Odile, Muriel & Nolwenn: three generations, two cowls

Muriel and Nolwenn wearing their respective cowls, standing and smiling in the sun

Following on from my last post, today I’m sharing a Q&A with two dear friends and collaborators, Muriel and Nolwenn Pensivy. If you’ve been here a while you’ll know that Nolwenn is one of the designers in the KNITSONIK & Friends: Colour to Knit eBook and that Muriel (who happens to be Nolwenn’s mum) and I have been collaborating over the past few years on Yarnadelic Remixes 0.1. Last year they decided to do my Knit Stars 6 masterclass together, and Nolwenn decided to use colours inspired by the paintings of Muriel’s mum, Odile (Nolwenn’s grandmother). There is something incredibly special about this intergenerational making, and I’m thrilled that Muriel and Nolwenn have kindly agreed to be interviewed about their experiences of knitting my Think Like An Artist cowl. I hope you’ll be as inspired as I am by reading about their shared creative endeavours!

the two cowls by Muriel (left) and Nolwenn (right) shown hanging side by side

Felix: I was so happy that you decided to make the cowl together, following my online class for Knit Stars Season 6: Live Colourfully. I’m really interested in the day-to-day experiences of people who buy the classes. What’s it like to buy a Season of Knit Stars and to do one of the classes, how did you use the online class materials and digital content supplied? Could you say a bit about how it looked in your daily lives to have knitting school at home?

Muriel: I was aware of your class from the beginning (through your newsletter) and was SO excited about a new KNITSONIK adventure! For me it represents a continuation of your artistic journey in stranded colourwork, offering the kind of structured, rich creative process that I really enjoy. Nolwenn and I needed to spend some quality time together. And we thought that this project presented the perfect occasion to do just that… so we shared time together in the evening, watching the videos at a slow pace, talking about them and enjoying them for the joyous, creative vibes they bring.

Nolwenn: I’m a curious person by nature and I love learning new things, especially about people and their way of thinking. What made me want to enrol in Knit Stars: Season 6 was seeing you online, presenting the different colourways on the corner of a table, in a natural environment. I was in love with the concept of three colourways, each inspired by an artist, and the colourways themselves. And when I saw the cowls and learned that the “handout” planned for the class evolved into a full-on eBook*, I knew I had to make the full journey and use your amazing guidelines to create a colourway of my own with which to knit my cowl.

the colourway created by Nolwenn with which to knit her cowl; clockwise from top centre, the shades are deep, mid and light brown; white mid and dark orange, dark, mid and pale teal, and pale mid and dark navy

Felix: When I put this pattern and class together, it was absolutely my hope to both introduce other knitters to my methods for translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork AND to share some of the artists whose work has inspired me. I wondered if you could say a little bit about your experience of these two elements of the class? Can you share a stranded colourwork discovery… or anything you especially enjoyed learning about the artists whose work is celebrated in my pattern?

Muriel: At the beginning, we watched all the course videos… then we started knitting each section while looking for documentation regarding the relevant artist, watching, listening and talking about them together. It was fascinating to discover how these women artists thought, and translated their vision of the world, lived, and shared their artistic journeys! I really enjoyed knitting alternatively little and large stranded colourwork motifs from a technical way (in terms of thinking about pattern), but I also enjoyed this underlying structure to the design kinetically and rhythmically. It really reminded me of playing music exploring rhythm and sound textures.

Nolwenn's cowl section celebrating the work of Wendy Carlos in stranded colourwork; the motif looks like soundwaves

Felix: I love that! Yes, I alternated little patterns with big pattern throughout the cowl, as a way of providing structure and visual cohesion across an eclectic mix of shapes and motifs, but you’re right that the physical act of knitting the patterns in that order has a nice rhythm to it physically as well. In musical terms, it’s a bit like repeating a simple phrase over and over, adding little dynamic changes for a bit, and then going onto a more complex part where the tune is changing more, and the quality of attention is different… Nolwenn, did you have any stranded colourwork discoveries, or anything you especially enjoyed learning about the artists whose work is celebrated in my pattern?

