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Conceptual art with focus on yarn-based projects

Artist’s Talk, Heights Arts, Cleveland Heights, OH August 2009

Conceptual Art with Focus on Yarn-based Projects

Hello, I’m Carol Hummel and I’m a sculptor. Since earning my Masters of Fine Arts degree in Sculpture from Kent State in 2004, I’ve spent my time traveling and making art – in India, Nepal, Utah, Colorado and, of course, Ohio – and today I’m going to talk to you about my art and – in particular – site specific public art projects like we’re going to be creating – together – her in Cleveland Heights and Larchmere this month.

I’m a conceptual artist – which means my artwork is idea driven. I draw inspiration for my pieces fro ideas and experiences about what I know best – my life. I was telling one of my younger artist friends recently how luck I feel – in retrospect – that my art career did take so long to develop; it gave me time to live, to grow and develop, to have experiences – LOTS of them (some very good and some very, very bad), and to find my artistic voice. I joke about feeling blessed to have had a life that’s been pretty dysfunctional at times – you know, the usual: alcoholic father, abusive husband, strange relatives and wacky friends. But engaging in and living life has shaped me, has made me feel very strongly about certain things, has given me ideas that I really want to turn into art.

My undergraduate degree is in Photojournalism and I’ve always kept journals and written stories about y experiences, y thoughts, and my life. When I went back to school in 2000 and discovered conceptual art, I realized that I could take ideas and experiences from MY life and turn them into artwork that would – hopefully – connect with other peoples’ lives. I was delighted. After all, I was in the middle of a very painful divorce from my husband of more than 20 years; I had A LOT to make art about.

Take this for example: One of my early pieces of art was titled “You Are Ugly.” As I just said, a lot of y work starts with my stories… and the story behind “You Are Ugly” is this:
Every day my husband told me I was ugly – in a look, a scribbled reprimand, words, his absence. From the day of our marriage until I called it quits on February 26, 2000, he had told me I was ugly 6,943 times. On that day, I realized the truth: He is ugly. I am beautiful.

The problem, of course, is figuring out how to tell this story through a piece of artwork. What I decided to do is take a 25’ long roll of rice paper and using a manual typewrite, type the words “You Are Ugly” 6,943 times.

SLIDE #1 – You Are Ugly close up

I then waxed the roll of paper and hung it in the gallery.

SLIDE #2 – You are Ugly overview
I didn’t create “you Are Ugly” to get sympathy. To me, this piece is a declaration of independence. After all, the scroll does end! I created it to try to connect with other people who might share my pain and insecurities.

And, sure enough, the first day I hung this piece, a 20-year-old student walked in and promptly burst into tears. Of course – being the astute individual that I am – I realized she wasn’t crying about my screwed up marriage… and when she finally turned to me, she said, “This is my life.” At that moment I realized that the pain of my 20-year-long marriage had – through my artwork – connected to the pain in her 20-year-long life. That’s when I realized just how powerful art can be. I learned an important lesson that day: that everyone connects with the world – and artwork – very personally, through their eyes, their experiences, their history, their filter. While this piece began with my personal experience, it transcended my ideas and connected very personally with this other person. There’s a lot of truth in the saying, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.”

Since then, I’ve always kept this revelation in mind when I create pieces of art. No matter what my sculptures are about to me, they only begin with my personal perspective on the subject. My goal is to create something that transcends me and my ideas and connects with the experiences, thoughts or emotions of the individual viewers. If I do this, I feel I’ve succeeded with the piece.

Of course, I do find that the ore passionate I feel about an experience or an idea, the more interested I am in putting in the immense time and effort it takes to create the pieces. In recent years the issues that have captivated my interest – because of my divorce, I’m sure – are those involving personal awareness, potential and choice… and especially comfort versus confinement, pain versus pleasure.

“Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” is a piece

SLIDE #3 – Peter, Peter – Overview

born of these issues. Again, the idea for this piece came from personal experience – my failed marriage to a very controlling man and my escape from that marriage. I used a well-known nursery rhyme to anchor the basic concept… “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater had a wife but couldn’t keep her; put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.” But while the nursery rhyme has Peter entrapping and keeping his wife, I wanted my piece to be about the impossibility of keeping – or controlling – another human being without his or her consent. To demonstrate this concept, I built contradictions into each of its main elements.

I constructed the pumpkin “jail” out of sold steel bar similar to that used in actual jail cells. However, I designed the spacing of the bars so you could squeeze through them if you wanted to. I polished the bars to a creamy silver finish to make them attractive and alluring, even though they ARE bars of a cell. I placed a throne-like chair inside the jail that was modeled after an electric chair, but instead of straps to hold you in, the back of the chair is a ladder that enables you to climb out.

SLIDE #4 – Peter, Peter – Chair back

I upholstered the chair in bright colors – to look beautiful, plush, and inviting – but used straight pins for the upholstery with half of the pins poking dangerously outward.

