Men of Steel and Yarn

Edna Mode may have stolen the show as the snooty seamstress to the superheroes in The Incredibles, but the next time Batman chills at the Batcave, dahling, he just might be sporting a Mark Newport knitted sweater.

For the past two years, Newport has been knitting superhero costumes -- including a Caped Crusader outfit, along with suits for Spider-Man, Aquaman, Daredevil, the Rawhide Kid and even some heroes he's created himself. The Arizona State University professor of fiber arts creates the full-size costumes for comic book conquerors, using himself as a mannequin. He'll show nearly a dozen of the suits in his Super Heroics exhibit, opening Friday, June 24, at the ASU Art Museum.

"I started with Batman, who's probably my favorite comic book hero," says Newport. "I went down the list of comic book heroes I grew up with, and then I created suits of my own, like 'The Patriot,' which is constructed of red, white and blue yarn, and 'Sweaterman,' which is based on traditional sweater patterns. I'm trying to push the idea of hero as protector, and the idea that a soft, warm sweater also protects."

The contrast between the masculine icons and the soft, knitted suits provides a provocative visual, says curator John Spiak. "It opens a broad dialogue on gender identity -- more specifically, characteristics of masculinity and how they are perceived in our society. Newport's use of knitting and embroidery, combined with superhero imagery, provides an unexpected surprise that immediately engages the viewer."

While knitting has recently become the hobby du jour for a lot of men, Newport's hardly the trendy type. He says his work represents "how I see the world, instead of how the world is supposed to be seen, or tells you how to be," and he finds nothing emasculating about knitting. He's been doing it since his grandmother taught him to sew as a young boy in Amsterdam, New York. When his parents divorced in the late '70s, Newport went to live with his mother, where he says he was surrounded mostly by women.

"I've been making work related to gender issues for fifteen years or more, and a lot of that has to do with my background," says Newport. "When I said I wanted to pursue art, my family encouraged me, and it didn't matter if it was painting, sculpting, crafts, or if it was supposed to be a boy or girl craft."

As a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Newport began creating beaded sports trading cards and later, embroidered comic book covers (the exhibit features 10 of them). A few years later, he started making quilts from comic book pages. The full-size knitted suits became another step in Newport's artistic explorations.

To further examine the idea of gender, Newport's currently working on a series of digital images, where he performs in his superhero suits to explore the theme of protection. But he insists he does not run around his house in the suits. "No, I don't do that," he says, laughing. "I just stage events where I photo-document myself in the costumes."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea