How local women have helped transform yarn into street art

It goes by many names: yarnbombing, yarnstorming, knit grafitti (knit graf for short), guerilla knitting, urban knitting.

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s street art held together by the common thread of community.

With traditional street art, a public space is the artist’s blank canvas for murals, aerosol painting, stenciling and other types of visual art that is not part of government-sponsored beautification projects but in many cases tolerated to some degree. For yarnbombers, objects such as trees, streetlamps and sculptures become mannequins for installations.

In Yellow Springs, Corrine Bayraktaroglu and Nancy Mellon, who call themselves “the jafagirls,” are responsible for decorating Xenia Avenue and Dayton Street with yarn, embroidery and felt.

Mellon and Bayraktaroglu met nine years ago at the Yellow Springs Arts Council, both fascinated by how many creative people there are. “This is an arts town,” Bayraktaroglu said.

Then, in 2005, while surfing the Internet, they became inspired by Magda Sayeg, a woman who had knitted a cover for the door handle of her boutique in Houston, Texas. Sayeg founded a group called Knitta Please, which has gone on to cultivate the yarnbombing movement and done installations throughout the United States and elsewhere.

When they happened upon a photograph of Sayeg’s door handle cozy, Mellon told Bayraktaroglu, “I have some spare knitting. Let’s bomb the tree,” a reference to a large Bradford pear tree outside the Emporium on Xenia Avenue.

Later called the Knit Knot Tree, the pear tree has become part of the fabric of the Yellow Springs community. In 2008, the jafagirls put pockets on the tree’s “sweater” and left pictures, poems and other writing covered in plastic for passersby to discover.

“The pockets had little jokes. People took them and left other things for people. It became a community tree,” Bayraktaroglu said. “It inspired people to talk about it.”

“People got married and even moved to town because of the tree,” Mellon added.

Because of the delicate nature of fiber, yarnbombs have a life cycle, fading and deteriorating over time. “(The villagers) were saddened when we took (the installation) down, and Nancy decided we’d recycle the yarn,” Bayraktaroglu said.

Since that time, the jafagirls have been responsible for at least 80 installations in the village. Their colorful embellishments are whimsical, sometimes political, and not all of them have been outside.

The Hairy ArtPalace was a gallery show they did with the Yellow Springs Arts Council. The project was a lighthearted challenge to how some outsiders stereotype the villagers as hippies who don’t shave their armpits. “I told Nancy, ‘I shave my armpits’,” Bayraktaroglu said. “So Nancy replied, ‘You need some hairy armpits’, and that was the beginning of a dozen portable tufts of underarm hair.”

In response to some people’s “disgust over women’s hair, we made a gorgeous yarn-painted mannequin with curls under the arms,” Bayraktaroglu said.

“We are guerrilla grannies speaking out for all women,” Mellon said. “(In Yellow Springs) we have a special freedom here to do whatever is needed for an artist — actually for everyone,” Mellon said.

What they do is technically illegal, but the jafagirls’ street art is tolerated, even beloved by many. Yet, they have had a few critics. “One day somebody was harassing us, giving us a little grief about putting knitting on the tree. A police officer ran him off and helped us install the yarnbombing,” Bayraktaroglu said.

Two years ago, a group of residents in Dayton’s Oregon District had their own experience with people who question the art form.

The Oregon Stitchers, as they call themselves, did an installation on the poles at the intersection of 5th and Jackson streets. The yarnbombing became the center of a social media fray about how the district wanted to promote itself.

“The Oregon District is a very close-knit neighborhood but like any family we argue from time to time, and this was a topic that sparked heated debate,” said Oregon Stitchers member Tonia Fish.

“Knit graffiti is a temporary form of street art that does not cause any damage to property,” Fish said. “Originally for our group, it was about feminine urban reclamation and making cold spaces warm.”

“We wanted to give 5th Street a big hug,” Fish said.

As reported in an Aug. 10, 2010, Dayton Daily News story titled “Opinions differ over public art,” Mayor Gary Leitzell went on the record on a blog called Delectable Dayton, saying, “The anti-knitters and the pro-knitters need to communicate with each other and have a dialogue about what they each expect the Oregon Arts District to become.”

“You would think the sky was falling because of a bit of yarn on a pole,” Bayraktaroglu said about the public disagreement.

Eventually the knitting came down, but that didn’t unravel the Oregon Stitchers.

“After the controversy the group was approached to do custom installations for various businesses in the District, including Blind Bobs,” Fish said. “Blind Bobs asked for the knit bomb on their pole and they took good care of it. Throughout the year, other knit bombs popped up around the District but they were not made by our group.”

The Oregon District Business Association did not return the Dayton Daily’s call for its perspective on the scrap over the 2010 installation.

Even so, that’s not the end of this yarn.