SLIDE #5 – Peter, Peter – Chair close up

The scale of the structure was selected to mimic the feeling of a jail cell – large enough to exist in, but not be comfortable in.

SLIDE #6 – Peter, Peter – overview

I wanted the piece to be simultaneously beautiful and dangerous,

SLIDE #7 – Peter, Peter – top view

alluring and repellent. I wanted it to be about endings and beginnings. When people look at my pumpkin, I want them to think about the danger of allowing themselves to be controlled by or imprisoned by ANY person. A beautiful jail is a jail nonetheless. Beautiful furnishings mean nothing if you sacrifice your personal freedom.

From that point on I began using y stories, experiences, thoughts and life as a way to lead viewers into THEMSELVES and THEIR experiences.. and maybe, just maybe, connect with – and find shared comfort in – the deep feelings and insecurities that are common to all of us.

These pieces – and the concepts behind them – led to a series of work in which I used crocheted afghans to explore the endings and beginnings of relationships as well as the continuing repercussions from these relationships.

“Mother-in-law #1”

SLIDE #8 – Mother-in-law #1

was inspired by a story about my first mother-in-law and a very ugly afghan she gave me soon after my marriage. It was so ugly that I used it for absolutely everything… we had picnics on it, the kids used it as the rug in their tree house, the dogs slept on it, it lived with us during our day-to-day lives AND it remained with me long after the marriage ended.

And that’s the larger issue behind the piece: What remains after relationships end? The fact is that relationships do unravel; we choose some relationships and others are thrust upon us, but in both cases, many of these relationships do unravel. However, the affects of these relationships resonate within us long after the relationships end. Therefore, the unraveling of the afghan represents the unraveling of relationships… and even though the strings are regrouping and moving away, the threads are still connected. There is a continuing connection to and impact from these relationships even as new relationships are formed.

SLIDE #9 – Red Carpet

“Red Carpet” is a piece about the unraveling of my life during my divorce and my attempts to move on. Here’s how I felt when I created this piece:

My life unraveled as lives are prone to do periodically. Piece by piece my carefully constructed world fell apart. The strands that held my family, my friendships, my relationships together, frayed, weakened and snapped, one by one. I was alone, in tatters.

But, to the surprise of many, the fabric of my being remained strong. I tied the threads of myself together and began weaving a new life. It was awkward, clumsy, and imperfect, but it is me. I hold y arms open and day by day I weave a red carpet welcoming in whatever is to be.

As you can see in this piece, the afghan has unraveled, but her arms are wide open, welcoming in the new and the debris of the unraveling is regrouping and inviting in the future with the red carpet.

SLIDE #10 – Stepping Out

“Stepping Out” is about the same idea, but instead of reweaving itself into a red carpet, the tatters are beginning to form into slippered feet that are stepping out and moving forward.

The afghan pieces are about simultaneous endings and beginnings, about comfort and discomfort, and the importance of continuing to grow and move forward no matter what happens in your life.

At that point in MY life, I was thinking a lot about how relationships end and new ones begin and – more importantly – about the QUALITY of those relationships; how I can sometimes feel so comfortable in a place only to realize later – when I come to my senses – that I am finding comfort in confinement … and that’s NOT a good thing.
I find that yarn is an ideal medium with which to carry on this conceptual discussion… brightly colored knitted or crocheted material carries with it so much personal and cultural nostalgia, evoking memories of bygone people, places and times when life was good. But, still, it’s string, rope, it knots, it ties, it binds, it covers, it smothers, it breaks.

SLIDE #11 –Cozy

Thus, I used steel covered in yarn in “Cozy,” a piece about comfort and confinement at eh most basic level. I found my inspiration in the following childhood memory:

When I was seven-years-old and my little sister three, she moved into the hall closet and I moved into her crib. I filled the crib with my stuffed animals and blankets and pillows. I was safe. I pretended that we were on Noah’s Ark, but since there was just one of each kind of most animals, they paired up as they pleased. We rolled through the waves, singing and laughing. We weathered violent storms and avoided sinking until my big sister yelled at me to shut up.

This story takes me to a place where I felt both safe (in the crib) and threatened (by my sister). I felt completely in control (of the crib) and totally controlled (by my sister). Therefore, this sculpture serves as a metaphor for the situations faced in adulthood that are simultaneously comforting and controlling, entrapping and empowering and explores issues involved with the difficulties inherent in trying to grow beyond the confinement of controlling forces.

I utilized a crib, a familiar object in which protection, care and confinement play equal parts. Its scale – which is the size a crib would be if I was two years old – creates an interior space that is not only the same proportional size that we would experience if in a crib bus also mimics the feel of a jail cell – large enough in which to exist, but not comfortably. By softening the rigid, metal form, the yarn also emphasizes it. And while it imbues the object with nostalgia, it also encases, entraps and enfeebles the form.

