CAROL HUMMEL -- Pioneer in thought-provoking artwork using yarn
Carol Hummel is a pioneer in the use of yarn in thought-provoking artwork that addresses social issues related to the environment, people and cultures and a major inspiration behind the yarnbombing movement. She began using yarn in major pieces of artwork in 2001 and images of her iconic crochet-covered tree -- Cozy -- went viral in 2004 sparking a worldwide movement to cover anything and everything in yarn.
What began as her desire to express her personal ideas and experiences through artwork using yarn has evolved into a global initiative to reclaim our living environments.
“It’s time to take back our living spaces, to throw back the cloak of gray and expose the colorful, the creative, the thoughtful, the fun,” Hummel proclaims. “Our towns and cities overflow with hidden potential just waiting for the populace to explore, manipulate and shape into vibrant environments.”
She believes that artwork is an ideal tool to use in reclaiming and reshaping our surroundings and primarily uses yarn in her artistic interventions. “My aim is to involve, engage, surprise and amaze the audience,” Hummel says. “My art provides the stage upon which interaction with the viewer becomes the main event.”
Hummel first discovered the power of public yarn-based projects in 2005 when she crocheted a cozy for a very large, living tree in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Tree Cozy, which took 500 hours to craft and a hydraulic lift to reach the upper branches, created quite a stir in the art world and became an internet sensation.
Because she is a conceptual artist and her artwork is driven by her ideas and experiences, Tree Cozy was saturated with meaning. To Hummel, the tree represents masculinity while its emphatically handmade blanket represents femininity. “Dressing” the tree in bright colors personifies it while enhancing the beauty of nature. And while the crocheted covering evokes memories of bygone times, wrapping the tree in personal and cultural nostalgia, it simultaneously caresses and encases the tree. “I highly doubt that the tree really wants to be covered in yarn,” Hummel says. “I view it equally as comforting and confining; a lot like certain people and situations in my life.”
It was while creatingTree Cozy that she realized how powerful public installations can be. She expected people to like the colorfully crocheted tree but was unprepared for the constant parade of enthusiastic and supportive people that followed its progress “Elderly people on their daily walks, teenagers hanging out and snapping photos with their cell phones, parents and their kids stopping by to discuss the tree as art,” Hummel recalls. “It was an absolutely wonderful experience.”
At the same time Hummel’s tree was going global, knitting and crocheting was experiencing a resurgence of popularity. “Suddenly, it seemed like everyone -- males, females, young, old -- was creating something out of yarn,” she recalls. “My theory is that a wave of nostalgia swept around the world and left in its wake a yearning for simpler, less complicated times.”
Hummel, whose artworks include immense site-specific installations around the United States and the world, is inspired by the impact art can make on people. Her series of Knitscape projects in northeastern Ohio turned neighborhoods into works of art while creating communities around the projects. People who had never even heard of public art ended up living in it. Public involvement was a key element of the projects for Hummel. To her, “Our streets are our canvases, our creativity our brushes. Using color, imagination and joy, communities can reclaim ownership of their public spaces.” And in Ohio, they did just that.
With the help of scores of community volunteers, Hummel crocheted cozies for 180 parking meters, 15 light poles and five trees for Knitscape Cedar-Lee; for 50 trees lining the town’s main street for Knitscape Larchmere; for two trees and six posts for Knitscape Broadway. While she worked on the streets every day for two months, a steady stream of strangers stopped “to talk with me, hug me, God Bless me, tell me stories and joke around,” she remembers. “Creating art in places where people work, walk, live and play is an opportunity to really impact peoples’ lives in a positive way.”
This was confirmed when she received an email from an emerging artist who wrote: “Since I first learned of your Knitscape...I have loved your work deeply and dearly, and it has inspired me to push towards an artistic future unshackled from "sanctioned" mediums to seek the deeper and present truths. Thanks to you, there is an artist to inspire a whole new generation of women artists. As one of them barely beginning, I am awed and amazed and hopeful through your work about a new frontier in art that you've pioneered.”
