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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “It’s a Very Dynamic Moose: Narrative, Creativity, and Memory in a Traditional Art” by Andrea Kitta here.
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Volume 33
Fall-Winter
2007
Voices

'It's a Very Dynamic Moose': Narrative, Creativity, and Memory in a Traditional Art, by Andrea Kitta

“Psychedelic Moose” is a crocheted afghan made up of twenty different squares with different themes. Each block is one foot square, making the overall size of the blanket five feet by four feet. Each crocheted square forms a background for a moose that is cross-stitched on it. Each moose, while in the foreground, corresponds to the colors of the background, making an entire square’s theme. The squares are crocheted together into an afghan. While every square has a different theme, “Psychedelic Moose” tells the history of my academic life, from high school to university, with one small reference to my grade school years. My friend and the creator of “Psychedelic Moose,” Dana, happily described the afghan, saying, “It’s like a family tree of weird high school stuff” (Dana 2002). (Dana asked to be called by her first name only in this article.)

Since so much of this paper depends on memory, it is only fair to include readers in the shared memory and history of my friendship with Dana. I have strong memories of the first time I met Dana. I was in the first grade at Saint John the Baptist School in Scottdale, Pennsylvania. I was sitting in my reading group—the highest reading group—when in walked two kindergarteners. A frail boy walked in first, looking like a small and very uncomfortable owl. The second was Dana, and she walked in and sat down like she owned the place. We were all aghast, not only because there were kindergarteners— mere children—in our midst, but also because one of them was a small girl with the biggest blue eyes we had ever seen. Normally big blue eyes on a little girl in a frilly blue dress would be cute, but Dana’s eyes, whose color was once described to me as “psychotic blue” by an artist, were big, scary, and definitely crazy. And in a weird juxtaposition with those eyes, Dana was dressed in the frilliest, puffiest, most girly blue dress I had ever seen, complete with pigtails, ribbons, mary janes, and tights with ruffles on the seat. I had never been more shocked in all my life.

Vampiric Halloween Moose and Bear-ly Moose
Vampiric Halloween Moose and Bear-ly Moose. All photos courtesy of the author.

To make things worse, her personality matched her eyes and not her clothes. Those mary janes pounded across the pavement as she chased the boys, those eyes peeked over the bathroom stalls, and to my horror, those ruffle-butt tights were plainly visible when she hung upside down from the monkey bars. Every day I came home from school and told my family how much I hated Dana.

The feeling was mutual. Dana saw me as the enemy. I was smart, I never got into trouble, and I must be destroyed. Every day she would push me down so that my pants would rip, and every day I spun the merry-go- round so hard that she could only hold on desperately and turn green. It was war. It continued this way for months until it got cooler out, and my mom started bringing out my corduroy pants. The next day, dressed in those awful corduroy pants—the bane of my existence—Dana knocked me to the ground and ripped them. I thanked her. Confusion flooded those blue eyes, and she asked why. I told her how much I hated corduroy pants and that if she continued to rip every pair I had, I hoped my mom would not be able to fix them or buy any more. Dana, who acutely understood what it was like to be forced to dress in clothing you hate, agreed to rip my pants in a way that would not hurt me as long as I stopped pushing the merry-go-round while she was on it. The next few weeks were peaceful: my mom learned not to buy any more corduroy pants due to their rip factor, and Dana’s stomach remained settled. Peace was achieved at last. Or so I thought.

It all began again the day I got sick at school. When I walked back from the bathroom into the classroom and told the teacher I was sick, Dana jumped up and said, “No, she isn’t! She’s just faking! She just wants to go home! I was in the bathroom, and she didn’t throw up!” Luckily, since I was the good girl and Dana was a heathen, the teacher believed me and sent me home. A few days later, once I recovered from my illness and returned to school, I made sure that Dana knew exactly what the word “throw up” meant at recess on the merry-go-round.

