Where's the frame
July 5, 2022 4:14 PM
The London-based, multi-disciplinary artist Kimberley Cookey-Gam defines her practice as a project that nurtures tender connections between garments, art and people. Her intricate pieces explore themes around space and anxiety, and are just as sculptural as they are wearable. Currently on deferral from studying sculpture at the RCA, crochet—the only remaining fibre art that cannot be replicated by a machine— has always been at the heart of her practice. Kimberley and I meet on a rainy Thursday afternoon in her favourite Vauxhall community garden, a luscious green haven that temporarily shields us from the concrete chaos that is London. We take shelter from the city’s signature drizzle under what we deem the garden’s leafiest tree, where she talks me through her creative processes, the underlying themes that connect her work, and the reasons why she’ll never stop crocheting.
I ask Kimberley—also known as ‘crochetcookey’ on Instagram—why she chose to pursue an MA in Sculpture at the RCA, as well as why crochet has always been her medium of choice. The artist tells me that the RCA appealed to her because its methodology encourages an approach where anything and everything can be sculpture. Despite this progressive stance, however, her choice of medium still comes with its own set of challenges. “When I tell people that I study Sculpture, I always get asked questions like: ‘what do you sculpt!’ or: ‘let me see your hands!’” Kimberley explains. “A lot of people still think of sculpture in its traditional form, where the artist carves using materials like marble or clay. I try to experiment as much as I can with crochet, because it’s always being questioned as an art form. If I were to use steel, for example, nobody would question my choice. But because crochet is a soft material and there’s only one process, I constantly have to challenge myself to use the form in as many ways as possible to translate it into the different themes I want to explore.”
The art of crocheting—like all textile artforms—has existed for millennia, but has too often been dismissed by the art world because of its association to domesticity and femininity. Although the past few years have seen a resurgence of textile art on gallery walls, the tension between what is considered fine art and decorative craft continues to be a topic of much debate, and an undeniably gendered one at that. Kim tells me that for a long time, she fought against her instinctive love of crochet. “Am I too dependent on it? Is this a habit? Should I be stretching myself—am I doing this out of comfort?” After years of scrutinising her own relationship to the medium, she tells me that she has finally made peace with her affinity for crochet. “I finally came to the conclusion that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with comfort.”
When I ask Kim to expand, she opens up about how crochet has helped her cope with anxiety in the past. ‘With crochet, you can really only use your hands—there’s no machine out there that can do it for you. I can’t cheat or cut corners, I just have to sit down and do it. That’s always been a really important and meditative element of crochet for me—that I can’t ‘binge’ it.” Unlike the instant gratification we receive when we mindlessly watch TV or scroll through social media, crochet requires concentration, time and infinite patience.
While we converse, Kimberley pulls out one of her freeform crochet pieces. The elaborate piece of fabric, wonderfully bright green with seemingly random appearances of brown, instantly blends in with the rich foliage around us. Its calculated imperfection is mesmerising, and the longer I stare at the work, the more I want to hold it, wear it, and hang it in my home, all at the same time—which is precisely the point of Kimberley’s unique practice. She tells me that the piece is part of her Macro series, in which she uses microscopic images of insect wings, leaves and flowers as inspiration for her freeform patterns. “I love how if you really, really zoom in on anything, you’ll find an intricate pattern, especially in nature,” she explains, “I feel like humans have always been drawn to patterns, or the repetition of a design. There is some sort of ease or calm within it.”
The ritualistic, time-consuming aspect of crocheting seems to be exactly why Kimberley continues to be drawn to the medium.“I can’t be on my phone and crocheting at the same time, so I have to put one down. Having one thing that I know I just have to put the time into—it’s really grounding for me.” Kimberley’s unapologetic fidelity to crochet is not dissimilar to that of pioneering artists such as Joana Vasconselos, Bisa Butler and Faith Ringgold— all whom have achieved international acclaim by persistently championing textiles, despite the art world’s dismissal of the fibre arts.
As I deliberate this, I ask Kimberley to tell me a bit more about her Filler pieces, in which she uses crochet to fill in what she refers to as “cracks, gaps, and disregarded spaces” across London. “I was interested in taking the material outside of its usual context. The first one I did was in Peckham, for our first RCA show. I went to see the space to figure out what was possible, and when I got there I was instantly drawn to a crack in the wall. It made me think about how interesting it would be to heal the space with the softness of crochet. I ran to Poundland to buy tracing paper, traced the area I wanted to fill and went home to crochet, hoping I got it right.” Her intention for the project, she explains, came from wanting to transform neglected architectural spaces through textiles. The result is a striking, harmonious balance between hardness and softness, a theme that Kimberley constantly explores throughout her practice. “In this day and age, any feelings of unease or discomfort are instantly considered wrong, when they really don't have to be, at least not always. I want my work to use and hone in on those feelings rather than run away from them.”
In the past few years, Kimberley’s work has unsurprisingly garnered the attention of the creative industry. At the height of the BLM movement in 2020, the artist DM’d one of her favourite accounts on Instagram, the Barcelona-based clothing brand and socially conscious creative platform Paloma Wool. She was disappointed to see that what she thought of as a progressive, inclusive community had not shown solidarity with the Black community when it needed it most.
“I’m not a gatekeeper and usually don’t feel I have the right to tell people what to do or not do, but in this case I felt disheartened, and hoped they’d prove me wrong,” Kim tells me. It turns out they did: as we all know too well, superficial support in the form of black squares and meaningless statements were rampant during this time— but it seems the team at Paloma Wool had been taking their time to get it right, the first time. What went from an exchange of heartfelt, lengthy DM’s led to a fruitful collaboration between like minded creatives who share a passion for blurring the line between art and fashion. The unconventional label—whose experimental ethos has inspired a new wave of socially conscious shoppers—asked Kimberley to create a capsule of freeform crochet pieces, which sold out in a matter of minutes.
As our insightful forty-minute conversation draws to an end, I realise that speaking to Kimberley has confirmed what I already knew to be true: this artist is only just getting started. Her next steps? A month-long artist residency at Japan’s Saruya Air, an exhibition with experimental art space Filet Gallery, and, as expected, countless crochet commissions.