Mark Newport, 40, knits costumes for the likes of Batman and Spiderman, mixing the womanly art of sewing with the manly world of superheroes, and making fun of gender stereotypes in the process. The fiber artist's life-size costumes and embroidered comic book covers are on display in a solo exhibition at Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe; he'll have his first show in New York City this fall. The ASU art professor does his knitting in a 1970s ranch house in Mesa, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Men who are in the closet about their knitting: I get all sorts of stories, usually from women, about how "my dad used to knit." One woman thought it was triggered by the war effort, World War II, that some people were encouraged to take up knitting and make their own clothes so they could keep the economy going for the war. I've never heard of that, so I'm going to research it.
Knitting in public: I usually knit when I'm traveling, so I knit when I'm on the airplane. I get comments all the time. I had a couple of flight attendants one time going, "Oh! That's just the craziest thing I've ever seen!" I never tell anybody I'm knitting superhero costumes. I figure there's a line that we can't cross. I just tell them I'm knitting a sweater and leave it at that.
Those suits are itchy: I don't wear the suits, except for some staged photos that are in the show. They're pretty uncomfortable. I've gone outside in them. There's one of the photographs where we shot in the desert, and the suit was hot. It's acrylic yarn; it doesn't breathe at all.
Batman rules: The first suit I knitted was Batman. The first comic cover I sewed on was Batman. Batman is of interest to me because he's vulnerable. He's human. He's made himself into a hero, whereas Superman was invincible from the beginning. Superman had magic gifts, and that's not all that interesting to me. I like heroes like Batman or Spiderman where they're still on the edge of human nature.
St. Rosey: Rosey Grier is my patron saint. He used to knit in TV commercials in the '70s. I had forgotten about it until a friend of mine reminded me a few years ago. He told me I should go get Rosey's book on sewing. I bought one on eBay. Maybe that was the unconscious inspiration for my taking up knitting, I don't know. But I remember seeing him on TV, knitting.
Circle of one: One of my students started a knitting circle in a cafe in Tempe, and she was like, "Come on, Mark, come knit with us." And I said no. I tend to like space. Knitting allows me to think about things.
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Sweaterman! He's completely my own invention. I've started making up my own superheroes. Sweaterman doesn't have a logo on his chest, just a cable knit pattern in beige yarn. I made an earlier version of him in pale blue. He doesn't have any special powers, really, except that he can make a force field to protect himself. I've drawn that in prints.
That voodoo magic: When I was in graduate school in Chicago, I got interested in Haitian voodoo banners. They sew sequins and beads right over the images. I took inspiration in that sort of outsider art. I started putting beads on sports trading cards, and sewing on comic book covers. You never know what will affect you.
Why boys can't sew: Somewhere around the Victorian era, the earlier structures of Renaissance guilds where men did all of the craftwork like weaving changed. Textiles in particular got associated with women because it was something you could do at home, you know, sit and sew, be quiet and subservient. That way you can't get hysteria and all those other things the Victorians thought would happen.
Why he sews anyway: I've been doing it for so long now that I'm surprised when somebody gets freaked out that a guy is knitting. What do they want me to do, fix a car? I can't particularly do that very well. Everybody does what they can do. I can knit.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the Phoenix art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.