Therefore, “Cozy” sets up a conflict between form and substance, the masculinity of the large, linear object and its feminine covering of soft yarn. The jail-like structure challenges the crib-like form even though the structure is completely covered by the cozy. Further, while the structure remains rigid, the skin on one leg is growing and pulling away from the form’s rigid skeleton, indications of potential, growth and new beginnings.

SLIDE #12 – Cozy – leg

“Levels” – a piece that currently resides at Heights Arts Gallery –

SLIDE #13 – Levels

addresses similar concepts but in an entirely different way. It utilizes topographical mapping as an analogy for the strata of human existence and understanding. In one regard it’s about the physical aping of a place and its topography. I mapped a stand of brush, created a grid, selected 4 trees within the grid and remapped it in the gallery. On another, it wraps the topographic divisions in colors of crocheted yarn, representing the various levels at which cultural influences impact natural objects – trees, people, our planet and also highlights the double-edged sword of these cultural influences, which are not only comfortable, but also constraining.

SLIDE #14 – Levels – close up

Comfort versus confinement continued as a theme in a piece I did for a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland.
SLIDE #15 – Boxed – Close-up

For this piece, I took the two openings above the lobby and entrapped the space with yarn.

SLIDE #16 – Boxed

Conceptually, this piece is about the tug-of-war between comfort and confinement. Each strand of the soft yarn evokes memories of comfort and home while simultaneously tying and binding space itself. Like other pieces, this is meant o be an analogy about life. From the moment we are born, we are wrapped by the influences imposed upon us by family, environment, and culture. We are continually transformed by these interactions; changed by each thread of influence.

“Boxed” led to an environmental piece I did at Kent State University’s Stark campus. With the help of approximately 300 student and faculty volunteers, we wrapped the environment in 875,000 feet of yarn over a 4 day period.

SLIDE #17 and #18 – Confined Comforts

There were two installations. The larger measured 375’ long by 50’ wide at points.

SLIDE #19 – Confined Comforts

The smaller measured approximately 50’ x 30’.

SLIDE #20 – Confined Comforts

We created spaces where spaces hadn’t existed. Students walking along familiar paths surrounded by colorful yarn would suddenly find themselves trapped in dead-end spaces or cozy sanctuaries of color and light. Some experiences were comforting, others frustrating, especially when they were late to classes. But each experience made them think about time and space and its affect upon them.

Man’s impact on the environment has always been a big concern of mine. So when I was awarded a residency offered by The Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, Utah – one of the most pristine – and HOT! – environments in our country – I wanted to comment on this. I came up with the idea of creating woman-made viruses oozing out of the mountains.

SLIDE #21 – Silver Island Mountain

They would be beautiful – colorful, interesting, intriguing – but also dangerous – intruding on the natural landscape, covering and smothering native habitats and plants, injecting synthetic material into natural environments.

SLIDE #22 – Silver Island Mountain

The Salt Flats and mountains surrounding them are one of the most dangerous environments I’ve ever encountered. It was usually 115 degrees by noon. But each morning, I’d drag my 300 crocheted cells –

SLIDE #23 – Silver Island Mountain

Ranging in size from 12” to 3 feet across – up into the mountains and create bacterial oozes representing (wo)man’s intrusion into the natural environment.

SLIDES #24, #25, #26 – Silver Island Mountain
My legs got VERY strong, my body overheated in a major way. I’d take gallons of water to drink AND to dump on my head when it got too hot. After I finished installing the cells, I’d climb all over the mountains photographing them.

SLIDES #27, #28, #29 – Silver Island Mountain

And THEN I’d have to climb back up and down the mountain to drag all the cells back to my car.

I did installations in the mountains and on the abandoned air force base.

SLIDES #30, #31, #32 – At base

At some point the viruses transformed into Desert Doilies – where they attacked and surrounded objects abandoned in the desert,

SLIDES #33, #34, #35 – Desert Doilies

commemorating them as cherished items abandoned in the middle of no where.

I continued this body of work during my tie at a residency for Colorado Art Ranch in Steamboat Springs. Again, commenting on man’s impact on the environment was the purpose of this work. I created two major pieces – one about the invasion of condos into the beautiful aspen-covered mountains of Colorado.

SLIDES #36 and #37 –Aspen Invasion

Most of these condos are only inhabited during a couple months during ski season yet they dot the hills with their hot tubs and asphalt and huge houses. And, of course, with people comes garbage, which has to be dumped somewhere. But the problem of disposing of our waste is underscored when it’s dumped in open fields surrounded by blue sky and snow-capped mountains.

SLIDES #38 and #39 – Dump at Steamboat Springs

“Dump at Steamboat Springs” brings attention to the necessity of contemplating the long-term repercussions of our waste-filled lives as consumers.