This saga would probably have continued all the way through grade school if I had not moved to Perryopolis, a half hour from Scottdale, and into a new school. But it was inevitable. Dana and I would meet again in high school. Geibel Catholic High School was the only Catholic secondary school in the area, and kids came from up to an hour away to attend it. During my sophomore year, she ended up in my Spanish II class. While she no longer had the pigtails and wore a uniform skirt, she was still recognizable by those blue eyes, which she was finally starting to grow into. By this time, Dana had calmed down a little, and I had loosened up. Since we were in all the same after-school activities and were both a little weird, it seemed natural to become friends. In retrospect, it was probably hatred for our Spanish teacher that really brought us together. There was nothing we liked more than making her life a living hell, with the help of Stacy, our new friend.

"Psychedelic Moose" is crocheted afghan of twenty squares, each featuring a cross-stiched moose.
“Psychedelic Moose” is crocheted afghan of twenty squares, each featuring a cross-stitched moose.

The three of us formed a triumvirate, commonly known by students and teachers alike as the “Triple Threat.” It was my personal duty to get us into trouble that technically was not punishable—and get us out of trouble if I had misjudged. Stacy mostly tried to talk Dana and me out of getting into real trouble, like the time she talked us out of tie-dyeing pigeons, which would have been considered molestation of an animal with a fine of fifty dollars. Dana was the one who came up with all the nicknames and stories of those who made up our world. It did not matter if they were true, rumor, or something that Dana made up, we treated them as sworn truth and embellished them at will. Dana created nicknames for people that took up paragraphs and told and retold stories about people so many times that they became school legend. She later immortalized some of these stories in “Psychedelic Moose,” with moose blocks such as “T.V. 50s Black-and-White Moose,” “Clashing Moose,” “What’s a Tree? Moose,” and “John- Boy Rules! Moose.”

While Stacy, Dana, and I attended different colleges after graduation, I still knew most of Dana’s classmates, since she attended Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Saint Vincent was known as “13th grade” for Geibel graduates, but since Dana received a full academic scholarship, she attended Saint Vincent, while I went off to Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, which is about three hours away. Because I did know most of her classmates, I continued to hear her stories over e-mail, and she continued to hear mine. Once Stacy transferred to Slippery Rock with me, Dana began to know our world in an intimate way, since she was hearing stories from both of us. Dana was very busy at Saint Vincent as a double major in chemistry and math with a minor in music, but she still had time to create afghans. As my graduation present, Dana presented me with “Psychedelic Moose.”

One cannot look at “Psychedelic Moose” without wanting more detail. While a simple title like “Clashing Moose” can be given, most people want to know more. Why did Dana put a moose that clashed on this afghan? What significance does it have? In this way, even for those who do not know or understand the story, the afghan functions as a metonym of narrative. Indeed, “Psychedelic Moose” functions as a metonym on multiple levels of narrative. While most of the squares remind Stacy, Dana, and me of one story, many squares have multiple narratives attached to them and multiple meanings. For example, the first thought that comes to our minds when looking at “Red, White, and Blue Moose” is all the times the three of us spent the fourth of July together. Since we celebrated so many holidays together, we have a variety of stories to remember.

What's a Tree? Moose
What’s a Tree? Moose
When I asked Stacy and Dana what stories they thought of, Dana’s story involved a fourth of July that we spent at her house, where right after the fireworks, we saw a huge moth on her garage. The story is known to the three of us as the Mothra Incident. The story goes on to describe the variety of ways that Dana tried to kill Mothra, including emptying an entire can of Raid on it—all to no avail. Stacy’s memory of the fourth of July involved the events following a parade in my hometown, when several of my cousins, including one that Stacy had a crush on, tried to run us over with the town’s volunteer fire truck. For my own part, I remembered a story about how we watched fireworks in a playground in my hometown.

The three of us were sitting on a slide, so close to the fireworks that ash was raining down on us—or what we thought was ash, until Stacy’s shorts briefly caught on fire. These three stories naturally led us to think of other stories involving the fourth of July, fireworks, giant bugs, and my cousins.

