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Yarn Bombs, Love, and Affection at the Arkansas Arts Center

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Fiber artist Chelsye Garrett poses in front of her yarn creation on the grounds of the Arkansas Arts Center.  Photo courtesy of Alexandro Leme, 2013.
Fiber artist Chelsye Garrett poses in front of her yarn creation on the grounds of the Arkansas Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Alexandro Leme, 2013.

“A loop after a loop. Hour after hour my madness becomes crochet. Life and art are inseparable.” —Olek

Equally as frenetic as Polish-born crochet artist Olek’s creative process is the pace at which the elusive “yarn bomb” has become the latest buzzword in the greater visual arts conversation. And just as purposefully as this pop-up installation model’s validity grows toward the genre of fine art, naysayers emerge to dispute the medium’s relevance. Once quoted by Malia Wollan in the New York Times to proclaim, “I don’t yarn bomb; I make art,” the Crochet Queen herself is elitist, and unapologetically so, when it comes to labeling her fiber creations. Her verbiage exposes a skepticism far more critical of the terminology than the actual medium itself. It seems the underlying question Olek’s commentary poses is less about the clout of yarn art than art history’s own appropriation of the ontological question, What is art?

SCAD - Derrick Adams

Artists such as Chelsye Garrett don’t waste much time on technicalities; they’re more content to witness a collaborative project take shape in the hands and hearts of local community members, not to mention a traditionally female art form take precedence in the public eye. I first became acquainted with Garrett, a Donaghey scholar and BFA student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), in a North Little Rock gallery. Garrett’s Vir Haar (translated as “for her” in Afrikaans), a cascade of sheer white curtains encircled by thousands of hand-cut red paper poppies scattered on the floor, stood out among the other installations. Having heard other passersby mention the artist’s enthusiasm for viewer participation and having seen them toss handfuls of poppies in the air, I figured, for the sake of spontaneity, I’d do the same. Within a minute of reading Garrett’s artist statement I realized, to my horror, that I had actually showered myself not in poppies but in rapes—some of the 55,000 sexual assaults committed against lesbian women in South Africa to date. Nothing is quite like blunt force trauma to the conscience on a leisurely Saturday night. This artist, while so passionately in pursuit of social justice, is the definition of good-natured and passes no judgment on “newbies” to her unconventional style; I couldn’t help but mentally note, however, Point for Garrett.

There’s something about multiples that fascinates Garrett. A lifelong textile hobbyist, she, like many women, is exceptionally poised to detect pattern in everyday life. “As teenagers, my sister and I spent an entire summer cross-stitching with our aunt, which later turned into embroidering special objects and knitting scarves for friends and family,” the artist reminisces. “I’ll never forget those early days, because so much of it ties into my work moving forward—the tradition of women’s decorative arts as a way to express love and affection for the people we care about.” Garrett is the descendant of a long line of homemakers; her great-grandmother was an elaborate quilter and her mother an accomplished crocheter, but “to become an artist with a capital A, I once thought I had to abandon the ‘amateur’ art of my childhood,” the artist confesses with an eye roll at her misconception.

In January 2013 Arkansas Arts Center (AAC) Curator of Education Lou Palermo, seeking a meticulous art student to spearhead a colossal yarn bomb, approached Mia Hall, UALR Professor of Applied Design and Garrett’s mentor, for suggestions. Hall replied, “I really know only one person who can help you with that.”

“After Vir Haar, [Hall] doesn’t blink anymore when I tell her what I want to do. I say I want 3 million of something, and she says, ‘That’s amazing,’” Garrett tells me. The artist’s perpetual optimism served her well in the face of 1,200 square feet of surface area. Working from an architectural diagram of the museum over the course of nine months, Garrett procured knitted and crocheted contributions from the community through organized “knit nights” at the AAC and UALR; these handmade fragments with other local donations constituted the coverings of the fountain, ten trees, ten lampposts, and “critters.” “The AAC is the second largest fine art museum in Arkansas, and I felt the façade … needed to reflect that—more of an art installation, less of a yarn bomb,” Garrett says. Channeling her family history of quilting, the artist collected larger-scale yarn blankets, either donated or purchased from Goodwill, to later cut up and re-stitch into a more complex, thoughtful pattern for the front of the museum.

The yarn bomb at the Arkansas Arts Center has become a social crux in the historic MacArthur Park District in which it is located.  Photo courtesy of Alexandro Leme, 2013.
The yarn bomb at the Arkansas Arts Center has become a social crux in the historic MacArthur Park District in which it is located. Photo courtesy of Alexandro Leme, 2013.

Engineering and installation were Garrett’s arguably most challenging variables in the yarn bomb equation. How do you affix a veritable wall of yarn to a cement building without permanently attaching it? The artist brilliantly devised a system of one-inch-by-two-inch wooden frames, each capped with a pair of steel hooks to depend from the lip of the roof line and hang vertically. In the wee hours of the night on September 9 through September 11, Garrett directed an estimated 70 volunteers in attaching the restitched blankets to the frames and completing various other finishing touches. “People came out of nowhere to help; they would commit to a couple of hours, and then stay for 10. They just fell in love with what we were doing,” Garrett proudly recounts.

“When given the opportunity, people will do amazing things,” she continues, and she finds fulfillment in seeing her theory come full circle. The formality that often accompanies fine art is overshadowed here by a more prominent sense of community that can be forged only through collaboration and, Garrett would argue, an outpouring of “love and affection” the artist believes to be specific to art forms associated with women’s decorative arts. Garrett opened an Instagram account for the sole purpose of staying in touch with yarn bomb visitors. “How fun is it to see what people are taking pictures of? Lots of critters, and up-shots of the building to capture the scale and communicate how grand it is in person,” she says. Visitors are drawn to the sheer magnitude of this unique habitat and the (wo)manpower that went into completing it. It’s not a far stretch to conclude that this acknowledgement of Garrett’s long, tedious hours is in direct correlation to people’s fond remembrance of their own matriarchal heritage and understanding of love toward them.