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Kristen Dettoni Brings Ciphers and Spies to Studio Place Arts


Published July 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

"Coded Color Series — Nypc (July)" - COURTESY
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  • "Coded Color Series — Nypc (July)"

Pop culture's abundant conspiracy boards rarely focus on the yarn holding the evidence together. But the conspiracy that fills artist Kristen Dettoni's head absolutely starts with the fiber, then unfurls into a labyrinth of codes and connections to rival any spy thriller.

A selection of Dettoni's punch needle canvases and related works are on view in "Top Secret" at Studio Place Arts in Barre, where the artist recently gave a talk about her process. She studied weaving in art school and worked in commercial textile mills for many years. This included the subtleties of designing products that are not glamorous but pose complex engineering challenges, such as automotive upholstery that resists coffee stains and cheddar bunnies.

Dettoni's obsession with hidden codes, ciphers and spies isn't surprising, given her interest in what lies beneath our everyday surfaces. But she was truly hooked on the subject after reading a biography of Elizabeth Smith Friedman, a pioneering early 20th-century cryptanalyst who cracked many codes in both world wars and trained other women to be code breakers.

"Coded Color Series — Dofs (July)" - COURTESY
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  • "Coded Color Series — Dofs (July)"

Dettoni has encoded Friedman's name and those of her protégés in some of the works on view. Innocuous-looking 6-by-6-inch punch needle canvases in the "Intelligence" series use bar coding (chunks of barcode represent letters of the alphabet) to hide names of female spies. Placement of a button on each of the 16 pieces indicates a single character in the phrase "Inspiring Women."

Pieces from the "Classified" series look like unassuming floral patterns. If someone were to pull out the length of yarn that makes up each flower, they would find white ikat-dyed stripes that spell out a name in Morse code. If this sounds like it would be hard to figure out from seeing the work, it is.

"Residency" - COURTESY
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  • "Residency"

"What I have fun with," Dettoni said, "is making it look like it's not obvious at all — like you wouldn't even know there was a hidden message in there." It bears mentioning that the artist creates commercially available patterns through her company Design Pool, including ones that hide healing messages — such as "fuck cancer" — in fabrics for health care settings.

"It just looks like any other pretty upholstery fabric or any other pretty wall covering, and then to maybe find out that there is so much more to it," Dettoni said, "is the fun part of it."

The 12 pieces in Dettoni's "Coded Color" series are a little more transparent. For these, the artist assigned each hue in her watercolor palette to a particular mood. Every day in 2022, she woke up and painted a single square based on how she was feeling. She then translated each month into an 8-by-8-inch punch needle version of her calendar.

"Signals Series — Un" - COURTESY
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  • "Signals Series — Un"

Dettoni also encoded each day of the month to the alphabet and used the cipher to spell out the name of the month in raised yarn. The watercolors are displayed alongside their punch needle counterparts. SPA's labels offer the viewer a bit of mercy in unscrambling the titles.

The most accessible works in the show are from Dettoni's braille series. Using the punch needle technique to create raised areas in a canvas of white wool, the artist spells out touch-related phrases in braille; the first is simply "Do Not Touch." Dettoni described the work as a commentary on being in a space where you can't know the rules except by breaking them: "You have to touch it to know not to touch it."

Dettoni is fine with viewers simply appreciating the work for being pretty. But conspiracy-minded visitors can rest assured: For once, there really are coded messages hidden everywhere.

"Top Secret" by Kristen Dettoni is on view through August 16 at Studio Place Arts in Barre.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Kristen Dettoni Brings Ciphers and Spies to Studio Place Arts"

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