Subversive Yarn & Other Curiosities

A friend taught me to knit about a year ago, starting with an easy scarf pattern. I approached it with an open mind, not knowing if I’d keep up with it. As it turned out, it was instant love, but I had no idea what role yarn would play in my relationship with art.

At times knitting can be maddening. I often find I’ve lost myself in the rhythm of the stitches and forget which row of a pattern I’m supposed to knit next. One false move can create a franken-scarf. An attempt to knit a little bit faster can go awry – a stitch slips from the needle, unraveling for several rows before I take notice.

That first compliment from a random stranger on a hand made piece makes it all worth it. And knitters like to meet and work together, form tight communities. I get together each Sunday with a group of knitters, a perfect unwinding to the week.

Last winter while browsing at a home gift shop, I stumbled upon a book about knit graffiti, a small but growing movement known as yarn bombing. It was unlike anything I’d seen before. Outdoor, fiber art woven into the natural or urban world in very surprising ways. The book, Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti by Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain , pictured everything from simple pieces of a single color to intricate multi-colored wraps covering large tree trunks. Some of these vast installations would take days of planning and knitting and multiple artists to put together. All to be put out into the world, not knowing if the piece will survive for a few hours or weeks.

Upon exiting the store, a strange thing happened. I spotted my first yarn bomb in the wild. On Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis, just outside Silver in the City gift shop, a trio of bike racks had been decorated with simple bands – one green, one pink, one purple. They were slouched down at the bottom of the racks, it would have been easy to miss them. Without knowing that this thing existed, I might not have. The book had heightened my awareness, allowing me to see them.

I was smitten. I loved that this small work by an unknown knitter could surprise and delight, causing a second look into everyday things. The bike rack otherwise would have blended into the cityscape.

The inspiration for my first yarn bomb came when my Sunday crew began planning a group knit project as a going-away present for the friend who founded our group. What do you knit for someone capable of knitting anything for herself? A tribute yarn bomb seemed like the perfect idea. We decided on knitting up a multi-colored moustache to adorn James Tyler’s Brickhead 3. The giant head sculpture is in Davlan Park on the 400 block of Mass Ave, a few steps from my first yarn bomb sighting.

During the time we were knitting away at the individual hairs of the moustache, I discovered that Banksy, a popular street artist, had created an image of two elderly ladies sitting in armchairs, knitting. One has a piece in her lap that says “PUNK’S NOT DEAD,” the other “THUG FOR LIFE.” I think it is a fair guess that Banksy had no clue what kindred spirits he could find in knitting.

I went to see the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary following the work of Shepard Fairey, Thierry Geutta aka. Mr. Brainwash, Bansky and other street artists. As I watched, I couldn’t help but relate to it in yarn. Consider Shepard Fairey’s early work of putting images of 70s/80s wrestler Andre the Giant on stickers with the word OBEY. His goal with this work is to cause the same reaction I had when I found the yarn bomb the bike rack on Mass Ave.

Fairey wrote in his 1990 Manifesto, “The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail.” Just replace sticker, advertisement and propaganda with yarn.

In one scene from the Exit Through the Gift Shop, Thierry Guetta films people on the street reacting to a Banksy sculpture. He had taken a telephone booth into his studio, sawed it in half and welded it back together angled, put an axe through it, then delivered back onto the street. No surprise that this subversive, in your face art stopped people in their tracks.

burt

Much like Thierry with his lens on the phone booth, our group of knitters sat and watched reactions to our moustache installation. Brickhead 3, whom we affectionately renamed Burt (as in Reynolds), proved to be positively smile-inducing. People stopped to look, touch it, take pictures. I’ve made art before, but this was different. It was an amazing feeling, equal parts devious and proud, coupled with a deeper connection to my fellow yarn bombers.

All of this has me thinking of how we view and interact with art in the modern world. Upon visiting Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center, I discovered photos were not allowed of Shepard Fairey’s Supply and Demand exhibit (except his large installation in the lobby). At first I thought, doesn’t this go against everything for which Fairey stands to not allow photographs? In their top floor, the CAC has an Unmuseum, where not only are photos allowed, but touching the art is encouraged.

