A square for Bobby Baker

I so enjoyed reading Kate’s account of designing a square for Adrienne Rich for our blanket. The poem she describes – An Atlas of The Difficult World – is one of many amazing works to which Kate introduced me through this project. If you are thinking about designing your own blanket with other people, I reckon that researching your squares, sharing stories, and making time to talk about what they represent are at least of equal importance to the actual knitting.

Like Kate, I use Adobe Illustrator to generate my charts, but I always feel the curvy shapes of knitted stitches do unexpected things to a charted design and that the only way to be absolutely sure of how the thing is going to look is to make swatches. I admire the efficiency of Kate’s design process immensely, and one of the treats for me about working on this project was gaining an insight into how she and Mel work together with charts and knitting. I loved seeing the seamless way that Mel’s hands translate Kate’s charts, and also her concise and thoughtful comments coming back “Should this square be blue?” “Have changed this one” etc.

My own process is less efficient and quite a bit slower. Although Adobe Illustrator definitely features, I also find I need some slow time spent with pencils and paper, and knitting on my swatches. This is time to think about the context of what I’m making, and also to get into the details of my designs. To describe how I work, I thought I’d start by introducing the square that I designed to commemorate one of my favourite artists of all time: Bobby Baker.

knitted square depicting four interwoven curls of moulded bread dough on a background of bread dough

This square features four moulded loops of bread dough, and recalls the protective breast pizza from the outfit Bobby creates in one of her iconic performances, Cook Dems. I chose this motif because it is the same one that Bobby herself wears on the cover of her magnificent book, Redeeming Features of Daily Life, and because it is emblazoned on a celebratory cupcake which Bobby Baker gave out at a talk I attended over a decade ago and which I have kept as a cherished memento, (time has turned it rather grey and ghoulish).

black and white book cover in which Bobby Baker is shown wearing white cookery overalls, a protective breast pizza and a pair of hand-baked antlers

Commemorative cupcake featuring Bobby Baker's Breast Pizza motif printed on icing in green and black shades

the cupcake, a decade old, with printed edible icing now faded beyond recognition and light fossilising evident at the edges of the very old icing

About Bobby Baker

I knew that a celebration of Bobby Baker would need to reference bread, cake, cooking implements or other materials found in British, middle-class domestic space, for these form the expressive basis of her work. In the 1970s, Bobby Baker had newly graduated from art school and felt deeply alienated from the art world and the domineering, vast, metal sculptures that were popular at the time. As a young, emerging artist, she supplemented her income by selling decorated cakes by mail order. One day, upon completing a baseball-boot cake, she had the amazing revelation that cake was her sculptural medium:

Suddenly it was like the heavens opened and a new thought shone into my brain – I’d made a Work of Art, a sculpture of equal status to Anthony Caro’s epic and huge metal sculptures. For a long time I just laughed with delight at the sheer irreverence of this decision to name such a pathetic, poorly crafted object ‘A Work of Art of Great Significance’. But I knew at the same moment that it was a pivotal turning point for me as an artist – I had discovered my own language, material, form – something that began to echo my fleeting thinking.

Bobby Baker's now iconic baseball-boot cake

Soft, perishable, undeniably drenched in complex social meanings, using this material as a sculptural medium enabled Bobby Baker to begin making art in a way that fit the complex, social themes she wanted to address. Thirty years later, as an MA and then PhD student exploring the significance of the everyday and domestic soundscape, I was drawn to the potent sonic materials of everyday life by the same forces which had inspired Bobby to start making art out of cake. I felt I had found a creative ancestor in Bobby Baker, and her work remains a vital reference point for my own.