As you can see, with each passing year, my projects have become larger and more ambitious. So I didn’t hesitate to respond to Heights Arts call for artists in 2004 with a proposal to crochet a cozy covering on a living tree – a big one.

SLIDE #40 – Tree Cozy

“Tree Cozy” was installed on a tree in front of Cleveland Heights City Hall. I covered the tree – a natural object – representing masculinity and strength – with a cozy – a handmade covering representing femininity and comfort. On the most obvious level, it is a piece of clothing, personifying the tree and keeping it cozy and colorful throughout the year, enhancing the beauty of nature.

SLIDE #41 – Tree Cozy

On another, the brightly colored crocheted cozy wraps the tree in personal and cultural nostalgia evoking memories of bygone times when life was good. On yet another level, the cozy softens the strong tree form while also emphasizing it. It simultaneously caresses and encases the tree

SLIDE #41 – Tree Cozy

and fluctuates between a comforting blanket and suffocating cover-up.

The tree took me – with the help of my mother and two daughters – approximately 500 hours to create. We used a hydraulic lift to reach the upper parts of the tree.

SLIDE #42 – Tree Cozy – lift

It was one of the happiest projects I’ve ever done…

SLIDE #43 – Tree Cozy

I expected people to like it, but I was unprepared for the constant parade of enthusiastic and supportive people that stopped by - Elderly people on their daily walks, teenagers snapping photos with their cell phones, parents and their kids discussing art; it was an absolutely wonderful experience. Images of this tree have been shown all over the world. Nearly every week I still get requests to feature the tree on television, websites and blogs, in speeches, magazines, books, advertisements, inspirational posters. One company in London enlarged it and used it to wallpaper an entire office wall.

Since this piece, I’ve created cozies for a number of trees around the US

SLIDE #44 and #45 -- Palm Cozies

And India

SLIDE #46 – Tree Cozy – India

Although I didn’t get to use a lift on that one…

SLIDE #47 – Me on Ladder

when I wanted my ladder leveled, they took care of me!

SLIDE #48 – Brick under ladder

Tree Cozy has been the inspiration for many other Tree Cozies around the world, and Cleveland Heights – thanks to Heights Arts – was the pioneer.

Therefore, it’s only right that Cleveland Heights is the home of the first Knitscape projects. During the next month or so, I – along with the help of people in the community – will create an ambitious community artwork that will stretch along Lee Road between Cedar and the library.

SLIDE #49 – Photoshopped – Parking lot

We will be crocheting and installing cozies for approximately 200 parking meters,

SLIDE #50 -- Prototype parking meter

15 light poles by the library,

SLIDE #51 – Photoshopped -- Library poles

And maybe a handful of trees. As the posters and publicity say, the purpose of the project is three-fold:

• To demonstrate how art can visually unify the streetscape
• To create a community around an art project and
• To enliven daily life with unexpected art

For me, of course, the project also has conceptual underpinnings and for me it’s still about comfort vs. confinement. After all, we ARE bound by the parking meters on a regular basis… bound to pay for the pleasure of parking. I know I often feel a bit annoyed when I’m obligated to feed the meter (especially when I don’t have any change!) But this project turns bureaucracy into art and we will at least smile each time we support our parking community. When I was installing the prototype for this project on the meter in front of Heights Arts, a lady pulled her car into the spot and, with a big smile, inserted her quarter in the meter. “If I’m going to pay, I’m going to park in the happiest spot on the block!” she said.

So maybe this year each time someone parks in Cleveland Heights, they’re going to smile! They’re still going to pay, but they’re going to smile. Life is going to be just a tiny bit better for that moment. But back to my original concept – comfort vs. confinement. While it’s true that we are confined by society rules and regulations an parking meters at least this community – Cleveland Heights – is going to make that confining parameter the most comfortable possible. With Knitscape, parking in Cleveland Heights, walking down Lee Road, living in this community will swing just a bit away from confinement and toward comfort…our comfort.

During the planning sessions for Knitscape Cedar Lee, the neighborhood along Larchmere expressed an interest in doing its own Knitscape. So, simultaneously with the Cleveland Heights project, we’ll be doing a project in Larchmere. They don’t have many parking meters over there, but have some beautiful straight trees lining their street.

SLIDE #52 – Larchmere photoshopped

To accomplish out Knitscapes, all we need is a little money to buy the material and a lot of volunteers to crochet and install the pieces. We’ll be getting together throughout the month to create together. Please spread the word, come along yourself and bring some friends. You don’t need to know how to crochet, we’ll teach you or you can help stitch the pieces on the meters and trees.

Other neighborhoods are already asking for their own Knitscapes, and I think it’s just wonderful that Cleveland Heights – and Heights Arts – is, once again, the inspiration for the spread of art, beauty and happiness.

© 2017 Carol Hummel