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December 21, 2006

Art Beat

Homes for the Knots


You can't tell anybody," Kate Ortiz of the Humboldt Area Foundation made me promise before she told me the name of this year's Jacoby Award recipient. It's supposed to be a secret, rphoto of Frog Cosmologyevealed on the night of the awards ceremony, Dec. 15. I can tell you about it now, because that was this past Friday. "It's Norman Sherfield." Hmm, never heard of him. He's new to the area. "He does knotting," she said. Knotting? What's that?

Well, I had my work cut out for me. I had to get to know a new artist and learn all about a new technique -- well, new to me. Actually, knot work is anything but new. It has its roots in one of the most ancient crafts: basketry. The knot, in Norman's case, is a simple half hitch around a core of threads. "The same knot used in macramé," he told me. He uses waxed linen thread that's intended for rug making.

Right: "Frog Cosmology" detail by Norman Sherfield.

"With variations of this simple knot, which is repeated over and over, I am able to create a variety of shapes, textures and color patterning," he says in his artist's statement. The knots are worked over an object -- Norman chooses to incorporate the object as a part of the piece. Everything is a possibility: rocks, bits of wood, pieces of plastic toys, jars filled with things, even rose thorns (for the more sinister pieces). He often carries interesting things around in his pocket until they are ready to be used in a piece.

Norman discovered knotting in the late '80s in a basket weaving class. He'd been doing jewelry and metal work, but loved the freedom and simplicity he discovered on being introduced to the knot. "It's very portable, I can do it anywhere," he explains. He doesn't need a studio or tools, a welder, heat or anything. He just needs some thread and an object to knot on. He can take it on a plane, work on the couch, he can probably even do it in his sleep!

Norman came up to this area about a year ago when his wife, Sarah Whorf, took a job at HSU. She's the new printmaking professor who's breathing life into the printmaking department. Norman's day job is as portable as his knot work, so here they are, in a charming older house in Eureka, with their lovely daughter, Ann. While Norman and Sarah were busy with a young child, not as much art work got done. But Ann is growing up, and now that he has the time Norman wants to develop a new aspect to his work, so applying for the Jacoby Award was a logical step for him.

photo of Super SpiderThe Jacoby Award, which includes a $3,500 grant, is intended to finance an artist's development of a new skill. Last year's winner, Thao Le Khac, wanted to learn more about Chinese brush painting. She's spent the last year studying with Dr. Ning Yeh, a master of the technique who lives in Southern California. She says, of her work with him, "It feels like speaking another language, a new order of thinking."

Left: "Super Spider" by Norman Sherfield.

The process has taken her to unexpected places. She says that although she does not feel that she's destined to be a traditional brush painter, her new skills "will benefit my art works tremendously in the future." I'm hoping she'll have a show soon so we can see where these new skills are taking her.

Thao looked to tradition to inform her work, but for Norman, this grant will help him move farther then ever away from tradition. Although his technique is rooted in an ancient craft and his pieces have an indigenous look, they are as far from the original function of basketry as they can be. In fact, they have no practical function, although many of them look as though they might, and some could conceivably be used as musical rattles or shakers.

But their intent is purely aesthetic, and many of them bring to mind the human form or other creatures that seem vaguely familiar yet are like nothing you've ever seen before. What Norman felt was lacking for them was a home. He writes, "I would like to create a collection of rare and recently discovered animal species along with their `natural' environment (which might include surreal ideas of `natural')."

Surreal is the key word. He seems to find no end of possibilities for new knotty creatures. What these environments might look like can only be guessed at. He wants to use the funds to build boxes for them and experiment with new materials and processes.

I'm sure you're curious about what these sculptures look like, and they are difficult to describe. You can see more of his work online at, but it's still not the same as seeing them in person. They really invite you to pick them up and play with them, and you'll have a chance to do that this spring. He has a show coming up in March at the First Street Gallery in Old Town. I hope there won't be "please don't touch" signs up, because you have to touch them. Just be gentle with them and make sure your hands are clean.

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