Street Art, Fine Art, or Both? Let's Talk Yarnbombing

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Yarnbomber Melissa Maddonni Haims at work.  Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.
Yarnbomber Melissa Maddonni Haims at work. Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.

Recently, my friend Melissa Maddonni Haims emailed from the hospital. She was fine, but my first response was: “What’s wrong? Do you need yarn?”

You see, Melissa is a fiber artist and unrepentant yarnbomber. Last winter, when she and I took our daughters to New York, she crocheted on the ice at Rockefeller Center (see the fine .gif evidence, below). She may or may not have yarnbombed a few signposts, too.

Melissa agreed to talk to GeekMom about yarnbombing: what it is, and whether it’s street art or fine art or something else. She also agreed to show us some of the projects she’s done.  Her daughter, Noa, joined us to talk about what it’s like to have a mom who always carries yarn.

Geek Mom: So, what is Yarnbombing? I’ve been seeing it everywhere.

Melissa: Yarnbombing, also known as knit graffiti, is a global phenomenon. Widely believed to have begun in Austin, Texas, in 2009, it has reached a critical mass and can be found on trees, bus stops, subway cars, bike racks, and various utility poles around the world. Recently there was an entire bridge done in Pittsburgh.

How long have you been yarnbombing? How did you get started?

I started leaving little yarny gifts for friends and at shops I liked in early 2010, right after I finished a two-year project where I had been knitting and crocheting non-stop. When that project was complete (I was creating a big fiber installation) I still had a ton of yarn and my hands wouldn’t stop moving… So I kept on knitting. I would wrap a friend’s front post, a pole outside my favorite yarn shop, make a bracelet for a railing. Little bits of fuzzy happiness for the world.

Yarnbombing at the Schuykill Nature Center, Philadelphia.  Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.
Yarnbombing at the Schuykill Nature Center, Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.

One of my favorite pieces so far was a forest that I yarnbombed in January of 2012 at the Schuykill Center for Environmental Education in Philadelphia. It was thirty trees along a one mile trail on their nature preserve. When the curator initially contacted me for the project I politely declined, because trees are pretty enough already. But, she didn’t take no for an answer and after a meeting or two with their environmental director and their arborist, we went ahead with the project and it was amazing. The biggest challenge: trees move. When you’re 20 feet up on a ladder wrapping a pole and the wind picks up, it’s an issue. Trees move. A lot.

Also, in December of 2012 I did the mezzanine railing of the Catalina Hotel in South Beach for Art Basel. It was amazing and that project led to yarnbombing an interior and exterior stairwell at an historic home in Fairmount Park managed by The Philadelphia Museum of Art this past spring. I covered both stairwells in yarn and the juxtaposition between the details of a home built in the 1760s and a contemporary fiber installation was fantastic.

It was also my hardest project to date. Usually I throw a bunch of yarn into a bag, take it wherever I go, and whatever comes out comes out. This stuff really knits itself. But for the exterior installation I had to do a boatload of math and figure out a color pattern, which was really challenging.

What projects are you working on now? What is your dream project?

I’ve got a couple of things going on at the same time, usually. Right now I’m preparing for Art Basel Miami, the largest contemporary art fair in the country. I’m creating a series of yarnbombed chairs that are really quite sophisticated.  I’m also working on my first public space commission which is really exciting.

Dream project… Hmmmm. I always wanted to do the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which spans the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. But everybody is doing bridges now and so I’m kind of over it.

I am headed to the Venice Bienalle next week in Italy (see the comment above about Art Basel, but replace “country” with Europe) and I’m hoping to have something planned there for 2015.

Can you talk a bit about public art (and art done in public) vs. art shown in galleries?

Yarnbombed Piano. Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.
Yarnbombed Piano. Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.

There is always a lot of malarkey about it. Is it still graffiti if its been curated? The answer is yes. Art can be art no matter where it is and who asked you to do it, or who didn’t. Listen, I don’t do this stuff in the middle of the night and run. I do it in broad daylight in front of people and when they approach me I talk with them, I let them take my picture and I ask them—well, the tall ones, anyway—to help me push up the yarn on the poles. It’s fun and it brings a bit of joy. It makes the hard, cold places in our world a little warmer and fuzzier.

