These knitters take to the street with nondestructive graffiti
Typically, the term "street art" evokes images of spray-painted graffiti tags on subway cars and social commentary posters wheatpasted to the sides of buildings.
Over the past decade, a new form of street art has been gaining traction. It's called yarn bombing — sometimes referred to as yarn storming, guerilla knitting, urban knitting or graffiti knitting — and utilizes colorful pieces of knitted and crocheted yarn to adorn everything from light poles to bike racks to park benches.
"The idea is to transform an everyday object into something organic," said Liz Murphy Thomas, a member of Yarn Bomb Jax and professor of digital media at Florida State College at Jacksonville, "to change a person's perception of the object and make it more approachable."
Northeast Florida's unofficial hub, Yarn Bomb Jax, was formed in the beginning of March to take part in One Spark. Led by Jackie Kuhn, the group of 23 crafters "bombed" inanimate objects in Hemming Plaza and on the corner of Laura and Adams streets with everything from tropical beach scenes to an octopus holding cupcakes.
The group received 201 votes (0.377 percent of the total votes cast), for a purse of $942.79.
Sitting around a table at A Stitch In Time, a store on University Boulevard that specializes in needlework supplies, Kuhn and seven other women made quick use of their hooks and needles to meet an upcoming deadline.
Folio Weekly asked Kuhn and her group to create yarn bombings to install around Jacksonville for our Fall Arts Preview issue. Roughly a dozen crafters heeded the call and divided their efforts into five main themes: film, theater, dance, fine arts and music.
"We're working to take the word ‘bomb' and give it a positive connotation," Kuhn said, while knitting a hot pink tutu to be used on the Winged Victory statue in Memorial Park. "There are three benefits of yarn bombing: a psychological value, sociological value and economic value to the city."
Texan Magda Sayeg is considered by many to be the "mother of yarn bombing." In 2005, Sayeg knitted a blue-and-pink "cozy" for her boutique's door handle. Today, everything from the "Charging Bull" statue near Wall Street to Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Bridge to an entire bus in Mexico City has gotten a textile makeover.
There's even a book written about the subject. "Yarnbombing: The Art of Knit Graffiti" by Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain, was released in 2009.
"There's this idea of high and low art," said Murphy Thomas, who is currently working on a video about yarn bombing for the international project, "Breaking the Walls of Graffiti," organized by the Szczecin Academy of Art in Poland. "Yarn bombing isn't a craft. It's a non-destructive form of street art."
Street art is typically a male-dominated art form touting the likes of Banksy, Swoon and Blek le Rat — even Jean-Michel Basquiat got his start as an obscure graffiti artist. Yarn bombing is gaining attention as a different form of street art, where aerosol cans are traded for knitting needles and a ball of yarn.
"We are the June Cleaver of street art," said Patricia Bausch, the creator of an artist's paint palette that was installed in the hand of one of the River Runner statues on the riverfront. She's been crafting for 40 years.
Jacksonville's local yarn bombing group does bring to mind traditional TV moms more than, say, the RollerGirls or your quintessential Riverside hipsters. These ladies are mostly middle-aged. They work in healthcare, education and development. One's an aspiring Christian writer, another works at an antique mall and another is a retired lawyer.
And though they don't look the part, Yarn Bomb Jax is a band of dedicated knitters and crocheters who think colorful textile pieces will create positive vibes around Jacksonville.
"Yarn is usually used for utilitarian purposes — baby blankets, scarves, etc.," said Valerie Lanham, who is crocheting a theater mask to adorn The Lone Sailor sculpture at the Navy Memorial on the Southbank. "Once it's released, it's not ours anymore. It's for the city. Letting go of your artwork is the key, because I give a piece of myself with the item."
Yarn Bomb Jax's optimistic work has become so popular that the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens came calling. The group has been asked to create textile pieces for the zoo's annual Spooktacular Halloween event, as well as a tropical-themed Santa Christmas installation.
When asked if these are paying gigs, Kuhn said there's really just enough of a budget to cover acrylic yarn and other supplies. Synthetic fibers like acrylic are more durable for outside hangings. The women make an "ewwww" noise at the suggestion of using wool yarn for one of their yarn-bombing projects.
"Yarn Bomb Jax represents an important contribution to the growing need for ownership and agency in the public spaces of Jacksonville," Murphy Thomas said. "The process of yarn bombing, as opposed to other public ‘street' art forms, presents a nondestructive tool for creating engagement and sparking discussion with the public.
"It is designed to enliven, intercede and raise recognition of public space as an accessible experience for us all and to make us aware of the power we all have to shape and improve the overlooked spaces we move through every day." o