Stitch by stitch : Knitter yarn-bombs trees for exhibits
The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Virginia Smith
Melissa Maddonni Haims knits or crochets while she's walking, talking, dining out, or watching TV. She does it during meetings and even - shhhh - when she's in a car.
"You can get six stitches on at a red light," she says, "three at a stop sign."
Stitch by obsessive stitch, this is how she created "The Foragers," a new yarn-bombing exhibit at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in upper Roxborough, which runs through the end of March, and "Wrapped Up," a similar yarn fest at Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill that runs from March 26 to October - or until it disintegrates, whichever happens first.
"This is what I was meant to do," says Haims, 44, a Norristown native and third-generation knitter/crocheter who lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and their 13-year-old daughter, Noa. She works out of the Herman Street Studios in Germantown, fashioning her yarn bombs and other soft-sculpture art that has been shown at galleries and museums in Philadelphia and beyond.
Yarn-bombing is a relatively new form of fiber art, pioneered about a decade ago by Magda Sayeg of Houston. It has since become a global phenomenon, often referred to as guerrilla or graffiti knitting for its spontaneous nature, sometimes illegal urban setting, and impersonal targets, such as bus shelters, stop signs, bike racks, and statues, which bombers wrap in knitted or crocheted blanket- or quiltlike covers.
Lately, a growing number of yarn-bombers like Haims have headed for open space.
"Most instances of yarn-bombing are spontaneous, in cities, in highly populated areas," says Dionne Rockwell of the Craft Yarn Council of America, an industry group that includes individual knitters and crocheters, "but it's becoming more common to do it in the woods and the wilderness and out on the trails."
One of the best known of these new open-space pioneers is Stephen Duneier of Santa Barbara, Calif., an institutional investment manager who learned to crochet from YouTube in 2012 and likes to bomb, Christo-style - with permission - hiking trails and giant boulders in mountains and national parks.
Haims, who studied art at the University of Rhode Island, the Tyler School of Art, and the Parsons School of Design, hasn't tackled a mountain or national park - yet. But like traditional commissions, her outdoor yarn installations are curated and she is paid for them.
At the Schuylkill Center, "The Foragers" is an indoor and outdoor show built around mushrooms, which have fascinated Haims and her husband, Josh, an amateur photographer, for 20 years.
Josh, a partner at Deloitte Consulting, first noticed the aesthetic possibilities of mushrooms in the wilds of the Wissahickon, on the mountain-bike trails behind Valley Green Inn. Over years, he's amassed a quirky portfolio of images of chicken- and hen-of-the-woods, oyster, common earthball, puffball, yellow patches, turkey tail, and deer mushrooms, to name a few.
"The shapes, sizes, textures . . . they are amazing," he says.
Adds his wife: "Mushrooms are so delicate and beautiful. They're just fun."
The Schuylkill Center indoor gallery features Josh's photos and Melissa's soft-sculpture interpretations of them. Outside, she's bombed nine trees with yarn mushrooms. The shrooms are small, set in the trees' crotch, on the trunk or around the base, frilly concoctions in subtle, earthy colors that call for close-up inspection.
That is exactly the point for Christina E. Catanese, the center's director of environmental art, who sees the installation as a way to "spark people's curiosity in a more personal, emotional way."
Catanese also sees it as a way to expand the center's traditional audience, by combining art and science, and to increase visitation during what is typically a tough time of year for nature centers and public gardens.
Morris, too, is looking to draw more visitors with its "Wrapped Up" exhibit, in which Haims - using a little wool and a lot of acrylic yarn, which stays brighter longer and is less affected by weather - will yarn-bomb sculptures of the arboretum's founders (John Morris' cane and Lydia's collar), the East Brook Bridge, Seven Arches, Love Temple, and several tree limbs and trunks.
Rockwell, of the Craft Yarn Council, loves the idea. "I think it's really neat and it will definitely enhance the experience for people strolling through the garden."
Maybe not everyone.
With some other tree installations, Haims has had push-back from purists who complain that yarn-wrapping risks exposing trees to disease or damage and spoils their natural beauty.
Anthony S. Aiello, Morris' horticulture director and curator, echoes Catanese when he says that staff will make sure the yarn isn't wrapped too tightly, that no nails or screws are used, and that the soil around the trees doesn't become compacted by curious visitors.
"Hopefully, it won't offend people, but if some find it controversial or objectionable, that's OK. Art is meant to be provocative," says Aiello, who suggested the Morris show after seeing a yarn-bombing installation at Kew Gardens in England in 2014.
Haims, who once yarn-bombed her husband's head, is adamant about the safe, and ephemeral, nature of her exhibit. "I'm not killing the trees!" she practically shouts through laughter. "I'm not Exxon. I'm not clear-cutting the forest."
No, sirree. For two hours, as we speak, her crochet needle bobs along, swiftly turning rows of ruffled orange stitches into a soft shelf of chicken-of-the-woods. In just a few days, it would be "growing" on a tree in Roxborough.