Play War with Nathan Vincent’s Life-Size Crocheted Army Men

Art & Sculpture Craft & Design Yarncraft
Play War with Nathan Vincent’s Life-Size Crocheted Army Men

When it comes to fiber art, Nathan Vincent doesn’t mess around. Or he does, but in a very tenacious manner. He uses yarn to create remarkable works that challenge our expectations of the materials, as well as the imagery he depicts. He does this through a cunning combination of processes, and subject matter. The processes he uses are traditionally considered feminine activities, such as: knitting, crocheting, sewing, and embroidering. The subjects he chooses are traditionally masculine objects, like: slingshots, video game controllers, and super hero capes. This juxtaposition of the familiar in an unfamiliar context is what makes Vincent’s work so striking.

Photograph by Steven Miller
Photograph by Steven Miller

Last year, Vincent exhibited an extraordinary series of crocheted sculptures depicting those ubiquitous little green army men, but in this case, he made them life-sized. The exhibition was called “Let’s Play War!” and traveled coast to coast, from the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington, to Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City. Not only was this work an impressive display of his crocheting prowess, it made a powerful statement about the effect that social expectations and gender have on the way we learn to play and think creatively from a very early age.

Photo: David Lindsay
Photograph by David Lindsay

Vincent is currently exhibiting his work in multiple exhibitions throughout the United States. I reached out to him to find out how he managed to produce so much incredible work over the years, and what he had in mind for the future. It’s not always easy being playful, as Vincent explained of his recent work, but totally worth it in the end.

Andrew Salomone: How did you get into working with fiber and what led you to make such ambitious work with this material?

Nathan Vincent: I started working with fiber in my last year of college. While studying drawing and painting I began to embroider on my paintings to add embellishment and color and during my research found other fiber artists. This opened up a new world to me and I realized I didn’t have to think about artwork in such a traditional fashion — paintings with oil, drawings with charcoal, and sculptures with marble, etc. While visiting a friend who was crocheting herself a sweater in the round, it hit me that when you connect the edges of a flat piece of crochet (which I knew how to do since childhood) you create a 3 dimensional object. The light went on, and the rest is history, as they say. The larger works grew out of my desire to make something based on a setting or a place. Having worked on individual pieces, I wanted to create a space, or alter a space with my sculptures in a way that evoked a feeling. The strength that yarn gains when it grows beyond the human form was also of particular interest to me.

Photos: Kris Graves
Photographs by Kris Graves

AS: Besides the toy imagery, there seems to be an element of play in your overall approach. How has experimenting with the materials you use informed your work?

NV: It really was all about play for me in the beginning. That idea of “non-traditional” materials is exciting and compelling. That’s not to say others haven’t used these materials to make art in the past, but it seemed to me there was so much more exploration to be done. And, my own personal take on art is that it doesn’t always have to be serious. If artworks carry a strong meaning and that meaning can be expressed in a very serious, academic way, then I’m all for it. However, that doesn’t discount humor for me in the slightest. Humor can also be powerful and expressive. I’ve found throughout the years that if you can catch someone by surprise or make them laugh, or show them something out of the ordinary, they are more likely to stick with you and ladder up to the concepts you are grappling with. And if they don’t? Well, at least you made them think at some level. Engaging people even on that base level is more than a lot of artwork is capable of.

Photo: David Lindsay
Photograph by David Lindsay

AS: Your sculptural work looks incredibly difficult to design, considering that you have to go from shaping a flat piece of fabric into a 3D form, almost like the vector graphics used by a 3D printer. Have you ever had trouble turning a piece of fabric into a sculpture? And if so, how did you forge ahead to make the piece work?

NV: Thank you for saying so, but I’m afraid you’ve given me too much credit. I don’t work flat very often. There are occasions where I have to work flat and then crochet or sew pieces together, but most of the time I am working in the round. So, I’m not thinking in a flat manner and then interpreting that into a 3D surface, I am thinking in 3D to begin with. Some sculptures are created hollow and then stuffed, others I build an armature first and crochet around that object. It all depends on what the shape and desired surface texture demands. If I want something seamless, I make it all in one piece, always crocheting off of the work already done. This is why I use crochet more than knitting as it works better in the round for me. If I want to create definition between areas of solid color (take the Army Men as an example) I will make this in pieces and crochet or sew it together, using the crocheted or sewn seams as delineation.

Photo: Steven Miller
Photograph by Steven Miller

AS: What was the most challenging piece to make so far and has it had any impact on the way that you work now?

NV: My answer to this question is always the same, but always about a different piece. The last piece I’ve made is always the most challenging. Maybe that’s a testament to my appetite for a challenge. The toy army men pieces were incredibly difficult to produce. Due to the detail in their faces and bodies, I had to come up with a way to have the yarn “hug” the armature so it wouldn’t sag or fall out of place. The solution was simple, but took forever to come up with. But now that I’ve solved this problem, I use this solution in almost every piece! (I know your next question is going to be, “what was the solution?” but that’s a secret!!)

AS: What are you working on now?

NV: Having just finished the “Let’s Play War!” installation, I’m stepping back to evaluate where I am in my artistic practice and taking some time to experiment. When you spend 10 or more years trying to develop a voice, a style, and an aesthetic, I think it is important to challenge yourself and to try working outside your normal patterns. That’s what I’m up to these days, and we’ll just have to wait and see where it leads. I’m experimenting with new materials, stiffening yarns, and incorporating different techniques. There’s not much to say about it at this point, except that it’s exciting and scary at the same time.

Photo: David Lindsay
Photograph by David Lindsay

Stop by The Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York City to see Vincent’s work in an exhibition called “Sew What?” through May 22nd 2016. You can also catch several of his works in “Role Play” at Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Idaho through February 20th, as well as “Queer Threads” at Maryland Institute College of Art through March 13th!

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Artist, writer, and teacher who makes work about popular culture, technology, and traditional craft processes.

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