ArtBeat: Tangled beauty

  • Joan O’Beirne has knitted extension cords for her exhibition, “The Scarf,” which is at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center through Jan. 11, 2018. Contributed photo

  • Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Published: 12/6/2017 11:16:41 AM

One of the three pieces in Joan O’Beirne’s exhibit, “The Scarf,” is eye-grabbingly visible from the main gallery at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Brattleboro, Vt. Through the doorway of the small side gallery where O’Beirne’s work will be on view through Feb. 11, 2018, you can see a wall-sized, multi-paneled photograph of an over-sized orange industrial extension cord. From afar, what’s most striking is the incongruity of seeing such a familiar, workaday object lionized on the wall of a museum.

An extension cord — really?

And yet, the curving and twisting lines of the cord create a tangled beauty. And its scuffed and blackened orange color is striking against the dull greys and shining silvers of its backdrop. The image is printed on 112 one-foot square panels of aluminum arranged in a long grid. The distressed cord sprawls across the large expanse, traversing the individual squares, in some instances lining up fluidly, in others breaking off and reconnecting in another square. Here and there, exposed wires fray out of the tubing, or strips of silver duct tape wrap around it. Each panel is held away from the wall by pins, as if, as O’Beirne aptly states in her artist statement, each was not an industrial-weight square of metal but, instead, “a butterfly specimen.”

O’Beirne, who lives in Brattleboro, heads up the photography department at Greenfield Community College, where she’s been a professor for roughly 12 years, serving first as an adjunct, then attaining full-time status in 2005. She says the work began as drawings.

“The drawings were in response to stress in my life and anxiety and depression,” O’Beirne says. “I was drawing knots.”

O’Beirne then experimented with putting her camera on a copy stand so she could photograph from above, moving her camera along in increments in order to capture the entire length of the cord as it lay on the floor. She’d originally thought she might stitch the photos together and print them as one large panorama, but she began to like the uncomfortable sense that being broken into separate panels caused.

“You know how it is, if there’s a line that continues somewhere else, even if there’s a break, the mind sees it as one line. I was counting on that. And yet there is the disconnect too. … It’s not a smooth transition.”

In some ways, this viewing process mimics the emotional and mental processes of trying to make sense out of something that seems incomprehensible.

Another piece in the exhibit is comprised of two videos that run side by side on the wall. One shows a pair of hands being washed in a bowl of water. The other is a close-up of O’Beirne’s hands knitting the extension cords. The black-and-white tones of the images have been reversed, as if we’re watching the film’s negative, and this creates an otherworldly feel. The soundtrack, played from a speaker near the gallery’s ceiling, creates an audio backdrop to the entire exhibit. The slowed-down creak of the knitting needles takes on expanded importance as you turn to take in the exhibit’s namesake piece, a long scarf of multiple extension cords knitted together. Close to 12 feet long, the scarf tumbles down from a chair on the top step of a set of white wooden stairs that O’Beirne had built especially for the exhibit.

When I ask what made her think to knit extension cords, O’Beirne laughs and says she’s not really sure. But once she thought of it, she ran out and bought the largest knitting needles she could find, watched some knitting videos on YouTube and gave it a try.

“Once I started, I thought, ‘This is kind of weird and interesting,’” O’Beirne said.

At her opening, she tells me, she sat in the chair for an hour and knit, transforming the sculpture into a performance piece.

“Tell me about your arms and your hands,” I say.

O’Beirne laughs. “Well, they got strong!” she replies. “But they didn’t hurt.”

Over time, as she worked on it, the scarf took on various meanings.

O’Beirne says that in some ways, knitting extensions cords is “an exercise in futility” since no one could ever wear a scarf that big or that heavy. And in another way, although O’Beirne doesn’t use this word, it’s an exercise in hope.

“I’ve transformed it into something else,” O’Beirne says, adding, “I think that’s what we do as artists. We transform things.”

O’Beirne’s work, “The Scarf,” is dedicated to her brother, Christopher, who took his own life in June 2000.

See Joan O’Beirne’s exhibit, “The Scarf,” at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, 10 Vernon St., Brattleboro, Vt., now through Feb. 11, 2018. Hours: Every day except Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: adults $8; seniors $6; students $4; free for museum members and youth 18 and under. Free admission for all on Thursdays, 2 to 5 p.m. For more information: call 802-257-0124 or visit:

O’Beirne will be giving an artist’s talk at the museum on Thursday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

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