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Artist Chris Walla’s ongoing Hanky Project, featured in Handmade Meaning, is a series of colorful cotton bandannas embroidered with silhouettes of male figures borrowed from pin-up images. The bandannas reference the “hanky code” used by many gay men in the 1970s and 80s as a non-verbal means to communicate sexual preferences. The use of embroidery, a craft historically associated with women, is central to the work. As Walla puts it, “I wanted the ‘making’ of these pieces to refer to the hand-made needlepoint and embroidery practiced by women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for their hope chests.”

Chris Walla, Hanky Project (detail), 2006.

Artist Statement
Our desire to communicate with others, the yearning to be understood, and the ambiguity of what lies between is the current focus of my work.  How we speak, hear, and assimilate both visual information and language is often the genesis of many of my pieces.

I am dyslexic. At times written language has been nothing but abstract.  This experience had a profound impact on me, and it is why I chose to be an artist.  Forms and objects have always served as ways for me to communicate without written and verbal language. What is of primary interest to me as an artist now is the disjuncture between the material and the abstract.  How do we perceive language when it becomes form? How do space and the rendering of that form impact our understanding of the meaning of that language?

Discourse and debate are fundamental to the progression of our ideas as a society. If we do not engage in a dialogue we are left only with unrealized potential.  The unspoken is an impotent promise that provokes no intellectual or emotional evolution. This is why I often choose representations of text or singular words rather than actual language; these representations tend to be neutral or empty. My approach to making objects is wide and varied.  I have employed embroidery to wood fabrication to metalwork in my pieces.  What is most important to me is that the material choices serve the concept.

My goal for my work is for it to exist in an ambiguous space between social critique and formal aesthetics allowing for open interpretation, and, because it occupies the terrain of the familiar, a more subversive reading.

–Chris Walla

Chris Walla, Hanky Project, 2006.

Walla received his MFA in Sculpture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Sculpture at the University of Minnesota. See more of his work at


I believe that making things of beauty connects us, gives us joy and satisfaction and helps us carve out our place in the universe.  In a past world in which hard work, farming and childrearing consumed many women’s lives, their needles and spindles were weapons in their quest for their own identity.  Their creations are acts of love that transcend ephemeral and corporal existence.  These women created beauty and usefulness with materials at hand and in so doing, left us wonderful legacies of ingenuity, insightfulness and connectedness to a larger elusive universe. Our attention to their work allows us occasional glimpses of that universe and teaches that creating beauty offers the possibility of transcendence.

That is why I believe they did what they did.  That is why I do what I do.  Nothing has ever given me greater pleasure and I hope that present and future generations will find that same connectedness I discovered.  Handmade Meaning: The Value of Craft in Victorian and Contemporary Culture is a very exciting exploration of these past and present connections to women’s lives and it will help pass an important torch to the next generation of makers and appreciators.

–Mary Dickey


Mary Dickey, Box for my Ashes, 2002.

Mary Dickey is an artist based in Sauk City, Wisconsin. View more of her sculpture, assemblage, shellwork and jewelry on her website.

Milwaukee artist Cassandra Smith created a new work for Handmade Meaning, combining gilded antlers with decorative patterns painted directly on the gallery wall.


Cassandra’s website

Cassandra’s blog

Fine Line Magazine

Corn husk mat made in Wisconsin and used by the Bakke family of Iowa. Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum object # 1977.096.001.

“Large quantities of corn husks are wasted every year, which might be made useful in many ways.”

An article in the 1874 issue of the journal American Agriculturalist offered instructions for making indoor and outdoor floor mats from braided corn husks, a ubiquitous byproduct in farming communities throughout the United States. This use of corn husks as a craft medium dates back many centuries, if not millennia, in the Americas.

The Krueger family of Watertown, Wisconsin husking corn, ca. 1903. Wisconsin Historical Images WHi-1896.

The unidentified Wisconsin woman who made this mat, now in the collection of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, elevated this humble form to a more decorative level through a complex pattern of concentric circles and waves. The mat was donated to Vesterheim by the daughter of the original owner, Martha Aaker Bakke, who used it in her Iowa home. According to family history, Bakke acquired the mat around 1906 from “an elderly lady who lived on a farm near Stoughton (or Koshkonong), Wisconsin, and was from Norway or of Norwegian descent. The maker was about 80 years of age and had made a number of mats in her lifetime.”

Unfortunately, I have been unable to discover the identity of the thrifty and talented woman who made this intricately patterned mat. A note in the Vesterheim files indicating that the maker’s daughter was a “Mrs. Gjerset” did not turn up any results in census records or other genealogy resources.

However, it is possible to reconstruct the story of the mat’s use by Martha Bakke and her family. Bakke was born Martha Aaker in the rural community of Pleasant Springs, Dane County, Wisconsin in 1869, the oldest daughter of Norwegian immigrants Etling (or Elling) and Anna Aaker. The Aakers were one of hundreds of families who left Norway and established farms in southeastern Dane County in the 1840s and 1850s. In 1885, the family relocated from Pleasant Springs to a much larger farm in nearby Dunkirk.