Such praise only fuels Hummel’s commitment to “restructuring the commonplace through artwork -- the peoples’ artwork -- in our streets, our neighborhoods, our cities and our lives.” In 2012, she revitalized the village of Drangedal, Norway. With the assistance of Skype on-line workshops, the community created the pieces needed for the project, and then she and her daughter and assistant Molly Sedensky covered her largest tree ever -- and her first in Europe -- with crocheted stripes along with the light poles lining the town’s center. In 2013, she and community crocheters are invigorating the town of Carouge, Switzerland with colorful yarn and she has major projects in the works in the United States and abroad.
How Hummel reached this place in her artistic career is an interesting one. After stints as a newspaper reporter and photographer, magazine editor, construction manager, wife and mother of two daughters, she returned to school at Kent State University and earned her Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture in 2004. Because she was going through a difficult divorce at the time, her early works were inspired by her inner turmoil, and she urges people to embrace the dysfunction in their lives and turn it into art. However, she does not intend her pieces to be autobiographical; her goal is to create something that transcends herself and connects very personally with each individual viewer.
Although she works in a variety of materials -- wood, resin, steel, video, paper -- she was drawn to yarn early on. “It’s such a culturally saturated, feminine material that I find it has endless possibilities in artworks,” she observes. When she first began to work with yarn in 2003, Hummel didn’t knit or crochet, so she created a series of pieces by unraveling afghans, analogies for the destruction and reformation of relationships. For instance, Stepping Out mimics the size and shape of an empowered woman-- a bit larger than life. “But although the afghan/woman has unraveled, her arms are wide open, welcoming the new, and the debris of the unraveling is regrouping and forming into slippers that are stepping forward,” she explains. “This piece, as well as Mother-in-Law #1, Red Carpet and others are about simultaneous endings and beginnings, one of the basic -- and most necessary -- processes in a fulfilled life.”
In order to create Cozy, a steel adult-sized crib covered in yarn, Hummel learned to crochet in 2004. That’s when she discovered the communal aspect of the process. “Crochet is very nostalgic for me,” she says. “My mother and grandmother both crocheted, and it was a very special time learning to crochet surrounded by my mother, daughters, friends, and some neighboring Amish women.” The idea behind Cozy is comfort versus confinement. “Although a crib is a place that we think of as a protective space, it is also a confining space,” she says. This concept is one that weaves through many of Hummel’s artworks, including Tree Cozy, Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, and Confined Comforts, an outdoor installation that used 820,000 feet of yarn to address the tug-of-war between comfort and confinement. She had more than a hundred students and faculty members stretch yarn between trees, creating vibrant paths and spaces. “While each strand of colorful yarn is beautiful, it also binds the trees, the environment, space itself,” Hummel explains.
Hummel packed up her yarn and headed overseas to India in 2005. While she did crochet a tree there, she also began producing works that were not only thought provoking but also pioneered her use of crochet to make political statements. In the ensuing years, she has used yarn to express an abundance of ideas and concepts.
In 2007 and 2008 she participated in two art residencies. She created a series of works exploring the repercussions of injecting (wo)man-made objects into the pristine Utah environment during her time at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). Using 300 crocheted “cells” ranging in size from 12 to 36 inches in diameter, she constructed doilies around discarded garbage in the Salt Flats -- Dessert Doily, Oil Drum Doily, and Wooden Pallet Doily, had them seep down the sides of environmentally fragile mountains -- Silver Island Mountain series, and crawling over ammunition bunkers and abandoned barracks -- Abandoned Barracks and Ammo Bunker.
She expanded upon this series at the Colorado Art Ranch residency in Steamboat Springs, with Dump at Steamboat that highlights the challenges of population growth and the immense quantities of rubbish and debris that result from such growth, and Aspen Invasion, that comments on rampant condominium construction and addresses the issues of consumerism and environmental protection.
The crocheted “viruses” were ideal for these projects, she explains, because they visually mimicked cells and were easy to transport and arrange to express the desired concepts.