In 2009, I was commissioned by Sound & Music to produce a contextualising series of podcasts for the Cut & Splice Festival which was, that year, themed around domestic spaces and living rooms. With kind permission, I used audio from some of Bobby Baker’s amazing performances to give a socially-engaged, feminist perspective on the tensions and complexities of the domestic soundscape. (You can hear that here.) In projects like this one, and in my doctoral research, I examined the links between our work. I also gained confidence in using humour by seeing how Bobby Baker did the same to broach complicated subjects like post-natal depression; class oppression; and the lack of respect and recognition for the domestic labour that produces and maintains the human race. For a long while, I had Marina Walker’s essay about Bobby Baker – The Rebel at the Heart of the Joker – stuck on my studio wall, where it exercised a kind of magical influence over my ideas.

Bobby Baker is intentionally naughty, deliberately playing with her food and making a mess, all the while carving out a space of agency and creative freedom in the same domestic contexts which have historically been restrictive spaces for women. Shocking, uncomfortable, vulnerable and teetering between tragedy and comedy, Bobby Baker’s work takes the very stuff of the Nice White Lady Home and turns it into a radical, liberatory critique of itself. Flour and juice become spattering paints that speak viscerally to the physical experiences of motherhood; cake becomes a sculptural medium “Of Great Significance” and packed lunches become a vehicle for pointed explorations of social class and identity.

The breast pizza (designed to protect the wearer against criticism) is a fantastic emblem of the spirit of invention and vulnerability that characterises Bobby’s practice. Cook Dems – the performance of which it is a part – also involves the creation of bread antlers (to increase one’s status) and a bread-ball skirt (to add that touch of glamour).

Cook Dems - Bobby Baker wearing breadball skirt, bread antlers, and protective breast pizza

After baking and donning these items, the piece culminates in a triumphal kitchen dance. In her book, Bobby gives a very moving description of taking this show on the road in the 1990s and bringing it to community centres around the country. She describes arriving “at a windswept estate overlooking the Clyde on the edge of Greenock” with her friend Pol (Polona Baloh Brown). They were greeted by a “group of sewing ladies” who were clearly expecting a fairly standard cookery demonstration and were surprised to find themselves in the middle of a subversive, feminist art performance:

In this instance, as with most, there comes a moment when people stop trying to make sense of what’s going on and just get into the swing of things. This was a particularly joyful occasion – my dream success event. They all chipped in and bantered all the way through. Their gritty, bawdy wit and appreciation of the innuendo was far greater than mine, so they took the concept miles further. When I did my final dance they all joined in and we shrieked with laughter together at the need for most women, and a lot of men, to wear a pair of baked antlers and just laugh, laugh, laugh.

To me, this description epitomises the value, impact and potential of community art projects, and the special genius of Bobby Baker’s work which is somehow able to unite people briefly in life-affirming experiences which reframe daily life as magical and transformative. I would love to hear from the women involved in this performance, and to ask whether they found – as I do, thinking about it now – that bread and the act of baking took on a special significance after being explored through this joyful creative lens. Thinking of this story again, the protective breast pizza comes to symbolise the pathos and risk in Bobby Baker’s work. How many of us would drive hundreds of miles to meet with a group of strangers in a community centre, and persuade them to join us in a potentially ridiculous, definitely uncertain, creative adventure? To be so willing to be that vulnerable with strangers takes immense bravery.

A closeup of the protective breast pizza Bobby Baker wears on the cover of her book

I certainly have found myself in various community arts settings over the years drawing strength from the stories of Bobby Baker’s practice, and perhaps emboldened by the thought of her valiant bread shield. In this, and in so many other ways, Bobby Baker’s work has had a profound impact on my own work with domestic sounds. However, she’s also influenced how I view knitting as a deliberate and feminist choice of medium which – like cake – is steeped in social and domestic references which make it a potent mode of expression. Bobby Baker is one of a generation of artists who insisted on the significance of women’s material culture, and who fought for it to have its own space and recognition in art history. Including her amongst my 15 blanket squares was about celebrating a particular branch of feminist arts practice using the fitting medium of knitted stitches.

