Leslie Roth’s Companion Animals are Knit With Wit | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Leslie Roth’s Companion Animals are Knit With Wit


Published December 14, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 19, 2022 at 4:06 p.m.

  • Courtesy of Paul Rogers Photography
  • "Inside the Box"

Leslie Roth's animals have attitude. Their likenesses vary from a frog to a chicken to a raccoon, but most wear expressions of self-assurance bordering on defiance: I might be made of yarn, but don't think you can mess with me.

Roth, who lives in Montpelier, is a really good knitter. She whips out functional items such as sweaters, scarves and beanies in patterns that look impossibly tricky. She also designs patterns and knitwear. But it's Roth's handcrafted sculptural menagerie that stands out in a gallery exhibit, or even on a shelf in her work space at Studio Place Arts in Barre.

"I sometimes try to make a cheerful creature," Roth said, "but it just comes out grouchy or morose. They sometimes decide my intentions."

Leslie Roth and "Stew" - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Leslie Roth and "Stew"

It's not that the animals look aggressive or mean; rather, they're adorably fierce. In a current group exhibit at Studio Place Arts, a rooster-headed character titled "Stew" has arms ending in large, three-digit "hands" that are both monstrous and silly. In Roth's studio, the face of a sort-of-human woman wearing a tiny knit pussy hat appears ready to smash the patriarchy.

The animals are not all yarn. For their armatures, Roth also uses recycled materials such as paper towel rolls, plastic bottles, newspaper (exclusively Seven Days, she said), insulation foam and wire. She makes teensy claws from Sculpey clay; appendages are often little wooden dowels. The animals' eyes come from an online source or are crafted with Sculpey.

Once she makes the infrastructure, Roth said, she knits the rest in the round to fit the bodies snugly, à la yarn bombing.

Roth began knitting in 1991, she recalled, when she was 21. "My mother had tried to teach me, as a child, but she gave me iceberg-lettuce-green acrylic yarn. She said I could have better yarn when I learned how to knit." Young Leslie stitched just a few rows and gave it up.

  • Courtesy of Paul Rogers Photography
  • "Binge Watching"

Born in Montréal and raised outside New York City, Roth racked up adventures and miles before picking up the needles again. At McGill University, she earned a degree in anthropology. "Then I went to Alaska with skis and a backpack and lived in a tent, snow to snow," she recounted.

Roth found jobs gutting fish, waiting tables and working for a longshoremen's union. Ten years later, she was the executive director of a hospice nonprofit in Homer. In Alaska, she also met the man she would marry.

Roth and her husband moved next to Madison, Wis., where he completed a master's degree in social work. Afterward, they decided to settle in Vermont's capital city. "We wanted a balance between urban and rural," she explained.

Initially, Roth found work "facilitating a support group for people with ALS," she said. "Then I earned a mediation certificate from Woodbury [College]. I didn't use it at all." Instead, she purchased the Knitting Studio, a yarn store in Montpelier, and ran it for about eight years. She also had two sons — and found a new yarn mission.

  • Courtesy of Paul Rogers Photography
  • "The Sweetest Grape"

"Once I had kids, I would knit their Halloween costumes," Roth said. "They started becoming more three-dimensional." Think a chimera with three heads, a mythical dog with multiple heads, a robot. And animals — "zebra, lion, tiger," she remembered.

"Knitting a nose or ears became more interesting than knitting sleeves," Roth added.

Her boys, now 18 and 15, have outgrown trick-or-treating, and their mom moved on to making sculptural critters. Roth described two categories: Vermont denizens, often "nuisance animals" such as opossums and muskrats; and fantastical creatures inspired by mythology or her imagination.

Asked how people respond to her animals, Roth laughed, remembering one nonfan who, during a studio visit, "sniffed and sucked her teeth." But the woman's husband found them amusing.

Roth observed that viewers who like her animals "tend to have a quirky sense of humor," she said. "And people who buy my art seem like they are nurturing. When [they] choose to live with my creatures, it's like it's part purchase, part adoption."

  • Courtesy of Paul Rogers Photography
  • "Making Amends"

They're also able and willing to shell out a few hundred bucks: Roth's knitted sculptures go for $375 to $650. "I'm glad people want to take them home so I don't have a lot of animals sitting around," she said. Roth guessed that 75 percent of her customers buy a piece for themselves rather than as a gift. Her odd little beings are not for everyone, she acknowledged.

Roth makes 12 to 15 knitted sculptures a year and does not accept custom orders. "I have a lot of fun coming up with my own ideas," she said, "so I'm fine not taking directions."

She's learned to make the bodies and appendages fairly quickly, but crafting the head and facial expression requires "quiet time and concentration," Roth said. "That tends to be the most important part of the process for me." And, of course, it largely determines the creature's anthropomorphized attitude.

"The nice thing about yarn," she added, "is if you make a mistake, you just unravel it and begin again."

Roth does not name her animals, "but buyers usually do, and so did my husband — he has a bunch in his office," she said. "But I do say good night to them when I leave the studio."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Yarn Tough | Leslie Roth's companion animals are knit with wit"

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