Environmental issues have been a continual thread in Hummel’s projects. Lichen It! was one of 11 contemporary artworks installed by artists from around the world at Morton Arboretum’s Nature Unframed: Art at the Arboretum show in Chicago, Illinois, in 2011. For this piece, Hummel’s crocheted lichen, which are a fascinating example of cooperative relationships in nature. “Lichen It! is an analogy for the symbiotic relationship people have with nature,” she says. “Just as lichen depend on other organisms for survival, we depend on trees for our survival. By adorning trees in (wo)man-made lichen, we are enhancing their beauty and acknowledging the bountiful gifts trees provide humanity.”
Cooperative relationships of the human kind took center stage in Hummel’s 2010 project in India. Namaste, Bhai! Namaste, Didi! is a continuing artwork that creates personal connections between Hummel and people of all ages, sexes, economic levels and social standings. “In India, they have a holiday where sisters give bracelets made of string to their brothers and the brothers commit to love and protect them for life,” she explains. Hummel crocheted bracelets of yarn and has -- to date -- tied them on the wrists of more than 5,000 people as a sign of friendship and connection. “This is where the salvation of our planet lies,” she contends, “in personal connections, without prejudice, without hate, with kindness.”
Personal connections took center stage when Hummel created No Shadow of a Doubt with 10 village women in India. “Crocheting was our only common language,” she recalls. Working together, they crocheted a black shadow for a tree that pollution had killed. When installed, it served as an omen about how human actions can drain the life and vitality from the environment. “Working with these women was very, very special,” Hummel says. “Women in India are minimized in many ways. By the end of the project, I felt that the tree’s shadow was a commemoration to the women of India who have been drained of their potential by society.”
In 2010, she started another series of artworks using yarn to wrap trees with symbolism. Wish Tree was created in India. Based on the Indian tradition of tying string and fabric around trees and making a wish for good fortune, Hummel wrapped a tree in the colors of nature and had people tie their wishes for a healthy environment onto bracelets dangling from its branches.
Using this same wrapping technique, she created Best of Luck, Nuclear World in 2011 in India. Using yarn the colors of the flags of the nine countries that possess nuclear warheads, she wrapped the tree for nine days. As the yarn was wrapped, the colors wove together to form a vividly colorful fabric “This is an analogy about the hope that we can create something beautiful instead of destructive by interweaving our countries and cultures,” she explains.
This nuclear theme was carried to Prague in The Czech Republic in 2011 for the Tina B Contemporary Arts Festival. Nuclear Cocoon encased a busy stairway in Prague in the colors of the nuclear countries. She hopes that as the people walked through the tunnels of color, they pondered the possibility of unified beauty.
Hummel even responded to the 2012 school shooting in Chardon, Ohio with yarn by creatingTribute Tree as a tribute to the community that came together with love and compassion after the tragedy that left three high school students dead and three others wounded. As one mother wrote, “The tree is a beautiful symbol of hope and unity for our children. As they move forward from this tragedy, as best as they can, seeing the symbolic tree you created for them makes them a little stronger each day.”
Hummel is amazed at the outpouring of emotion the black and red covered tree evokes. But, then, she is constantly surprised by the range of emotion her artwork evokes. “I get a lot of smiles and a lot of tears and every emotion in between,” she says, “and I like that. I think artwork should connect with and affect people on a deeply personal level. My work makes people stop and think and that’s where the magic happens.”
Carol Hummel is a USA-based artist known for her large-scale site-specific projects. She often generates intense communal experiences while creating her art, often involving family members, friends, neighbors and strangers in the creative process, thus connecting people of every age, sex, ethnicity and economic status. Her artwork addresses social issues related to the environment, people and cultures. She is the founder and international coordinator of the Raghurajpur International Art/Craft Exchange in Orissa, India, an artist’s residency that encourages the exchange or art, ideas and cultures. For more information about her work, go to www.carolhummel.com.
© 2017 Carol Hummel