About Bobby Baker’s Square

To design a square in honour of Bobby Baker, I first of all examined the shapes of the sculpted bread dough featured in her protective breast pizza. The four quarters of my blanket square were to be identical – which the four quarters of Bobby Baker’s protective breast pizza are not – so I knew I was aiming for an approximation, at best. A homage.

How to plan and visualise the quarters of my square? The actual chart used to knit the squares is bisected by the column of decreases that runs up the centre, which makes it hard to imagine how the finished square will look.

template showing the blank outline of the chart for Square Share

To help me visualise things more easily, I made a template for swatching which places one quarter of the finished square into its own space. I then filled the space outwith the quarter with a “lice” pattern (*k1 in background shade, k1 in pattern shade, repeat from * until all the stitches have been filled). This allowed me to get a sense of what each quarter of my square would look like in far less time than it would have taken me to knit an actual square, and enabled me to modify my designs in response to seeing them appearing in knitted form.

A blank chart which shows one quarter of the knitted square that will comprise the eventual design

Hirst – a lovely oatmeal shade – seemed an ideal base to suggest the breadiness of Bobby Baker’s protective breast pizza and then the rest of my design process focused on using Birkin, Bruce, Hare and Horseback Brown – (grey, charcoal, mid and dark browns, respectively) – to try to describe the pleasing, loafen materiality of Bobby Baker’s bread sculpture.

Shades of Milarrochy Tweed: Bruce, Horseback Brown, Hare, Birkin and Hirst

First chart attempt - a slender roll of bread charted as one quarter of ablanket square

Skinny Bread roll knitted from first chart

The first attempt looked, to me, too skinny. Although it is proportionately close to the size of the bread swirls on their background of bread in Bobby Baker’s shield, in this low-resolution rendering, without all the pleasing texture present in the original, I felt the knitted lines had to all be thickened by way of a compromise. It just didn’t look hefty enough for a shield. I tinkered with my chart in Adobe Illustrator until the moulded piece of bread looked thicker. Increasing the width of the loop of the bread dough in my square quarter enabled me to add in some more of the cracks and fissures that would be present on an actual baked bread crust.

Second chart attempt - a thicker roll of bread dough charted as one quarter of a blanket square

Thicker Bread roll knitted from second chart

This is one of the swatches for which the chart was developed in Adobe Illustrator, but once I printed out the charts, I made some marks in order to indicate where each of my double-pointed-needles ended, and to show myself where to change colour. I always knit from printed or drawn charts, which I place on a magnetic board. A magnet, which is also a ruler, helps me keep track of which row of the chart I am on. For this design I refined my chart in Adobe Illustrator but in many other cases, I did all my chart workings in pencil on my printed out paper template. Once it was clear to me that the second idea for the chart was working for me as knitting, it was a case of transferring my design from the wedge template into the chart template proper, for Mel.

Proper Bobby Baker Bread chart blanket square

This whole process – and sharing it with you today – have been an amazing opportunity to revisit the artistry and influence of Bobby Baker; I hope you have enjoyed reading about her work as much as I have enjoyed commemorating it in our blanket.

If you would like to make a swatch to help visualise your finished squares, you are very welcome to download my template for doing so here: blanket workshop worksheet LGF 1; this morning Kate also added the worksheet template I used for making my swatches to the Square Share Pattern, so that if you would like to try my swatching method for yourself, you can.

I hope you enjoyed reading about Bobby Baker and my knitted celebration of her work – until soon,

1 thought on “A square for Bobby Baker

  1. I can’t say enough about how inspired I am by your blanket project. The blanket itself is just gorgeous, but the collaborative effort, research and references to other artists, wow! I was trained as an artist in the 70’s, studied art history looking for women artists especially…now knitting is my art. I’ve just started reading about each woman who inspired a square and I keep thinking, why don’t I know about these people!! Already I’m working on a new knitting design inspired by Alma Thomas’ paintings which I found through you. Your project has such far-reaching implications, on so many levels, that everyone should see and read about it. Thanks for documenting your journey too, both you and Kate. Absolutely astounding and so important!

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