Looking at “Red, White, and Blue Moose” also raised associations that have little to do with the original stories. After going through our repertoire, we began to talk about the beginning of the Gulf War and September 11, and where we were when they happened. This led to additional stories about our innocence and how different things have been not only since we were in high school, but also since the last time Dana saw the quilt. Hours of conversation were stimulated and continued by one single square on the afghan.

Dana also gave Stacy an afghan for her graduation. While her afghan is a complicated design and very beautiful, it does not have any particular meaning behind it. The colors have no significance, the design was out of a book, and there is nothing about the afghan that even comes close to the meaning of mine. When I asked Dana why I received “Psychedelic Moose” and not a decorative afghan like Stacy’s, she told me there were a variety of reasons. To start with, she explained, “Well, I know you were a history major and all, but you just don’t remember things that happened really well. You can tell someone all about some historical event or remember a story almost verbatim after only hearing it once, but you can’t remember what you did yesterday. While you could remember some of the stories well, you forgot a lot of the stuff we did unless we reminded you. Your memory about the events that happened in your own life aren’t very good” (Dana 2002). And while I am not happy about that, Dana is right. I can remember a lot of things, but when it comes to things that have happened to me, I often forget. She went on to say, “I thought ‘Psychedelic Moose’ would be a good way to remind you. I know that once you’re reminded you can remember stories. So, I thought that this afghan would help you remember” (Dana 2002).

The concept of “memory art” has been developed in such books as The Grand Generation: Memory, Mastery, Legacy and in articles like “Silk Purses from Sows’ Ears: An Aesthetic Approach to Recycling.” Memory art has generally been described as something that the elderly do and as a way to cope with grief. While many people who create memory art are old and in a process of life review, not all those who create memory art fall into this category. There are many events in our lives, such as graduations, that can cause us to consider our past and how far we have come. While the majority of The Grand Generation is dedicated to the elderly, one paragraph remarks, “Life cycle events often provide formal occasions for life review. In a deliberate way, they supply the grist for future life review as well, generating the keepsakes and souvenirs that in later life may be organized into compendia” (Hufford, Hunt, and Zeitlin 1987, 40).

An often stated and sometimes unstated assumption is that people who are grieving create art. While a time like graduation can be bittersweet, especially for people who may not see each other again or feel that their relationship will change, our experience with graduation was nothing like that. Dana exclaimed, “Why would I be upset about you graduating? It’s a happy time. I wanted to give you a happy present. Sure, it’s something that is rooted in the past, but I always thought it could be a good conversation piece. It’s there to remind you of good days, not because they’re past and never coming back. I always thought that I could add to your afghan, if you wanted me too. There’s nothing sad in that” (Dana 2002).:

Clashing Moose and John-Boy Rules! Moose.
“Clashing Moose and John Boy Rules! Moose.

I would like to submit that memory art, while it can take a variety of forms, should be viewed simply as art that has memories as its main theme. Limiting memory art to certain creators or circumstances implies that memories are something that are only appropriate in certain situations and that remembering the past and living in it are the same thing.

Dana also pointed out a practical consideration: she needed to use up leftover yarn that was laying around. She didn’t have enough to make any one thing out of the yarn, but there was enough yarn to make a moose and its edging. She said, “At first I thought about tying all the yarn together and making one huge clashing afghan, but then I found this pattern that had bears, trees, and moose in it. And I thought, ‘Well, bears and trees are nice and normal, but moose! Wow! Moose! And they were big!’ So, I thought I’d do themed moose. Andrea would appreciate moose. . . . Stacy would have thought it was cool and all, but you would have appreciated moose” (Dana 2002).

Creating a way to help me to remember many of our shared stories was reason enough for making “Psychedelic Moose,” but I thought I would also ask Dana how she learned to crochet. Dana said, “My grandma taught me how to knit, Mom taught me how to do basic crocheting, the rest I learned out of a book.” For clarity, I had to confirm with Dana which grandma it was. I couldn’t remember which was which, so I had to use a story to distinguish between her grandmas. I asked, “Was that the grandma that tried to convince grandpap he was dead, or the other one?” Dana responded, “The other one—crazy grandma thought I was weird for playing with string” (Dana 2002).

