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River Colors Journal

Monday, August 01, 2016

What it means to be a Yarnbomber

Hello fiber artists! I'm sure we can all agree that yarn is a very important part of our lives. With it we indulge our senses and express our love for our friends and families. Yarn is everywhere, yarn is love. As you knit that sweater or pair of socks, do you ever think there must be more I can do with this yarn? Stephen Duneier took that question and turned it into massive art installations, also known as yarnbombs. If you aren't familiar with the term, yarnbombing is a form of street art that uses knitted or crocheted pieces instead of paint. A low impact form of art, yarnbombs bring beauty and a new appreciation for the crafts we love so much.

1. Can you take us back to when you first picked up a crochet hook or knitting needles and what compelled you to do so?

My foray into fiber began in 2012. I had set 24 new year’s resolutions for myself. I wanted to learn 12 new skills and do 12 charitable things that didn’t involve writing a check. After learning how to unicycle, slackline and use jumping stilts, my wife suggested that I learn how to knit. It seemed like a zen inducing task that I could knock out quickly, so I borrowed some needles from her and began working on a scarf. After just a matter of days, I wanted to tear the hair out of my head. The scarf was quickly becoming a triangle and I was far from achieving anything close to zen. One morning, while hiking, I found myself 2.6 miles up the Cold Spring Trail in the mountains of Santa Barbara, California, standing beneath a 40 foot tall eucalyptus tree. In that moment, I recalled Cristo’s project in Biscayne Bay where he wrapped the islands in pink fabric. That project inspired a passion in me for large scale installation art and modern art, in general. So, as I stood beneath that tree, I decided instead of making a scarf, I would attempt to wrap that tree in yarn. When I got home and searched the internet, I discovered wrapping stuff in yarn was actually a thing. In fact, the 2nd annual international yarnbombing day was coming up and so I had my target. For next 81 days, no matter where I went, I was knitting. In board meetings, airports, the hospital and at family gatherings, I knitted. When it became clear I was going to fall short, I put out a call to anyone following my blog for contributions of any size, shape and color to add to my stockpile. Luckily, Wordpress happened to feature my blog entry about unicycling on their homepage and that led a number of people to my yarn request. A few even heeded it. To install the yarnbomb, I had to carry a 14 foot ladder 2.6 miles up to the tree along with 5 or 6 giant camping bags of yarn. I was so nervous that people might hate it or think I was insane. I even had dreams of someone lighting it on fire, sending the whole forest up in flames. I didn’t sleep the entire 9 days is was up. It went off without a hitch, I removed all the material and donated it to Warm Up America, thinking I’d never touch yarn again. I moved on to learning how to play the drums. Almost a year later, one of the people who had contributed to my yarnbomb was asking for contributions to her own installation, but she needed them to be crocheted and in specific colors, patterns and shapes. I had to repay her kindness, so I watched her tutorial on YouTube and learned how to crochet. In the time it took me to knock out 27 granny squares for her, I had achieved that zen state. I was “hooked”

Stephen Dunier photo from artnews.com
Photo courtesy of yarnbomber.com

2. I've been following your work for several years now, and I've always wondered what gave you the idea to blend yarn and nature. They don't really seem to go together, yet your installations make it seem like they are a perfect match.

2007’s new year’s resolution was to hike every trail in the mountains of Santa Barbara, which was ambitious for me, given that I’d never been on a hike in my entire life. Those first few months, I carried big cans of bear repellent, enough food, water and clothing to keep me alive for days, and two hunting knives at the ready. It was a serious case of overkill. Over time, I began to relax and really started enjoying myself. If I don’t get out there at least 3 or 4 times a week, I’m not myself. I’ve met so many people in Santa Barbara who live right at the base of some of the best trails in the world, yet they’ve never set foot on them. That first yarnbomb drew so many people out into the wilderness, and for some who were already hikers, it gave them a reason to go further. Over the 9 days it was up there, I went back several times a day just to listen to people talk about their experience. I’d sit silently to the side, listening as hikers turned the corner and unexpectedly stumbled upon this ridiculous, whimsical, Seuss-like tree. Their conversations would stop mid-sentence, interrupted with giggles and comments like, “What the…” and “Whoa!” When people found out I was behind it, the feedback was unanimous  and undeniably genuine. I had women with tears in their eyes, hug me and thank me for doing it. I met teenagers who had returned 3 and 4 times, leading new groups, including their parents to the tree. It was, quite simply, the most magical thing I’d ever experienced. When I learned how to crochet, I returned for another yarnbomb in the mountains. It became just as much about recreating that experience, building a community and drawing people back to nature as it was about the art.

