A battle between craft and contemporary art is being waged at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor this spring with exhibits by Maine sculptor Jemma Gascoine and New York artist Ruth Marshall. Both shows shun categorization and raise questions about societal value of functional craft.

A third spring exhibit, a provocative and mysterious retrospective show by Boston-based photographer John Goodman, further shakes things up. All three shows, including a rotation of the museum’s permanent collection, run through June 9.

Enter the tigers’ den

Double glass doors close with a decisive thud, and visitors are in a poacher’s lair. Wildcat pelts, spotted and striped, rise up, stretched across bamboo frames, replacing the pristine museum walls. Surrounded with the exotic skins of endangered species, visitors may at first be startled, disgusted even, but upon closer examination, the “pelts” are actually made of wool yarn.

“I really want people to understand how beautiful these animals are, and I also want them to understand how endangerment and violence is part of the display. It’s a double-edged sword,” said Australian-born Marshall, creator of the meticulously knitted life-size displays. She arrived Monday in Maine to install her work.

“Vanished into Stitches,” an installation of 14 replicated skins of tigers, leopards and jaguars, is much more than first meets the eye.

Each piece is a near exact replica of a specific animal. Wild cats have unique asymmetrical patterns of spots and stripes. Marshall was granted special access to the mammal collection at the American Museum of Natural History so she could base her works on the markings of specific skins. She spent days researching and mapping out freehand drawings of the aged specimens, tucked away in metal drawers.

“These tigers were hunted and killed for exhibit displays or to be placed in zoos,” she said. “I like the whole loop in the story — what we have done with these animals in the past and what we are still doing today.”

Marshall’s love for animals grew as she befriended the inhabitants of the Bronx Zoo, where she worked as an exhibit artist from 1995 to 2009, after receiving a master’s of fine art in sculpture from the Pratt Institute in New York City.

“I did everything from sculpting a rock to cover an ugly drain, to creating a tree with scratches in it to show how lemurs mark their territory, to making toys for tigers to play with,” she said.

At the zoo she typically worked with a variety of metals, plastics and paint, but as an artist, she learned that these materials didn’t suit her style. Within the past decade, Marshall rediscovered her passion for knitting, a practice from her childhood. Now she aims to stretch its boundaries.

The African Gaboon Viper — the snake with the longest fangs and highest venom yield in the world — was her first animal knitting project. She then knit every species of coral snake — 70-plus snakes of differing patterns.

Marshall’s obsession with detail, both in pattern and hue, made her first cat skin — one of her housecat, Rocky the tabby, which is now owned by a London-based art collector — a three-year project. And she plans to continue to expand the collection, though each pelt takes at least three months to complete.

“I’ve always envisioned a room full of pelts,” she said. “I was never going to just do one tiger. I wanted a whole tribe of tigers to just overwhelm people and drive home the message.”

Tiger numbers in the wild are thought to have plunged from 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to between 1,500 and 3,500 today, marking them as an endangered species. Marshall says that a recent report estimates 3,200 tigers existing in the wild.

“I want to talk about issues in art that’s not about art,” she said, “though I do admire art for art’s sake. I always felt like I needed another layer.”

The repetitive nature of knitting appeals to Marshall, as does the portability of yarn and needles. While studying Asian Tigers at the Berlin Zoo, she was about to start working on the first day of her residency.

“I’m trying to take knitting as a craft and use that craft in a different way,” she said. “I’m not knitting tiger sweaters, I’m knitting another museum specimen … I’m trying to inject more meaning into the craft.”

Her works have been exhibited at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C; Museum of Art and Design in NYC; Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona and the San Jose Museum in California, but her collection of wildcat hides will be exhibited for the first time at UMMA.

“Without a doubt, no one in Maine will have seen anything like this before,” said UMMA Executive Director George Kinghorn. “In fact, it’s safe to say that no one in the U.S. will have seen anything like this before.”

Dancing in the studio

To create a new body of work for her UMMA solo exhibit “Slab Waltz,” ceramic artist Jemma Gascoine sliced through her recently thrown pottery with wire and fused the pieces to clay slabs, forming contemporary wall art from once-functional objects.

“Craft is often deemed inferior to fine art,” said Gascoine, who was born in England and moved to Maine in 2001. “I’m toying with the boundaries. Within pottery, there’s a lot of tradition; so I’m pushing outside those.”

Her pottery style, minimalist in color and form, doesn’t disappear as she enters the realm of contemporary art. Embedded in clay tiles, her vessels can no longer hold sugar or flowers, but their Byzantine curves and glazed finish echo the functional vessels and bowls displayed on pedestals in the gallery.

Gascoine’s works have been exhibited at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Susan Maasch Fine Art, North Light Gallery and Lake Hebron Artisans.

“I’ve enjoyed not doing functional work for a while,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t value functional work. In fact, at the moment, I’m teaching [at the Piscataquis Valley Adult Education Cooperative] and we’re making mugs.”

During the many months spent working on this project, Gascoine shifted back and forth between her potter’s wheel and newly purchased slab roller in her Blanchard, Maine, studio. This movement she came to describe as a dance, a “Slab Waltz.”

Gascoine describes the exhibit as “a marriage between art and craft” rather than a battle.

“I hope that the tension between the fine art aspect and craft aspect is something people question,” she said.

Four decades in 40 moments

“Moments Abstracted,” surveys John Goodman’s career through 40 photographs, mostly black and white, which span from 1969-2007.

Goodman has captured fleeting moments in Havana, Tuscany, Las Vegas, Nashville, Coney Island and Boston. And though these photographs are from drastically different places and times, they’re linked by the photographer’s desire and ability to capture mood and movement.

The works are selected from his acclaimed book “The Times Square Gym,” of ghostly and grainy images of athletes from all walks of life. Several other works come from his “Combat Zone” series, photographs from Boston’s notorious adult entertainment area in the ’70.

While Goodman’s photography is included in permanent collections in top art museums across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this is his first solo museum exhibition. He is on the faculty of the Art Institute of Boston and also an instructor at the Maine Media Workshops.

Admission to UMMA is free in 2012 thanks to Machias Savings Bank, in honor of Ted Leonard, who worked to bring the museum to downtown Bangor. For information, visit umma.umaine.edu or call 561-3350.

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...