catalogue of her work. “Each … has its own story to tell … before it vanishes, leaving only artifacts of existence.”
Knitting the Endangered continues at the Hunterdon Art Museum (7 Lower Center St, Clinton, New Jersey) through April 28.