Norma Minkowitz was a prolific fiber artist in the 1970s’s. In addition to crochet work, she utilized several other stitch techniques like knitting, stitchery and trapunto (which is a specific type of quilting) and she often incorporated multiple techniques in one piece. She was born in New York and it seems from her Facebookpage that she’s still in New York today and still working as a mixed media sculptor. Her work has been placed in renowned museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian and she’s received a number of prestigious awards from places like the National Endowment for the Arts.
Fun Fact: Norma Minkowitz owns hundreds of crochet hooks and uses them not only for crocheting but also for stirring paint, applying epoxy and more!
Norma Minkowitz, illustrator
Vile Strain, 2008, via Drawing Center
Minkowitz was born in the 1930s and she graduated from New York’s Cooper Union in 1958 where she had studied painting and graphics with a goal of becoming a book illustrator. She loved the detail of the fine lines that go into illustration and that’s something that you can even see in a different way in her crochet work. After she graduated, she got a job as a textile designer and it was from there that her passion for exploring fiber arts and soft sculpture grew. In the 1960s she was raising a family but she was also creating her own work and began submitting designs and selling patterns to magazines. Although much of her work since the early days has been in fiber, she does still do illustration work as well.
Norma Minkowitz, fiber arts sculpture
Foot Ball, 2006
By the 1970s she was working more in crochet art and other fiber art. She was on the fringes of the hot New York scene of crocheters but mostly in the sense of knowing people through the industry and not so much as being friends or collaborators with a lot of them. Her work was a bit different from what the core group was doing. They were working with heavier yarns and really bright colors (usually, not always, of course) whereas she was working with more neutral colors and lighter thread yarn. She mostly worked at home alone but was connected to that community of crocheters through art openings and in part through her connections with Julie Schafler Dale, author of Art to Wear, who was the first to get her into taking her sculpture work into wearable art work. Minkowitz also did a bit of crochet teaching at this time.
Norma Minkowitz in The Crocheter’s Art
For Women Only (detail)
Let’s start with Norma’s work in The Crocheter’s Art by Del Feldman. Even back then the book was already able to cite several awards that Minkowitz had won for her craft. Feldman goes on to say, “I applaud her ability to develop a unique art form which respects and celebrates the materials and the technique”. And Minkowitz is quoted as saying that she really loves experimenting with techniques and textures to explore possibilities and express moods. The work that Minkowitz was doing at this time had a sensual, feminine feeling to it although Minkowitz never intentionally got into feminist art movements.
On and Around
Fun Fact: Minkowitz doesn’t use fiber specifically because she loves working in fiber but rather because she finds that the building block nature of it works well for what she’s trying to express. She thinks what you’re trying to express matters far more than the medium chosen to express it.
Norma Minkowitz in Art to Wear
Rose’s Shoes, 1981
Norma Minkowitz is mostly a sculptural artist but she has also explored wearable art in depth. My very favorite piece of hers is a pair of shoes that is featured in the 1980s book Art to Wear. They’re crocheted in mercerized cotton and painted and shellacked. This book describes the theme of Minkowitz’s work as “containment”, saying that her sculptural fiber arts “allude to function but are not functional” and that they’re about restraint and safety/shelter. Her wearable work in contrast is seen here as celebrating the opposite of that: freedom. This is done by drawing themes from nature but also by being one of the kind art pieces that allow the wearer freedom of self-expression through personal style. Like with much of her work, the wearable items featured in this book are not just crocheted but combine crochet with knitting, stuffing, trapunto and applique work.
Green Mansions, 1980 (crochet and knitting)
It was from this book that I learned that Minkowitz learned to crochet with her mother. They would make dolls together and then they would crochet clothing around the dolls. She loved how the one hook and yarn could be used to experiment endlessly. And perhaps this experience is why she was drawn to a combination of sculpture and wearable fiber art. In this work she continues to explore femininity by working clothing around the female form.
Fun Fact: Minkowitz loves the meditative nature of crochet. When trying to figure out what to work on she always starts making a circle, taking her back to the days of repetitive doily making as a kid.
Norma Minkowitz, 1990’s
Some examples of what Minkowitz continued to do in the 1990’s:
Fun Fact: Minkowitz has never wanted to be known as a craft artist but just as an artist in general. She has expressed wanting to be known more as a fine artist.
Norma Minkowitz, 21st Century
Rebirth of Venus, 2004
Unlike some of the artists from the 1970s, this crochet artist was easy to find on the web. It is really fun to look at the work that she’s done in the 21st century and to see how it compares to what she was doing in the 1970s. For example, on Brown Grotta Arts we see a 2004 fiber arts piece called Rebirth of Venus that uses the same basic stitch again and again and Minkowitz compares this to the cross hatching of a pen and ink drawing revealing that she is still influenced by her early art education. (In fact, in a really terrific oral history interview about her work, she says that she chose crochet in part because it was really simple and you could just use the same basic stitch over and over again and it’s repetitive but it’s also always new because the hand never does quite the exact same thing twice. Interesting!) And the themes of her work are in the same vein as before, too, which we can see when she says: “My work retains implications of containment and psychological complexity, while focusing on the human form and often the land-scape. I am engaged in a process that weaves the personal and universal together.”
Note: The fun facts in this article come from the Smithsonian’s oral history interview of Norma Minkowitz; you can find the transcript online