3. Your projects are loved by so many around the world and bring so much joy, yet they are not without those that criticize. How do you deal with the few negative responses to your work, and how does it impact your art?

That is true. I’ve had threats of violence directed at me and my installations on social media and had two installations torn down within hours of going up. To be honest, I can appreciate some of the criticism, but only because they don’t take the time to learn how much effort I put into making sure that I leave no trace. I don’t harm or interfere with wildlife and my installations have very limited lifespans. A couple of my installations have incorporated responses to the criticism. After the Spiderweb and Starfish yarn bombs were torn down, I decided to make a giant American flag for the Lizards Mouth installation, figuring it might discourage a looter from destroying it. The entire concept of the Alien Campsite was a direct response to my critics who said that the installations are unnatural and don’t belong in the wilderness. The reality is, people camp out in the wilderness all the time. Hikers and campers are the same size and shape (roughly) my aliens, and dress in brightly colored, man-made fabrics just like my aliens. They also sleep in brightly colored tents made out of man-made fibers. I had hoped that they would see the hypocrisy of their criticism, but alas, they did not. Even with a permit and praise from the US Forest Service and approval from the Chumash Tribe, threats were made on message boards to defecate on the installation, and even pour gasoline on it which they would light on fire. What I’ve come to realize is that you can't please everyone, that many of the critics never leave their computers, and that far more people enjoy the temporary installations than oppose them.

Photo courtesy of yarnbomber.com
4. You lead a multifaceted life, how would you say your fiber art has impacted the other aspects of your life?

The yarnbombs connect every aspect of my life. They are a way for me to express myself artistically, they present engineering and logistical challenges, they connect me with people from all walks of life, they incorporate my love for the outdoors and they push me to learn new skills. I’m not a very social person, truth be told, I am an introvert. That’s not to say that I am shy, I just like to spend time by myself. As the Yarnbomber, I am able to facilitate community building around the world, while being reclusive.

5. You attempted and completed the world's largest granny square. Congratulations! Sometimes as fiber artists, we get burnt out on certain aspects of our craft. Would you say you ever got burnt out on crocheting the granny square? Do you have any advice for other crafters on how to beat or push through the burn out?

I have spent nearly 30 years studying behavior and in particular, decision making. Central to the approach I have developed is a concept I call, Bija. It is the act of breaking giant goals, like new year’s resolutions and bucket lists down to their tiniest components, and then focusing on them instead of the goal itself. It wasn’t really about setting a world record and getting in the Guinness Book. (In fact, I reached out to the Make a Wish Foundation to see if there was a child who wished to set a world record. I figured they could do the last few stitches and get in the book instead. They told me they didn’t have anyone with that wish.) It was solely about setting an incredibly ambitious goal, devising a plan for achieving it and then executing. In other words, it was about the journey more than the destination.

Photo courtesy of yarnbomber.com
6. People from 41 countries and all 50 states, including myself,  have contributed to your yarnbombs. Would you say that certain types of knitting or crochet are more popular in one country or another.

Actually, more than differences, what I discovered is just how similar everyone is. Fiber artists around the world share a passion for yarn, creativity, the desire to connect with each other and most importantly, unfinished projects. If it wasn’t for projects gone wrong and works in progress, I don’t think my installations would have grown to be as big as they have become.

7. I have often been tempted to do a little yarn bombing around town, what advice do you have for those of us that want to add a little yarn art to our neighborhoods?

My advice is to just do it. Make something that will bring people together, that will make them smile or giggle. Then take it away, so each time it appears they will fully appreciate the whimsy and color you’ve introduced to their lives. Oh, and go big or go home!

Go Big or Go Home!

A big thank you to Stephen Duneier for taking the time to talk to us. I hope this has inspired you to try something new, or continue yarnbombing. Let's all go outside and make the world a little more beautiful!