The Sock Monkey ExperienceYes, I have sock monkeys, 50 or so. Not as many as my friend Lynne, but enough to impress visitors. And I wear monkey socks.
Classically, they are cheap, limp and prone to holes. Newer Rockford Red Heel socks seem a little stretchier, but they still wear out quickly. And they've gotten sort of expensive, outside the Farm & Fleet anyway, since they've become nostalgia items. You can sometimes get cheap offshore knockoffs, which wear longer and hold their shape much better than the real ones.
Anyway, sock monkeys are one of those folkish arts & crafts (like bottle-cap figures) in which regular Jills and Joes exercise their creativity using materials and instructions from commercial sources -- in this case the fabric that comes in the monkey sock package and instructions either in the package or in crafts magazines such as the inimitable Pack-O-Fun.
That might make sock monkeys a tad industrial, but the appeal of folkish arts often has more to do with age and patina than purity of origin. If the craft is old enough, it gets treated as folk art despite sources less than back-woodsy. Even objects as solidly folk as antique quilts aren't simply expressions of age-old traditions. They at least partially reflect commercially inspired fashions spread in the 19th Century by magazine instructions and packaged kits.
There is in any case a big difference between these kinds of hand-made objects and manufactured artifacts. The published instructions leave lots of room for individuality and variability, with the impulse to extend and enhance basic forms beyond predefined lines often clearly visible in the resulting creations.
As with all art (academic, folk, popular and otherwise) there is good stuff and there is indifferent stuff. The sweetness of the raw materials ensures that all Jockos are cute. But some are really cool.
There are vested hipster monkeys right out of Superfly. There are monkeys whose bulgy, skewed features are a match for any 19th-Century folk portrait. Elaborately overalled Ma & Pa pairs. Undersized dolls with embroidered faces instead of the usual button eyes and red-heel mouths. There are miniature monkeys and reindeer heads. Bald monkeys and dolls wearing wigs.
Together they form a little universe of eccentric creatures, equally suitable as dolls for little kids or as examples of unsung creativity.
The world of sock monkeys got a big boost when David Letterman tried to sell one to Chris Elliot in the comedy classic "Cabin Boy." The non sequitur "Wanna buy a monkey?" scene launched sock monkeys into worldwide consciousness when it was shown on the Academy Awards telecast that Letterman hosted in 1995.
News stories followed on the little old ladies who stitch monkeys together to sell for charity. Gift catalogs started featuring the kits. New ready-made monkeys began turning up in stores.
Fortunately, sock monkeys possess enough intrinsic charm to withstand any wave of publicity that might break against them. Whether made by someone's mom or mass-produced, they are at the least a bit of creative silliness that bridges the gap between commercial pop culture and personal folk art. They combine classic artistic recycling of common materials with a leap of imagination, demonstrating purpose where most would find -- well, socks.
UpdateSock monkeys were featured in the recent exhibit, Outside the Lines: Ordinary Pastimes, Extraordinary Art at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.
You can read all about the show or click below to view behind-the-scenes details.
1: Sorting. 2: Setup. 3: Setup. 4: Nelson, named after monkey sock creator John Nelson
and made by Dee Lindner. 5: The show. 6: The wall.
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