Nolwenn: Videos were a really good way to learn together. Arriving at the second section of the cowl, which speaks to the work of Georgia O’Keefe, we realized that what we really wanted to hear was each artist expressing themselves in their own words.

rust red hills by Georgia O'Keeffe; a complex landscape in which the creases, hills, dips, textures and colours of the hill are brought to the fore

the Georgia O'Keeffe inspired section of the cowl, worked in Nolwenn's palette for the design

With Bobby Baker, whose work is celebrated in the first segment of the cowl, this wasn’t an issue as she’s a performance artist and still alive, so the documentation we found online about her was mostly by her! Georgia O’Keefe was another story. As I was using my own colourway for this project (and not one of your curated palettes) each new section was a big discovery! Even if I used your drawing/grid system to chart the sections and to see how they would look I didn’t know if it would turn out the same (in terms of maintaining the same overall effect and colour relationships)…

Odile inspired colourway, represented in Nolwenn's bullet journal by a wheel

Nolwenn exploring the Alma Thomas chart in her journal, using the palette picked out for this project, inspired by Odile

…But it did – it really showcased your motifs and their versatility as well as the efficacy of your colour-picking system!

the Alma Thomas section of the cowl, worked in Nolwenn's special palette

Alma Thomas painting (on the right) with the translation of Alma Thomas's work into stranded colourwork on the left; the colours used here are shades from the Alma Thomas inspired palette

Muriel: Georgia O’Keeffe, Bobby Baker, Daphne Oram and Yayoi Kusama were the only women artists whose names I recognised when I first looked at your pattern. My background is very grounded in musicology and I’m not sure I would be able to list women composers easily either, as they are very often (as in art) excluded from influential cultural studies.

Nolwenn: I didn’t know of any of the artists featured in the cowl. I did some artistic studies in high school but Histoire de l’Art wasn’t in the curriculum and even if it was, I doubt we would have talked extensively about women artists. That said, I do remember going on a school trip to the Georges Pompidou Museum to see the work of Yayoi Kusama. Her Infinity Room with the mirror floor and walls was an intense sensory experience that I won’t forget!

Yayoi Kusama inspired section of the cowl

Felix: As you know, I worked closely with our amazing friends at John Arbon Textiles to put together yarn palettes inspired by three of my favourite artists – Alma Thomas, Georgia O’Keeffe and Bobby Baker – for people to use, in order to explore stranded colourwork design. My whole plan was to create palettes that would speak to the work of each artist, while also offering the knitter a range of options in terms of high/low contrast effects, and subtle shading or, as they say in Shetland, “blending”. I also wanted to keep things manageable and to stick to twelve yarn shades, as I think more than that can create a lot of faffing and indecision when it comes to picking shades! After developing my own process for developing three workable palettes, I felt I should share my notes and methods so that anyone knitting the pattern might put together another bespoke palette, using the same underlying colour theory that I used for curating the kits! Could you say a bit about the colours you each used for your cowls?

Muriel: I really loved the three colourways you put together with the mill folk at John Arbon Textiles, but I was most enthused by how you built workable palettes from the extensive options offered by the Knit By Numbers range. It was really hard to choose between the warm and cosy version inspired by Bobby Baker, the jewel-tones of Georgia O’Keeffe’s palette, and the joyous and bright colourway inspired by Alma Thomas’ work. Finally I thought it would be uplifting and cheerful to wear the most vibrant version of the Think Like An Artist cowl through winter, and so I went with the Alma palette.

the Alma Thomas palette for the cowl

Muriel wearing her Alma Thomas colourway cowl, and her limited-edition Alma Thomas pin badge

Nolwenn: I wanted to have a warm but vibrant palette. I was really into the whole process of picking colours using your guidelines: warm vs. cold and using a wheel to help organise and understand the colour choices. At first I was a bit lost on which artist to choose as a starting point. I don’t have many “favourite” artists from whom to pick, and I didn’t want to half-ass things by making an unconsidered choice. But then I realised that I have the perfect gallery to inspire my project! At home we have a good collection of paintings by my grandmother, Odile, which I have always found very colourful and inspiring. When looking at them I always focus a lot on the textures as “Mamie” liked using acrylics, paint drips and sometimes fabrics to create raised textures on her paintings.

incredibly textured painting by Odile, held up by Nolwenn; you can see the paint texture

I have very fond memories of sitting in her studio, which was quite messy and also very textured with paint splodges everywhere! (her messiness is something that has very much been passed on to me!). So it was exciting to choose a painting via the perspective of colours this time. Most of the time her paintings were developed in one or two hues like red or pink and orange and so were less appropriate for the exercise. But one of them really works well: The Musicians!

The Musicians - the painting by Nolwenn's grandmother that inspired her yarn palette for this project

I chose to pick my colours not by looking at the dominant ones but by picking bits here and there. So, for example, the teal gradient doesn’t appear entirely in the painting but there is a bit of a pale sea-foam teal. The orange I used is a more obvious one but tricky: I was using the John Arbon Annual and the photos on their website (using the tops pictures instead of the yarn ones), so the difference between the gold and the orange fade for the background of the painting was difficult to see.

