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Artist's Creations Gave Crocheting A Radical Makeover


January 19, 2013

Irene Reed was a talented and unique fiber artist: She worked with thread and combined it with found objects — twigs, chicken bones, plastic religious figures and beads. What brought all these disparate elements together was crochet — a traditional women's art, which Reed totally redefined.

"Crochet" suggests granny-square afghans, but Reed's crochet work was so fine that it resembled cloth. The pieces were not what they seemed: A teapot is also a pocketbook; a chest of drawers has breasts; a pair of goggles has tiny hair curlers and hair brushes and shoes; and a hat is a model of the Colt dome, complete with a prancing colt.

"She's taken something that is considered traditional and has taken it to a radical new place that's all her own," said Andrea Miller-Keller, the former curator of the Matrix Gallery at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. "Her work is unique and looks like the work of no other artist. … She's using materials that were initially tools that women had used traditionally and hadn't been thought of as tools of high art."

Reed, who lived in Hartford, died on Nov. 26 of heart problems. She was 66.

Irene Coyne Reed was born on Sept. 25, 1946, and grew up in Newington, the daughter of Louis Coyne, a tool designer who made parts for planes and satellites, and Ann Coyne, who taught her to crochet when she was 5.

Crochet became the foundation on which Reed's art was based.

After graduating from St. Joseph College (now the University of St. Joseph) in 1968, Irene Coyne taught for a short time and worked in an office, but she soon began to spend all her time making things.

Petite and quite withdrawn, she bicycled all over Hartford with one eye on the ground. She would pick up items — small pieces of metal, beer caps, a small circuit board or screws — and store them neatly in her small house near Trinity College along with her other supplies, pieces of fabric, gold and silver thread, velvet, beads.

She lived frugally, and seemed to subsist on a few carrot sticks and a glass of rosι wine.

She could crochet quickly, without looking at her work, and she used to say that she never knew how a piece was going to turn out until the whimsy in her head became an art piece. Once she created a life-sized chair. She made 12 crocheted "shoes" for designer Stuart Weitzman's anchor store in Manhattan. Actress Mia Farrow was photographed wearing an old fashioned World War I pilot's headgear, complete with goggles and tied-up ear pieces — a Reed creation.

The thousands of works she created reflected Reed's wildly iconoclastic imagination, and were witty, bold and bawdy. She created an eerie series of cat mummy necklaces wrapped in string, as well as a butterfly pin larger than a Monarch.

"When it came to making anything, she was fearless," said Dan Blow co-owner of Japanalia, a women's specialty shop in Hartford that sells Reed's work. "There was no medium, no subject matter that she wouldn't tackle. She had this twisted vision, a talent for innuendo that could be read at many levels."

One Reed piece in Blow's collection took him years to decipher. It was a 747 airplane, crocheted, of course, in silver thread. All around the plane were crocheted pieces of fruit; on top of the plane were puffy white marshmallows, and the piece was surrounded by mountains crocheted in purple.

Finally, Blow figured it out the allusion: Purple mountain majesties above the fruited plane. "She would see a phrase and reinterpret it," Blow said.

Some pieces were unique, but some she made in multiples — although each of those was slightly different. Every year, she would make an animal corresponding to the Chinese zodiac — last year was the year of the dragon, and she made many different styles.

For an exhibit of something that could be worn around the neck, she made a necklace with a little door; each one contained the figure of a saint. A story in The Courant described an assortment of fish-shaped necklaces made of metal mesh filled with an assortment of Hartford street trash, part of a "Jaws" series. A milking stool with udders had a plastic cow on top.

"Her things were so flamboyant and beautiful," said Georgiana Mazurek, who works at Japanalia and has a collection of about 20 Reed pieces.

"There was a real genius in what she did," said Dennis Peabody, a Hartford artist who works in glass. "Irene's work always had that spark of humor about it."

Reed was interested in the work of other artists, which she interpreted in her own idiosyncratic way. One purse, inspired by Henri Matisse, shows a semi-nude woman in a fuzzy pink shawl on a plum-colored couch surrounded by tiny black pillows. Another purse represented Reed's interpretation of a painting by Picasso.

She frequently showed her work in juried art shows and won many awards. She was twice selected for a Smithsonian traveling exhibit, and was named a Master Craftsman by the Society of Connecticut Craftsmen.

Although Reed did not describe her art as radical, some art critics saw her iconoclastic use of a traditional women's craft as revolutionary.

"Her approach places her in that vanguard of contemporary women who refuse to apologize for things that grew out of arts that are traditionally consigned to women's work," said Pat Rosoff, a critic and art teacher at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford. "They say, this is what I do: it's what my mother gave me. ... It becomes a form that has an emotional link to your heritage."

Because she was an intensely private person, many people did not know that Reed had earned a master's degree from Wesleyan University in 1982, or that to gain insight into how to care for her aging mother, she studied gerontology at St Joseph and received a master's degree in that subject in 2002. (Her mother, whom she would bike to Newington to visit, died two years ago.)

Reed worked part-time at the University of Connecticut Center on Aging as a research assistant. One of her responsibilities was interviewing older people.

"She was a very perceptive person, and could tell when you needed to back off or when you could push." said Kate Kellett, one of her colleagues.

To alert people in nursing homes about the possibility of retaliation against anyone who complained about mistreatment, Reed helped produce a video. "She felt very strongly about caring for people," Kellett said.

One interview technique Reed used was to show old buttons she had incorporated into her artwork, and ask older adults to reminisce about memories the buttons evoked. She also published a paper in a gerontology journal about creativity and aging.

Reed, who was briefly married and divorced, is survived by her sister, Laverne Lombardi, of Anniston, AL, a nephew, two nieces, and a cousin, Dorothy Powers.

Examples of Reed's work may be seen at http://www.bing.com/images; search for "irene reed artist".

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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