by Len Lear
During the recent Fall for the Arts Festival and Harry Potter Weekend, you may have noticed that the iron fence around the Jenks Academy for the Arts (formerly Jenks Elementary School) across the street from the Chestnut Hill Hotel was festooned, almost wrapped, in colorful fabric.
And you may have wondered why on earth anyone would do a thing like that. Fabric is for wearing, not for covering fences with; right? Well, not necessarily. Scratch your head (or your fabric) no more. Here is the inside scoop:
Before the Fall for the Arts Festival, Martha Sharkey of the Chestnut Hill Business Association reached out to “knit graffiti” artist Melissa Maddoni Haims and invited her to a meeting with Mary Lynsky, Jenks principal, where they talked about projects that could be done with children and families on the school’s playground.
Haims, 42, is a fiber artist based in Chestnut Hill. She creates “yarn bombing” (she prefers the term “knit graffiti”), soft sculpture and large-scale knit and crocheted installations using recycled, reclaimed or rescued textiles. Her career in the arts began in New York City in the mid 1990s, but life led her back home to Chestnut Hill in 2004, where she lives with her husband and young daughter.
“Originally,” Haims told us last week, “they asked if I could do a yarn bombing project, but yarn bombing is really about knitted and crochet pieces being hand-sewn onto objects where yarn shouldn’t be, and it’s not very kid-friendly, in that sense. You can’t teach someone to knit in two minutes and then have a finished piece to work with. And we have about two minutes to get kids interested in just about anything these days.”
On the other hand, weaving is a very basic concept that most small children have actually done in pre-school or very early school years. “It’s very structured and mathematical,” said Melissa, “and usually they start by weaving paper mats. So I figured that we have this huge black fence, and the vertical bars can be used as a warp. I just have to provide the weft.”
Haims wanted to use the Jenks school colors as a way to promote pride in the school, which is why there were blue and gold panels on the beginning and end. Because of the upcoming Harry Potter weekend, Haims suggested that they weave the Hogwarts School house colors along with the Jenks school colors.
Haims’ knit graffiti went up on the Jenks fence Sunday, Oct. 5, during the Fall for the Arts Festival. Several children and families throughout the day stopped by and helped work on the weaving. The whole installation took about six hours and was aided by about 150 people.
While the majority of her work shows in gallery settings, Haims has a passion for public art and has been yarn bombing since early 2010, when she did it for a show whose focus was on Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Haims was motivated to contribute that particular public art in honor of her mother, a master knitter who died of breast cancer in January of 2008. “She taught me how to knit and crochet a number of times during my life,” said Melissa, “but it really stuck right before she died. I never really created anything with needles or hooks until 2007, and without her I probably never would have … She was also a very good cook, but that skill did not rub off.”
Since 2012 Melissa has had two major fiber art shows; in 2012, after the death of her best friend since high school, Haims crocheted 1000 rocks to memorialize her. The show opened on the anniversary of her friend’s death in 2013 at 3rd Street Gallery in Old City. Since then the work has traveled to Chicago and Miami for contemporary art exhibitions.
“I am really interested in the idea of memorializing our loved ones and the act of public mourning,” said Haims, “so in most locations where it has shown, I continue to crochet rocks to add to the pile. Many people leave rocks in piles (cairns) to find their way home, leave rocks at shrines as an offering and leave stones by the gravesides of their dead as a reminder that they were here. This project was a combination of all of those ideas.”
The Chestnut Hill fiber artist, who has degrees in painting and marine affairs from the University of Rhode Island and has studied at the Tyler School of Art, Parsons School of Design, Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences and Moore College of Art and Design, also made knit and crocheted cakes for a big show at the Philadelphia International Airport.
She also recently filmed a TV show for an A&E channel called “fyi.” The show, “OMG You made that?!,” recently aired. “That was super fun and crazy,” said Haims. “For the show I had to do a project that involved a lot of people, so I yarn bombed a grove of cherry trees on Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park. That was a challenge because I almost never yarn bomb trees (they are pretty enough already), but it’s television, and so you kind of do what they want… you can catch the episode, which airs periodically on ‘fyi,’ or you can watch it on my website.”
Has Haims ever run into any problems while doing knit graffiti projects with people who do not get it? “There are more than a few people who absolutely do not understand why you would want to wrap yarn around anything but your neck,” she replied. “I’ve only had to run from the cops once. OK, twice, but the second time it was in Italy, and they were Italian cops, so I don’t think that counts.”
What is it that keeps Melissa knit bombing? “I like putting art in places where art usually isn’t. I like putting unexpected work in unusual places to bring a little joy into the everyday monotony. And I like to make hard, cold things warm and fuzzy with yarn.”
For more information, visit www.melissamaddonnihaims.com.