Nolwenn putting together her palette for the Think Like An Artist cowl

I waited to have the shade card to finalise my decision. What finally made my choice is the fact that my warm brown and my dark blue were the same as the ones in the Bobby Baker colourway; if I had picked the gold fade (rather than the orange one) it would have been too similar to that.

three separate palettes of yarn colours, each inspired, respectively, by Alma Thomas, Bobby Baker, and Georgia O'Keeffe; each palette is arranged as a kind of colourwheel around the artists' name

Felix: Did doing a KAL together lead to any interesting conversations and were there any unexpected discoveries or revelations from working on this project together? Did this project give you ideas for future knitting projects?

Muriel & Nolwenn: We had wonderful conversations together, especially about interpretation vs intent. Like we said before, Georgia O’Keeffe is a perfect case in point. When we started looking for documentation and information about her, we always landed on male-centred points of view on femininity and sexual symbolism without really knowing if that was what really was in her mind when painting. Through watching a documentary film – Georgia O’Keeffe by Perry Miller Adato – and reading the book she wrote, we learnt that what Georgia wanted to explore was the details in small objects by blowing them up to a monumental scale. She was very methodical and could paint numerous versions of the same painting. Furthermore, she had opinions on peoples’ interpretations of her paintings.

More generally, the simple fact that it was very hard to find anything about several artists whose work is celebrated in the cowl – even though all of them were creative pioneers – reveals a great deal about the status of women’s place in cultural history.

Felix: Absolutely – and that is one of the very reasons why I created this project! It means so much to hear that knitting the cowl sparked these kinds of conversations between you both.

Muriel: I really wanted to hear Alma Thomas in her own words, as a teacher and painter, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to find an interview in which we could hear her voice. So I was really thrilled when Nolwenn showed me the virtual version of the exhibition “Everything is Beautiful” that took place in Washington DC at the Phillips Collection at the time we were knitting our cowls, pointing out to me that all the captions were Alma Thomas’ quotes! The whole exhibition is fantastic and joyful, please go and watch it online! (Link at the end of this article).

Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocus by Alma Thomas

Nolwenn: When we were searching for Althea McNish’s primary sources, I found a BBC documentary called “Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History” that focuses on Black and Asian artists, and in which Althea McNish and her work are featured. This documentary is a really in-depth conversation/exploration/study on celebrating and expressing Blackness while living in a white-washing and white-centred dominant culture. We learnt a lot. Movements like the BLK Art Group founded in the 80s were discussed and we discovered amazing works, sometimes life-spanning, from artists like Anwar Jalal Shemza and Li Yuan-chia. We would highly recommend it to everyone if you can find an online version to watch.

Althea McNish's textile print, Golden Harvest, (in a blue colourway) on the left; the knitted section of the cowl that speaks to Althea McNish's work on the right

Felix: Yes – that is such an important documentary, and in fact the section on Althea McNish and her work was recently shown as part of a showreel at a wonderful exhibition on Althea McNish’s work held at the William Morris gallery here in the UK. I learnt from another amazing artist – Lorna Hamilton-Brown – that much of Althea’s work for that show was in fact recovered from a skip outside her home, following her death in 2020. It was only because someone recognised the importance of that work – and saved it – that it has been preserved and was able to be exhibited. Which goes to show just how easy it is to lose important chapters of art history, and why we need to cherish artists and appreciate – and caretake – artists’ work.

You sent me some amazing FO photos of wearing your beautiful cowls; it felt like a real celebration. Could you tell me a little bit about your lovely photoshoot together, how you styled your cowls, and what it was like to celebrate your mutual knitting achievements? What were some of the things about which you felt particularly proud?

Nolwenn and Muriel in their cowls; the photo is black and white

Muriel: Yes it was a real celebration, indeed! We were especially proud and happy to manage to finish them together. All the way through knitting the cowls, we tried to keep pace with one each other, even if sometimes one of us was one or two sections ahead. That was a fun way for us both to stay motivated!

Nolwenn: Mum managed to graft the ends of her cowl before me, very calmly, while I was a bit behind. Then the cherry trees started to bloom at the neighbouring Japanese park. We love to go there for Hanami to picnic and enjoy the cherry blossoms together. We thought this would be the perfect occasion to do a small photoshoot with our two cowls! I frantically grafted my cowl the day before our outing, that’s a BIG win!