I had my suspicious that Dana’s family taught her crocheting as a way to calm her down, much as they had involved her in any physical activity, but I wanted to hear her opinion before I voiced mine. Dana volunteered that they wanted to teach her to crochet to calm her down, but that she also wanted to learn so that she would have something to do. “I was hyperactive and had to do something. I got in too much trouble with the other ideas.” I had to ask. Dana responded, “Ideas like shaving the dog, tormenting the neighbors, trying to cook, and cutting my own hair....I was nine” (Dana 2002). According to Bernadette Murphy, the author of Zen and the Art of Knitting, the repetitive movements of knitting and crocheting put the body and mind into a state of meditation. During this state, breathing and heart rate both drop, which calms the mind and body. Dana also mentioned some of the reasons why she continues to knit and crochet. “It keeps me out of trouble. Now I’m decent at it, and I like doing the whole color thing. And people want me to make them [afghans] as gifts or to buy them for presents” (Dana 2002).

Murphy also argues that while the body is in a meditative state, the creative mind is its most active. Dana’s designs often come from stories, but it takes a great deal of creativity to come up with the designs themselves and to figure out how to execute them. Dana often maps out her designs on graph paper before she makes them. In this way, she can correct her work before she actually does it. “If I write it out first,” she explains, “I can step back and look at it and see if it looks like what it’s supposed to look like. Sometimes legs and necks look weird at first, and I have to play with them for a while” (Dana 2002).

When it comes to color, Dana will use the shades that the person requesting the afghan picks. When she is given the freedom to choose her own colors, however, she combines them in original ways. Many times I have seen her pick out yarns that I think will look hideous together, like the blue and orange afghan she made for Stacy for her graduation. Once the afghan is completed, the colors may look a little odd together, but they never clash unless they are supposed to. This use of color contrasts with the traditional aesthetic of afghans. While it is becoming popular to use brighter colors, and yarn shops are seeing an increase in the sale of bright yarns, traditional colors were often muted or pastel, with bright colors mostly used for accents or whimsical children’s designs. Afghans were often created to match a particular room’s decor. Dana says, “I think it’s fine if you want it to match something. I do afghans like that. They’re boring. They’re like Grandma afghans. The afghans I make—well, they aren’t your grandma’s afghans. Unless of course, your grandma was half blind. Or crazy. Then they might be, in that case” (Dana 2002).

In their article “Grammar, Codes, and Performance: Linguistic and Sociolinguistic Models in the Study of Vernacular Architecture,” Williams and Young ask the important question, “What better method toward gaining an understanding of the meaning of things—both that which is shared by a community and that which is a result of purely personal choice—can we employ than by talking to the people who built, lived in (or lived nearby), altered, and remember vernacular structures?” (1995, 46). Use is similarly important for works like Dana’s. Dana primarily makes afghans, and she has no intention for them to be used as anything other than blankets. Since Dana gave me “Psychedelic Moose” during a time in my life when I had few household possessions, it immediately became a well-used blanket whenever the temperature would drop. “Psychedelic Moose” is one of the few blankets or afghans that have traveled with me to new homes in Kentucky and Newfoundland. I now own a variety of blankets and afghans (including one that I made myself), but I felt when I moved that I should bring only a few along with me, since I originally planned to move back to Pennsylvania someday. “Psychedelic Moose” was an obvious choice for me. While it does not match anything else I own—or it matches everything I own, depending on one’s perspective—I wanted to bring it with me, because it is one of my favorite blankets and one of the most interesting things I own. I never thought of it as folk art until I started my master’s degree in folk studies at Western Kentucky University. Dana was also surprised to learn that it qualifies as folk art, most likely because few people consider themselves to be “the folk” or consider things they make to be “art.” The blanket is usually next to my bed in case I get cold at night or in my living room. I have never exhibited “Psychedelic Moose,” but I have shown it to a great number of people, including my folklore classes. As Dana once said, it does make a great conversation piece.