If a gallery or a curator asks me to do a project, it’s not any less of a statement of joy than if I did it unsolicited. I’ve yarnbombed columns in galleries along side paintings. And it’s been we’ll received. I also make work that’s not about yarnbombing, too. I’m a fiber artist and yarnbombing is only a fraction of what I do for fun. Mostly, I make large-scale installations out of knit and crocheted yarn.

Yarnbombing is just plain fun.

What materials do you work with?

Mostly I work with upcycled, recycled, and donated yarn. I use very little virgin materials in my projects. The world is just so full of stuff to  work with that I find it unnecessary to buy too much.

Because I work in public, on the street, people are always asking me what I’m doing and it usually ends up with a story about a box of yarn bits that they would love to give to me. It is not unusual to arrive at my front door and find a bag or a box of mix matched yarn left for me.

You now something about that, don’t you?

… Guilty as charged. I just left a bag of my leftover yarn on your porch.

Currently I am working on a business plan with my sister to make a specialty yarn created from post-industrial consumer waste fabric. I’ve been working with that material quite a bit over the last few months. Stay tuned…

So what happened along the Tour de France route, exactly?

Paris yarnbomb. Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.
Paris yarnbomb. Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.

Well… My husband is a cyclist and we have been dreaming of going to watch the Tour de France for years. Well, he has been dreaming and I’m more like a willing participant because it’s in France. And so we planned this trip with our 11-year-old daughter and went this summer. Noa and I are not really into biking as much as he is. And it turns out she’s not really into high altitudes so much so I mostly spent my time scoping out places to yarnbomb while we were there.

The first yarnbomb was at the finish line of  mountain stage 18 in Alpe d’Huez, at 12,000 feet.

Back in Paris for the finish of the race, I yarnbombed all of the “Caution: bikes!” poles along the finish line route on the Rue du Rivoli. I had pre-crocheted all of the yarn and thought blue would be nice. Blue skies, you know. France. Except I got there and realized everything for the Tour de France is yellow. So that was kind of like an epic yarnbomb fail.

I did get to yarnbomb a small lock for the Ponte des Arts, near the Louvre. It’s a reference to a movie I never saw where people put locks on a bridge to symbolize their commitment to each other.

Crochet on Ice. Gif by Fran Wilde.
Crochet on Ice.

For Noa: What do you think of your mom’s projects? You’re very creative yourself–have you ever been tempted to try it? 

Noa: I think her projects are crazy, pretty, and weird. I’ve never wanted to do one, because it’s just not my thing.

Melissa: Wait, what’s your “thing,” then?

Noa: “Not that.”

Also for Noa: What are some of your mom’s favorite projects?

Noa: My favorite yarnbomb that she ever did was the one in Alpe d’Huez. I don’t know why, it was just my favorite day. And I got to take the pictures of that one with the big camera.

My other favorite work of hers are the cakes, because they are delicious.

Melissa, where can people see your work?

Fairmount Park Historic House Yarnbomb.  Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.
Fairmount Park Historic House Yarnbomb. Photo courtesy of Melissa Maddonni Haims.

Well, if you are flying through the Philadelphia International Airport anytime between now and the end of the year, you can see a collection of knitted and crocheted cakes in Terminal D. This has been a super fun project. People from all over the world have contacted me about them. Imagine stuffed cakes that are kind of like Dr. Seuss meets the Cake Boss.

My main gallery here in Philadelphia is called 3rd Street Gallery in Old City and I show a body of work there about once every eighteen months. I do lots of group shows, too. And I show in galleries around the country, as well.

I have a website and a Facebook page where you can see images of my work, and maybe my cats.

Many thanks to Melissa and Noa for joining us.

So. What’s your favorite yarnbomb or public fiber art? Jump in at the comments!


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