Alternatively, as the wear and tear of being hyperconnected takes its toll, maybe it isn’t so bad to force disconnection from devices to allow greater focus on the art. Would I have noticed my first yarn bomb on the bike rack if I’d been using my phone? It is a debate worth exploring, but I think the case for photos and allowing personal documenting wins out in the end.

On a recent trip to the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, I watched a young man flit from one object to the next, pausing just long enough to snap a quick photo. He was seeing the entire exhibit through the lens of his camera phone. Thinking of Burt and his moustache, watching people take snapshots, it was part of their enjoyment to be able to document it. One of our group members had a colleague change her profile picture to an image of her and the moustache, though she had no clue her coworker had taken part in its making. This is all a part of the way we absorb, engage in and share art. We take art from the museum display case, or its public location, into our own world at home and online. We create a permanent collection of experience on our facebook and flickr pages.

Burt’s moustache has been removed by authorities, or possibly stolen (Moore and Prain say to take as a compliment). I was sad to see him go, but at least I have my photos and the heightened awareness of environment this whole experience opened up for me. Whether in a museum or out in the world, I’m trying to keep my eyes open for subversive yarn and other curiosities. Knowing that I might spot a Slinkachu installation or a yarn bomb has me looking at things a little more closely, on the lookout for unexpected art.
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More information:
Check out pictures of Burt and his moustache.
For more on yarnbombing, pictures of projects from around the world, see the Yarn Bombing blog.
See Nina Simon’s thoughtful case for photography in museums.

This post was originally published on July 4th, 2010 on Sundayed.

Sundayed

Please check out my new side project, Sundayed. I’ll be contributing a post now and again, along with some really sharp writers. The site was created by Jason Moriber to deliver provocative weekend reading. He says:

I pined for a site that intended to write ‘Sunday” reading material. Thoughtful, insightful, personal, practical, and intriguing. I discussed this idea over time with many of the contributors who have signed on to write for this blog and we decided to make this intent-driven site ourselves.Each week, either on Sunday (or just before), we’ll post a handful of writings by a widening list of interested contributors. Not too much stuff, just enough material to fit the hour or two during that splended weekend day when you’re finally free from the previous week, and are gearing up to conquer the week ahead.

My first post, Untitled [A Colorful Man] is a personal story of loss, and while it was difficult to write, it felt good to put it out in the world.

Untitled [A Colorful Man]

Once upon a time in a windy city, I had a best friend named Doug who made the most amazing lentil curry, sometimes snorted when he laughed and liked to sing Leonard Cohen songs in a sultry voice. He was part catty Bloomingdales merchandiser, part moody artist, part one-man musical.

He also called me every Monday to make sure I was up for work because he was a morning person and knew I was not. Instead of an alarm, I’d wake up to his own brand of citified, North Carolina drawl, “Hellllaaauu.”

One Sunday I got a different call, the kind where you know something is wrong. A phrase knocked around in my head, “things are… prêt-ty bad.”

In reverb, pretty bad, pretty bad, pretty bad, the t’s were sharp little daggers, softened with a sigh at the end. He’d said it slowly the last time we’d spoken on the phone and I had failed to grasp the full depth of it. He’d been suffering from depression for a long time before taking his life.

In the aftermath, the memorial planning and apartment sorting, another friend said, “I can see the grief written all over your face”. She had no idea what saying this did for me. It liberated me. My grief was already out there, a gaping wound and I wasn’t fooling anyone by trying to hide it.

His mother, who I would meet for the first time at the memorial, had asked his friends to sort out his Rogers Park apartment and set aside some personal effects, books and some of his artwork for her. I was tasked with choosing the books.

I often called Doug my literary soul mate. Our early friendship flourished over discussions of book jackets and sharing sentences we wished we had written with each other. Was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a poignant choice or would it hit too close to home? I found myself doubting each selection. These, I knew, were the books she would read when she travels the world to scatter Doug’s ashes.