The Dayton Art Institute is featuring on its campus a collaborative installation of yarnbombing by the jafagirls and their friends, the Bombshells of Cincinnati.

The jafagirls planned the installation with Mary Beth Whitley, associate educator for school and teacher services at the museum, and spent six weeks getting ready for it. “It was a big project that Corrine and I put our hearts into,” Mellon said.

The DAI had been looking for something to complement its You are My Superhero exhibition (open through Sept. 23), which includes the work of Michigan-based artist Mark Newport, who knits superhero costumes. The museum wanted something that would allow people to feel engaged, said Michael Roediger, executive director of the DAI.

So in the spirit of collaboration, the installation encouraged other local yarnbombers to participate.

“It was meant for the whole yarnbombing community,” Mellon said. “A general call went out for any yarnbomber to come and yarnbomb the lawn at the DAI.”

According to Roediger, it is the first ever installation of street art at the museum. “The word ‘bombing’ often has a negative connotation,” Roediger said. “But this type is a fun bombing.”

The project grew organically, and there was a last-minute inspiration for additional delight. The jafagirls bombed the big sculpture called Chief Massasoit for the DAI’s Super Hero Costume Ball. The sculpture’s costume included a mask, a cape and a wrist cuff.

As for the Bombshells, they’ve have been around since March of 2011 and credit Yellow Springs’ jafagirls as their mentors.

Bombshells founder Pam Kravetz (aka Pinky Shears) is an art teacher at Harrison High School in Cincinnati. She often goes online to find inspiration for group projects. Last year when she was looking for ideas, she saw some photos of the jafagirls’ installations and bought a book called “Yarn Bombing: The Art of Crochet and Knit Graffiti” by Mandy Moore and Leanne Prain (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009), which featured the jafagirls, and reached out to them.

“We became Facebook friends immediately,” Kravetz said.

A core group of 15 comprise the Bombshells, but they’ve had more than a hundred “sidekicks” help them with installations in Cincinnati.

On Fountain Square, the heart of the downtown, the Bombshells have made pom-poms and given them away to people, encouraging them to write their wishes on attached tags, then hang the pom-poms in trees.

They’ve also contributed to the community by knitting toys for kitten adoptions and crocheting objects for charitable events at holiday times.

So how did this little group of knitters win over a big city?

Kravetz and her collaborators connected with Artworks, a Cincinnati nonprofit, which helped them get started. They began by talking to the Park District and bringing attention to sculpture and areas overlooked. “We have a nice reputation and are conscious of the environment,” Kravetz said.

“I think things could have gone a different way for us. Cincinnati was ready. The downtown was undergoing a renaissance and we were bringing energy (to it). We were totally celebrated,” she said. “We became a little craft-making army making everything colorful and playful.”

Bombshell Jen Edwards, who goes by Boo Radley (the “do-gooder who left presents in trees” in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird), was thrilled about having the group’s work featured outside the Dayton Art Institute through Sept. 30.

“It was really fun and joyful,” Edwards said. “We picked pieces that would draw people in to the DAI.”

Visitors to the museum are encouraged to interact with the installation by getting tags at the rotunda desk on which to write the names of their personal heroes, then attaching the tags onto the trees.

“It’s a way people can be a community without being around each other,” Roediger said. “(The yarnbombers) brought joy to many people this summer and isn’t that the reason to be a community?”

A quieter yarn bombing installation is inside the museum in Gallery 222. The Knitting Nook features the work of the jafagirls. It’s been “a dedicated space” where people can come and knit, Roediger said.

Although the museum installation will come to an end, it’s clear that Yellow Springs will continue to celebrate the work of the jafagirls.

“We’re telling the story of a town,” Mellon said. “What inspirits us is Yellow Springs.”

While the jafagirls were recently installing a large felt sunflower to a tree in front of the laundromat on Dayton Street, passersby gathered to watch.

“I love it. I think it’s fabulous,” said former Yellow Springs resident Kathy Robertson. “They have been doing it for several years. It’s always such a glorious surprise when I see it.”

To help keep the sunflower looking its brightest, Bayraktaroglu lovingly misted it with sunscreen.

A few minutes later, across the street, the jafagirls installed Knit Twit bands with eyes on another tree. This time they invited me to participate as an honorary jafagirl, showing me how to sew up the loose ends. Being a bit of a rebel was quite exhilarating, I must say.

Coming down the sidewalk was ceramic arts and arts events organizer Lisa Goldberg, who stopped to chat for a few minutes.

“Every time people come downtown, they see something new and wonderful,” Goldberg said. “This is about looking at art and seeking it out. There’s so much art in this town to see.”

Just a few blocks away, a large display of blue felt butterflies appeared to flutter against the large Bradford pear tree outside Bonadies Glass Studio on Xenia Avenue.

“We’re so lucky to live where we choose and care about art,” Mellon said.