Jennie Lea Knight; Nature Helped Shape Sculptures

Jennie Lea Knight, with her sculpture
Jennie Lea Knight, with her sculpture "Rambler" at a 1977 exhibit, said she liked "the tangible quality" of the medium. "It is not elusive." Over the years, she also showed drawings, paintings and collages. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007

Jennie Lea Knight, 73, a local artist of national reputation known for her sculpture and drawings over the past 50 years, died of cancer March 23 at Prince William Hospital in Manassas. She lived in Haymarket.

Miss Knight's works are in the collections of the National Museum of American Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She was best known for her abstract wood sculptures that suggested natural forms. She also showed drawings, paintings and, more recently, small sculptures and collages.

"Sculpture will always be my most comfortable media," she said in a 2002 essay for the Jane Haslem Gallery. "I think like a sculptor. I like the tangible quality of sculpture. It is something that you can touch. It is not elusive. The basic [tenets] of sculpture are simple, dealing with the same problems that we have to deal with in our own bodies, balance, strength, weight, posture, size, and space. Sculpture is not an immediate process. It takes time. . . .

"The prints I am making now give me access to images, thoughts, ideas, that I never thought possible. I made sculpture about the thoughts and principles. But the wonder of working with the images themselves I never dreamed possible," she wrote.

She lived on a working farm in Haymarket, where, while wielding chain saw and chisel, she was inspired by natural lines and shapes as she tended animals and cut hay from the rolling hills. A certified wildlife rehabilitator who cared for injured raptors, deer and fox, Miss Knight often captured the essence of a guinea hen's strut or the poise of a heron.

A native Washingtonian, Miss Knight was home schooled until she was 15 and then studied with Ken Noland at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington. She attended American University and later became an instructor there. She was an instructor and lecturer at the Corcoran School, the Art League School and George Mason University. From 1954 to 1974, she was a photographer and illustrator for the National Institutes of Health, where she worked on an atlas of the monkey brain.

She also cast bronze at the Penland School of Crafts near Spruce Pine, N.C., and Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in Milan. In 1972, she was chief of installation of the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

In 1956, she co-founded Studio Gallery on King Street in Alexandria. She directed the art gallery, one of the first in Northern Virginia, for about 10 years and then gave it up to the participating artists, who turned it into the city's first cooperative.

In 1973, when a fire destroyed her studio, tools, many of her drawings and much of her collection, more than 60 local artists contributed works for a benefit sale.

Later that year, Washington Post art critic Paul Richard looked at an exhibition at the Phillips Collection that contained drawings and sculptures by Miss Knight.

"Those drawings change her sculptures," he wrote. "Seeing them together provides her sculptures with a warmth, a subtlety, a set of evocations of ponds and gentle hills and curving biomorphic forms. The wood she uses no longer seems a kind of substitute for Tony Caro's metal or Noguchi's stone. It has been used as directly and as lovingly as a farmer uses land. . . . They do not look theoretical, invented. They look as if they've grown."

After progressively debilitating fibromyalgia and several bouts of cancer hampered her physically demanding large-scale art and she was left nearly immobile, Miss Knight realized that her eyes and hands still functioned well.

She began carving small, intimate sculptures by hand, for which she said she "had to learn a new set of techniques and had to learn to see in a new way" as she tried "to keep the quality of that dynamic line" in the miniature but powerful sculptures. They were shown at American University's Watkins Gallery in 2004, in her last show.

Survivors include her partner of 40 years, Marcia Newell of Haymarket.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company