In 1891, 22-year-old Martha married Iowa native John Bakke and left Wisconsin for Winneshiek County, Iowa. According to family history, she acquired the mat in the Stoughton area around 1906—fifteen years after moving to Iowa. Perhaps she purchased it during a visit to her parents’ home in Wisconsin. According to Bakke’s daughter, who later used it in her own home, the mat was treated with care and was never used outdoors. Now more than 100 years old, the fragile corn husks have held up remarkably well.

Emily Kircher, Cupcake Rug, crocheted fabric, approx. 18" square. Via

Today’s do-it-yourself crafters might call this use of corn husks “upcycling,” or the transformation of waste materials into useful products. For example, using a technique not far from that used in braiding a corn husk mat, Illinois artist Emily Kircher upcycles fabric sourced from yard sales, thrift stores, and “mill ends” from textile factories into colorful crocheted rugs.

–Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer

The American Agriculturalist: For the Farm, Garden, and Household, vol. 33 (New York: Orange Judd Co., 1874), p. 385 (via Google Books)

History of Dane County: Biographical and Genealogical, vol. 1 (Madison: Western Historical Association, 1906), p. 17-18 (via Google Books)

Emily Kircher, Recycling Artist. Website.

On Thursday, September 30th, the Design Gallery at UW – Madison sponsored a yarn bombing event at the bus shelter across from the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The installation was coordinated by School of Human Ecology Professor Diane Sheehan and Lisa Frank, Interim Director of the Design Gallery. I was able to stop by in mid afternoon on Thursday to check out the progress of the installation, but just missed the TAD students who did an amazing job installing this piece.

Side View of the Cozy Shelter
In the evening, I was able to attend the accompanying panel at the MMoCA, which was moderated by Jennifer Angus and featured Professor Beverly Gordon, Jeffrey Bleem and Lisa Whiting as panelists. Each panelist gave a 10 minute presentation on their take on DIY craft or on their art before Jenny asked her prepared questions and opened the floor to prepared questions. I was happy to see that a lot of the topics we’re interested in our Exhibition, especially concerning the meaning of making craft were touched on by all three panelists.

The project was completed to coincide with Gallery Night on Friday October 1st, and several community knitters, including myself, were on hand to knit in the bus shelter while people enjoyed the evening. I spoke with several people who either donated scarves themselves or who knew people who did, and had a great time chatting with Kim, Deanna, and Marie who came by to knit.

Night View of the Cozy Shelter
Many people in the Madison knitters community helped with this project by donating time and knitting skills to this amazing project, including the folks at the Madison Knitter’s Guild and Sow’s Ear in Verona, WI.

–Posted by Rebecca Keyel

Three pairs of knit stockings with beadwork and crochet, Elizabeth Pauline Ebert, Menomonee Falls, Waukesha County, 1878-1879

(Private Collection, from the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database )

Elizabeth Pauline Ebert's knit stockings

Elizabeth Pauline Ebert of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, knit these three pairs of stockings between 1878 and 1879. Like many residents of the state in the second half of the 19th century, she immigrated to Wisconsin from Germany, and these stockings were handed down to her granddaughter, who passed them on to their current owner, who has kindly allowed us to include them in the exhibition.

Elizabeth’s knit stockings are a reflection of her fine knitting skills: her stitches are precise and even, a sign of a competent knitter. In addition, she includes technically difficult lacework and beading on each stocking, clearly demonstrating her knitting ability. While I wasn’t able to identify the lace patterns on the stockings with the red or green beading at the time of this post, the blue socks use feather and fan or Old Shale stitch, one which remains popular today. The choice to include both her initials and the year in the intricate bead work show a sense of ownership and pride in her work. A story that was passed down to her granddaughter is that she knit these stockings to be beautiful in her new home in the United States.

Detail of Old Shale lacework

Like many of the objects showcased in this exhibit, Elizabeth’s stockings are a reflection of the increased interest in fancywork and decorating everyday objects among many middle class women in the late nineteenth century. Elizabeth knit her socks at a point when socks and stockings were available commercially but when many women were still making them at home both for pleasure and economy. Elizabeth created a luxurious version of a practical and ubiquitous garment, and in doing so created objects that were important enough to be saved and passed along to her descendants and finally to their new owner.

Socks like Elizabeth’s are still a popular project for many knitters, and often include everything from lace to beadwork to new construction techniques. The socks below are ones I knit in March 2009 using a toe up method instead of starting with the cuff as Elizabeth did for her stockings. While they different in both construction and materials, the impulse to make something beautiful is the same. I used Regia Color, a self-striping wool/nylon sock yarn, something that would have been unheard of in 1878 when Elizabeth knit her socks. Because of the color of the yarn itself, I knit most of the sock in stockinette except the cuff (not shown in the image). While my socks looks almost nothing like Elizabeth’s, I knit them for pleasure  just as Elizabeth did over 130 years ago.

toe up socks


Nancy Bush Knitting Vintage Socks: New Twists on Classic Patterns Interweave Press. 2005.

–Posted by Rebecca Keyel

Handmade Meaning

An exhibition investigating the connections between Victorian women's fancywork and contemporary Wisconsin craft. At the James Watrous Gallery, Madison, Wisconsin, December 17, 2010-February 6, 2011.