by Lela Nargi
Ruth Marshall is browsing the alluring assortment of tchotchkes at Pearl River Mart, the Chinese “everything store” on New York’s lower Broadway. Red satin bunny ornaments: “So cute!” Painted sheets of rice paper: “Beautiful!” Plastic nose-shaped pencil sharpener and paper balls stamped with tiger stripes: “I have to get these!”
The lighthearted cheer of the shopping expedition is extinguished by a collection of traditional musical instruments displayed behind the cash register. “I bet that’s covered in real snakeskin,” says Marshall with a sigh, nodding toward a stringed piece known as a gaohu, the sound box of which is stretched with a gray, mottled material, unmistakably peeled off a python. It’s the kind of thing Marshall had earlier announced she was “terrified” she’d find here.
For the past seven years Marshall, an Australian-born sculptor who resides in the Bronx, has been using knitting to confront the urgency of animal conservation in the twenty-first century, painstakingly stitching exacting replicas of animal skins. “So many species have become endangered to the point of no return,” says the 47-year-old Marshall. “It’s much more dire than it was a hundred years ago.”
Marshall credits the unique array of creatures that populate her native Australia for much of her interest in animal conservation. She stitched up the skins of all 68 colorful species of New World coral snake (these particular creatures are not endangered, as it turns out, although who knows what their future holds). But it’s her eerily accurate pelts of big cats that have garnered the loudest praise from both press and art-goers. Marshall shares their enthusiasm. “I’ve always been a cat person,” she says. “Almost as soon as I started knitting cats, I knew tigers would be in the cards at some point. They’re the cats of all cats.” They’re also mightily endangered, almost everywhere they roam. Chinese tigers—an example of which Marshall was knitting at the time of this interview—are rumored to be extinct, hunted exhaustively through the years by men such as Harry Caldwell, a Tennessee missionary who wrote of his exploits in Blue Tiger, a book that Marshall says “sent shivers down my spine” as she read it.
Marshall’s first cat projects were smaller in scale than the tigers that are attracting so much attention now. She started with Rocky, her own resident (and now extinct) tabby. “I needed technical experience,” she explains of the decision to start with a house cat. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I made a drawing on acetate, then pinned that over graph paper. It kept moving and my stitch count was always off.” From this first chubby subject, Marshall moved on to jaguars, a snow leopard, and an Amur leopard. These were all sketched at the Bronx Zoo, where Marshall spent fourteen years as an exhibit fabricator. Charting the pelts was more of a challenge. She began to draw directly on the chart itself, “but I didn't realize that knitting charts aren’t perfectly square,” she laughs. “I had to add one or two rows for every inch.”
In 2009, Marshall hit the research jackpot when she was granted access to the American Museum of Natural History’s back-of-the-house cat collection. She banged out six ocelots in the next year. Allowed to peruse a cupboard of pelts at her leisure, “I learned so much,” she marvels. One afternoon, she realized that “the fur on a cat changes direction at the paw. It changes direction at the shoulders and at the leg. I’d never noticed that before.” Armed with new knowledge, and with a wealth of cat-knitting experience under her belt, Marshall was ready for tigers.
Marshall’s first tiger model was a cub. The second was a pelt named Renée (according to its specimen label), donated to the museum in 1963. This piece took three months to knit, using a system that Marshall worked through on earlier cats: Starting with the tail, she knits upward. Stitches are placed on a holder, and then a rear leg is begun at the toes and worked diagonally, until the leg can be joined to the tail. Those stitches are held and the second leg is begun. “When I've got to a stage on the chart where both the legs and tail come together, then all the stitches form one long row,” says Marshall, elaborating on the process. “I hate having seams in my work so what I do now is work across these rows for an inch or so until the fabric is more solidified. Then I split the piece in half and work the sides separately.” Short rows bring the legs and sides together, with Marshall “winging it” to stay true to the markings indicated on the chart. Her latest challenge is adding more three-dimensionality to the head. “I’m still experimenting,” she admits.
Using circular Addi Turbos (three sets per cat) and wool donated by Lion Brand, Marshall is knitting up a whole “tribe” (Marshall’s word) of tigers, each specimen replete with patterning absolutely unique to each animal. Renée is broadly striped at the shoulders; the Chinese tiger on Marshall’s needles at this writing (donated to the museum in 1919 by none other than Harry Caldwell) has more stripes on his legs than “any other tiger I’ve seen;” another male specimen has thin stripes across his entire body.
Marshall’s hope is that these displays of individuality will help viewers to move beyond the inherent abstraction of extinction—a phenomenon that can be logically comprehended, but has little practical or emotional relevance to the average city-dweller. And she hopes her current tigers will be ready to stretch on bamboo frames by the time of her solo show at the Museum of Art at the University of Maine, in April 2012.
“I want to take people’s breath away at the power…of tiger[s],” she says. “I interpret these animals into textiles…so [people] can get close to them and see how beautiful they are. I hope it will lead to a journey.” A journey away from mounted skins and pelts, out into the wild, where, if we are supremely lucky, these cats of all cats may one day roam again in abundance.