Museum of Contemporary Art hosts stitchin’ new artists

Chicago-native husband and husband artists Stan Shellabarger and Dutes Miller take a pink tube that they have been crocheting together for 10 years to the MCA.

By Andrew McVea

When you think of crochet, you usually think of handmade Christmas socks from Grandma. For many, the act of crocheting serves a functional purpose, and while it can be aesthetic in nature, warm gloves are the ultimate goal. For husband-and-husband artists Stan Shellabarger and Dutes Miller, though, the art of crocheting can transcend the mere practice and become something attractive and meaningful.

Native Chicago artists Miller and Shellabarger are most famous for their ongoing piece Untitled (Pink Tube), in which they crochet a long tube out of pastel-pink yarn for hours on end. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of this work, they have returned to their hometown for an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Three days a week, for three to four hours at a time, they sit together on the fourth floor of the museum and crochet steadily.

When I visited, Miller and Shellabarger were seated in front of a grand glass window overlooking the autumn foliage of the Seneca Playlot Park below. Although the view was inspiring, the surroundings within the gallery were dull and monochromatic. Black faux-marble floors, steel columns, and industrial lighting created a futuristic yet cold atmosphere for the piece. The artists’ appearances also didn’t stand out. Both wore plain gray T-shirts, blue jeans, and sensible walking shoes. Mirroring their artwork, they also sported long, scraggly beards that reached down their chests, almost interfering with their meticulous crocheting. Even the weather outside was drab. The only color present within the exhibition was the bright pink tube, which stood in stark contrast to the black and gray of the floor and walls. The tube commanded attention as it slowly grew in length, like a vibrant snake uncoiling.

The artists begin their work every day on the fourth floor, but move throughout the museum as the day progresses, wandering into some of the other exhibitions or even onto the front steps. The pink tube that is featured in their work is representative of the working relationship between Miller and Shellabarger. As their piece grows over time, the couple is slowly pushed apart, representing the toll that creating a work of art can have on a relationship. However, the art that pushes them apart also physically links them together and unites them in a common goal. They have also said that each stitch in the tube symbolizes the time that they have spent together as a couple.

Tucked away on the fourth floor of the museum on a weekday afternoon, Miller and Shellabarger’s piece did not draw a very large crowd. Most visitors stopped by long enough to snap a photo of the artists before continuing on to the adjacent Alexander Calder exhibit or the elevators. A few art students with bleached blond hair peeking out of their navy stocking caps stayed briefly to chat with the artists about their inspirations, and one person sat down to do a sketch of them, but most of the museum patrons didn’t stay long, leaving the artists to themselves and their crocheting.

When they weren’t idly chatting with passersby or with each other, Miller and Shellabarger were incredibly focused on their work. Years of practice allowed their hands to move quickly and easily through the yarn, and the tube lengthened almost magically from their swift fingers. The piles of fabric were made of countless numbers of bundles of yarn, and although the color choice was uniform, distinct lines between faded and brighter sections could be observed in the piece.

Miller and Shellabarger will be continuing their exhibition through Tuesday, November 19. They “perform” every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; their tube remains on display whenever they are not there.

Untitled (Pink Tube) will be at the MCA through November 19.