Even though I now appreciate “Psychedelic Moose” as a piece of folk art, I continue to use it in the same way that I always have. Dana has offered to add panels to the afghan if I want a continued history of my education. I have been considering the additions for several reasons. One is the reason that Dana named: I would like my memories to be immortalized so that I can remember them. I would like Dana to add panels once I finish my Ph.D., because I want a concrete representation of my education. While a diploma or a class ring are nice remembrances, something like “Psychedelic Moose” is much more personal and meaningful. I also like the idea of “Psychedelic Moose” as an object that ties my past and present together. While it would be easy to see my educational experiences as separate, I want to keep them connected. More importantly, I want to keep myself connected to where I came from. While education is often seen as a way to lift people out of their prior situations, I want to remember where I came from and how my past, in addition to my education, has shaped the person that I am today. Lastly—and the most practical reason—I am tall, and “Psychedelic Moose” is unable to cover my feet and my shoulders at the same time. Additional panels would add length and width to the afghan, ultimately making it more comfortable for me to use.

When I informed Dana that she is a folk artist, she was unsure if that term really applies to her. She felt the same way about the term “folk art.” When I mentioned the words “memory art,” however, Dana quickly became excited by the definition. “Yeah, I like that. It’s definitely memory art.” She has since used those words to define her afghans.

This article is about a piece of material culture, to be sure, but it is mostly about how a piece of material culture speaks to us on a variety of levels. Even when they are not aware of the stories behind “Psychedelic Moose,” the afghan does speak to people. In the many years that I have used and shown my afghan, I have only received one negative response to “Psychedelic Moose.” Most people who view it are first shocked, then amazed—not only at the aesthetics, but at the creativity of the maker. Soon after, the questions will begin: Who made this? What does “John-Boy Rules” mean? What’s that? and finally, Why moose? While Dana was the one who chose the moose for their size and uniqueness, she thinks that the choice may have been some sort of premonition that I would attend Memorial University of Newfoundland, because, “They have moose up there, lots of moose. Big moose!” (Dana 2002). Ironically, after living in Newfoundland for three years, I am one of the rare few who has not seen a moose in the wild.

Every day “Psychedelic Moose” takes on new meanings and new stories. Now it reminds me of more than my academic history. It reminds me of friendships, stories, where I grew up, reactions that others have had to it, and the promise the future holds. Maybe Dana’s next panel will involve an article about how “Psychedelic Moose” is folk art—after all, it is “a very dynamic moose” (Dana 2002).


 









Andrea Kitta is a PhD candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Saint Johns, Newfoundland. She is currently researching the antivaccination movement and lay perceptions of inoculation.



My friend and the creator of “Psychedelic Moose,” Dana, happily described the afghan, saying, “It’s like a family tree of weird high school stuff”



Works Cited

Dana. October 11, 2002. Interview by Andrea Kitta. Scottdale, Pennsylvania. Transcript.

Greenfield, Verni. 1984. Silk Purses from Sows’ Ears: An Aesthetic Approach to Recycling. In Personal Places: Perspectives on Informal Art Environments, 133–47. Ed. Daniel Franklin Ward. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University.

Hufford, Mary, Marjorie Hunt, and Steven Zeitlin. 1987. The Grand Generation: Memory, Mastery, Legacy. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Murphy, Bernadette. 2002. Zen and the Art of Knitting: Exploring the Links Between Knitting, Spirituality, and Creativity. Avon, MA: Adams Media.

Williams, Michael Ann, and M. Jane Young. 1995. Grammar, Codes, and Performance: Linguistic and Sociolinguistic Models in the Study of Vernacular Architecture. Vernacular Architectural Forum 5 (Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture: Gender, Class, and Shelter):40–51.




This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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