Meeting someone for the first time when your only bond is that you loved the same person when they were alive is strangely intimate. My heart was so broken for her and for me and for all of the world that would be missing out on Doug. No barriers of decorum withstand that.

After crying our eyeballs out his Mother and I shared stories, like the one from the night Doug and I walked down Winona Street in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and stumbled onto a naked man sitting on the hood of a car, just hanging out, staring at us. We linked arms, picked up the pace, unsure whether to laugh or be frightened. Maybe I told her this story because it afforded us a much needed laugh, but she already knew it. Doug had told her told her the story years ago on the phone.

The thing I most wanted to tell her was this. Once, Doug told me he cried when he saw Mark Rothko, Untitled [Blue, Green, and Brown], 1952. In his own work, he had a gift to create the richest colors. When I looked at his oil paintings, it was as if he had invented color. If you asked him what his favorite color was, he wouldn’t simply say green. He’d say the green of the new growth at spring. Considering all of this, the best way I can think to describe Doug is to say that he was colorful man.

I hoped to maintain some sort of grace, dignity, poetry when I accompanied his mother and a few close relatives and friends to scatter some of his ashes in a Chicago park. I wanted to say words fit for a loyal friend, a talented artist, the man of honor in my wedding. Instead I was a blubbering choking idiot, a cruel Chicago sleet smacking me in the face. Grief is messy.

Ahead of me is one last trek back to Chicago to pick up a painting, one of the few handfuls of the art he left behind. The week before he died he scraped and painted over some of his work. He would paint something 100 times more lovely than much of the work I’ve seen hanging in galleries and he would paint over it, or just leave it unfinished. I never understood his self-doubt, the way I never understood how deep and troubling his dark hours must have been.

I’m grateful for this last pilgrimage, to still have this official Doug business ahead of me keeping things from feeling so final. Afterwards, it’s just me, a little lost in this world without him.

Somehow the heaviness of this has let my heart grow deeper to accommodate it all. I can’t not carry this love and loss with me, and I can’t not let there be room for the others, the old and new in my life. This Doug-shaped hole allows me to look at friends and say “What in the world would I not do for you?”


Note:
I wanted to put this story out there in hopes it might help someone else recognize a plea from a loved one before it is too late. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Amber Naslund, for paving the way for me to write this by sharing this post, and also to April, the friend that liberated me from suppressing my grief.

This post was originally published on June 12, 2010 on Sundayed.

LVA+ Emails

Lewis Van Arnam established LVA Represents in Brooklyn in 1977, and since then has been representing high caliber fashion, beauty and lifestyle photographers. The emails for LVA Represents and LVA+ are sent to creative directors and art buyers around the globe. I create and analyze the results of each email for Wise Elephant.

lva

Check LVA out on the web: LVArepresents and LVA+

A Less Intact Box

illustration by Aaron Michels

Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet, one of Europe’s largest medical universities, have managed to show that the ability to form divergent thought and find many different solutions to a problem is similar in healthy, highly creative people and in people with schizophrenia.

“Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” says associate professor Dr. Fredrik Ullén about his new findings.

The research used divergent psychological tests and looked at dopamine D2 receptors and the flow of information from the thalamus of the brain. See the full article for more science-y goodness.

Perhaps the two little characters from the other day were onto something when they said there was no box?

Discovered via DoseNation.
Image credit: Aaron Michels

There is No Box

If you’ve ever been charged with creative projects or problem-solving, someone has likely told you to think outside the box. The phrase has become such a cliche, I can’t imagine it actually really inspires anyone. I stumbled upon this lovely and humorous video by Joseph Pelling featuring excitable little characters that explore, destroy and reinvent the box. I love the quirky illustration and the one-up dynamic between the two characters.

outside the box from Joseph Pelling on Vimeo.
Discovered via Pikaland: The Illustrated Life

Related: A post I wrote on Surviving a Creative Crisis on the Wise Elephant blog.