The cherry trees in the park

Muriel: Nolwenn made her famous chicken guacamole sandwiches; we bought chocolate fondants at the bakery; and we took our huge plastic tarp to the park! For the photoshoot we were mostly being silly, doing whatever we felt like at the time. But we really wanted to show off the different sections and compare the two different colour schemes.

the cowls in the park, shining in the sun

Nolwenn: I’m a big fan of moving – not dancing – awkwardly to random music in my head. I couldn’t help doing this during the photoshoot! (this time it was “The Blob” by Five Blobs. Why? Don’t ask me!)

Nolwenn with the cowls in the two different colourways, posing in a joyous, light-hearted way

Muriel & Nolwenn: We feel especially proud to celebrate women artists by knitting this beautiful piece you designed, including the anonymous artists celebrated in the section dedicated to “Anon”. Because this section is based on the quilting created by African American women, it reminds us of the incredible work created by the quilters of Gee’s bend.

The page in the handout dedicated to the chart for celebrating anonymous woman artists of the past (chart, knitting and impression of knitting all shown side by side)

Finally, we love the idea that our knitting finds its place in a transgenerational artistic journey from my mother/grandmother to us.

Odile's painting with Nolwenn's cowl in front of it

Odile's painting with Nolwenn's cowl in front of it

Odile's painting with Nolwenn's cowl in front of it

Felix: Obviously my class was just one out of the whole of Season 6 of Knit Stars! How have you found the rest of the season?

Muriel: Wonderful! It was fantastic to have access from home to such amazing teachers, learning at our pace, discovering different ways of thinking and knitting expressions. I still need to take the time to try knitting with beads in the amazing way Jeannette Sloan does it! I especially enjoyed the designing courses: Louis Boria’s humble and generous way of sharing detailed and well-documented tips, and Ambah O’Brien’s calm and methodical approach to shawl design. The whole experience was really empowering and I really appreciate that I can go back to all the teachers’ masterclasses again, whenever I want.

Nolwenn: It was really fun and enjoyable to sit in the evening together, watching all the amazing classes, immersing ourselves into different universes each time, with their physical environments present in each class; the way they express themselves and their energy – whether calm and storyteller-like, or bouncy and cheery! I remember our cat Larson watching intently Nina Machlin-Dayton demonstrating how to do braids, and Dana William Johnson’s joyous and kind approach to spoiling your pet rotten and being kind to yourself.

Felix: It was such an honour to teach in this fantastic Knit Stars 6 line up, and I love these glimpses into how you explored the entirety of the season! I’m blown away by how you have used all you’ve learnt as a springboard for sharing things, discovering new artists, and making stunning knitted cowls! Thank you for telling us all about it. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Muriel & Nolwenn: Thank you so much Felix for this Q&A! It was wonderful to remember all these memories attached to Knitstars Season 6! We found some amazing online resources that we’d love to share with your readers, in the course of knitting our cowls.

– Alma Thomas exhibition virtual visit: The Phillips Collection Everything is Beautiful October 30, 2021-January 23, 2022
– Bobby Baker’s interview: A Conversation With Bobby Baker by DisabilityArtsOnline; A Studio of My Own: Bobby Baker and Sarah Lightman in conversation
Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life In Art documentary by Perry Miller Adato

Nolwenn wearing both cowls

Thank you so much to Nolwenn and Muriel for taking the time to write out your replies and share your amazing photos. If you’d like to sign up for Season 6 of Knit Stars, you may appreciate knowing that from today through Sunday, September 25th, Midnight Pacific, you can purchase it for $199 (usually $229). This post uses my affiliate link, which means that if you make a purchase after getting to Knit Stars via it, I will earn some commission – this is a great way to support your favourite Knit Stars: thank you.

*the handout for my Knit Stars class is 183 pages long, because charts are offered in black and white; full colour; and colour-your own, and because there is an introductory essay to each chart and the Artist who inspired it: it’s essentially a book!

2 thoughts on “Odile, Muriel & Nolwenn: three generations, two cowls

  1. What a hapiness to read this interview.I’m proud of the work of my niece Muriel and Nolwenn who have,tanks to their observation and quality of work a thread beetween earth and sky to magnifique m’y Sister Odile’s memory.
    Thank you also Felix ,I often hear about you…and all well done.

    1. How wonderful to hear from you – I often hear about you too, in the best and happiest terms, and am so thrilled that Muriel and Nolwenn have celebrated the spirit of your sister so beautifully in their making. Hurrah for the outward ripples of remembering and inspiration xxx

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