While visiting Portland last week I made a point to visit the exquisite museum-like store of natural wonders called Paxton Gate. On my bucket list was a taxidermy bat, but the staff members educated me on the rarity of ethically sourced bat bodies. Most bats sold by vendors are killed solely for collectors. The store rightfully refuses to sell something that might have been destroyed rather than gathered, so I removed a bat from my bucket list permanently.
As if by fate, I was directed to the artwork of Emily Stoneking, a knitter from Burlington, Vermont whose creations "explore the places where art and science intersect" – also available at her aKNITomyEtsy shop. From frogs to human brains to aliens, Emily knits whimsical objects that are meant to be be appreciated by those who are typically squeamish of such things. I immediately purchased the Knitted Dissected Bat Specimen (below) which is pinned to a board and splayed open with felted internal organs on display. It’s icky science art made adorable, and no bats where hurt in the process!
I had to learn more about Emily and her curiously wonderful art pieces.
Señor Scary: Some may consider your art macabre, but I think it’s whimsical and even educational. What drew you to such subject matter?
Emily Stoneking: I'm not sure what drew me to macabre art in the first place because I kinda feel like I've loved creepy stuff my entire life. I loved reading about diseases and stuff in my parents' encyclopedias as a kid. I then grew up to study medieval history, and have a deep interest in historical epidemics, as well as medieval and early modern anatomical art. I love how in the eras before photography, the only way to learn about the body was to study illustrations done by master artists showing the inner workings of anatomy.
Señor: Did you study biology or physical sciences, and how accurate do you feel your artwork represents the internal workings of these creatures?
Emily: No, like I said, I studied medieval history and German! My knitted animal dissections are not very anatomically correct, I'm afraid. I took a little artistic license with the shapes and colors of the organs, and sometimes real scientists get cross with me about it! My human illustrations (which are newer works), I do try for some accuracy. I'll study anatomical illustrations of the subject I'm tackling and go from there. But they're definitely more art than science.
Señor: Where do you draw your inspiration and do you sometimes look at a thing and think, hmm, what does that look like on the inside?
Emily: I draw inspiration from everywhere! Conversations with friends will spark ideas, trips to museums, walking around the lake, all over the place! When I do think about what could the inside of a creature look like, I often end up going in a joke direction in my brain. Like, I make an Easter Bunny whose guts are that pink plastic grass you put in your easter basket, and his organs are all easter eggs. I have a plan to make a dissected shark and the contents of his stomach will be things like a spare tire, human leg, stop sign, etc...
Señor: I don’t know much about knitting, but I imagine there are no patterns for such creations (other than on your Etsy page). Is it trial and error or how do you approach the process?
Emily: Yeah, I make the patterns up myself, which is a definite trial and error process. I usually have an idea in my head of what shape I want to create, and a rough idea of the technique I want to use to achieve that. Then I'll give it a try, and usually my numbers are off a bit, so I rip it out and start again. It's normally little tweaks to get it right. I take tons of cryptic notes that probably only make sense to me, and then when I'm happy with it, I'll write it up into a pattern that other people will understand and can use to make their own!
Señor: What has been your favorite project?
Emily: My favorite project was a set of fish that I was commissioned to make by Parcs Canada. They wanted a knitted walleye and a common pike, each about 20 inches long, each 3 dimensional, with very detailed realism. They were going to use them to teach kids how to clean their catch when fishing! So they wanted gills, and a zipper pocket in the stomach, where the kids could open the fish and remove the organs. That was a really cool project. I ended up having to knit the pieces and then hand dye the stripes on the fish to make them as realistic as possible.
Señor: Is there a dream project you’d like to tackle someday? Perhaps a full size dragon or dinosaur dissection?
Emily: Hahaha full sized dino sounds amazing!! I honestly wouldn't know how to store such a beast, but heck yeah, that'd be wild! But yeah, up next on my wish list is to make a full sized bisected human collage. I'm not sure yet how I want to piece it together, which has been holding me back. But I hope to get started on it this fall.