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Highlights of yarn bomber Magda Sayeg’s early work include a knitting/crochet-covered bus in Mexico City.

Over the years, I’ve shared photos of guerilla-knitting projects around the world — anonymous knitted and crocheted decorations in unexpected places. Although the story is mostly a visual one, I like having some text for my posts and managed to find this interview with yarn artist Magda Sayeg.

Liza Graves at StyleBluePrint spoke with Sayeg by phone.

“Have you noticed a statue in your city covered in knitting? Or perhaps some trees, or a stop sign? This is known as yarn bombing and Magda Sayeg, a globally recognized textile artist, is known as the mother of yarn bombing. …

“Graves: When did you start knitting?

“Sayeg: Oh, maybe 15 or 16 to make a scarf for a then-boyfriend. … That first door knob? That took about three minutes. It was fast and quickly satisfying and I started doing more. …

“Graves: I recently saw an entire city block that was ‘yarn bombed’ in Columbia, South Carolina. How would I know if this was yarn bombing or a sanctioned art installation?

“Sayeg: Most likely it was sanctioned. When something is done at that level, where you can tell it took coordination on many levels … usually somebody approved something.

“Graves: What was the reaction to your first yarn bomb and when was it?

“Sayeg: That was the door handle on my boutique, in 2004, and it was surprisingly positive. … Then, I did a stop sign pole down the street. Then, several stop sign poles. Houston’s urban environment was my playground. Houston was a great city for this. It’s overdeveloped and there was not a lot of civic pride, at the time at least. As a citizen, you felt powerless. Old homes were being torn down for condos … Beautiful art comes from dark places. If you’re happy, are you motivated? When you are frustrated, you act accordingly. I was frustrated.

“Graves: Does anyone get upset about it? …

“Sayeg: Sure, there has been some backlash. Some people would say that it gets ugly and dirty. Some say it’s littering. … It’s silly for anyone to get mad about this. We are bombarded by advertising that says ‘lose weight now’ and auto insurance or other things. This has no financial profit. It’s sweet. It should not be vilified in any way. …

“Graves: Where are you? [Laughing] It’s so loud!

“Sayeg: Dover Street Market! I’m in a department store. I believe so strongly in this piece. I have so much gratitude and love for this store. I have a permanent installation here and over time, it just needs a little bit of love. We need to defuzz it and that’s what we’re doing here today.

“Graves: Do you miss anything about the South [after moving from Texas to New York]?

“Sayeg: I think we have a southern hospitality that is hard to explain unless you are southern. … I miss the accents. Texmex is something I totally miss and I will never get the same here. … And, the word y’all. Y’all means ‘all,’ and I’ve always defended that. …

“Graves: Any advice or quotes? …

“Sayeg: You can come from dark places and you can come out shining. I could live the rest of my life complaining. Now, I’m a globally recognized artist. My mother still comes from the belief that women are here for men. She doesn’t care that my TED Talk has had over a million views … she cares that I’m not married. My want is to let women know that nothing is insurmountable. You can get to the other side alive and well and be proud of yourself.” More here.

On Instagram, the artist is @magdasayeg. And there are other great pictures at Sayeg’s website, here.

Photo: Ben Sayeg
Sayeg defuzzing her knitting installation in a New York department store.

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I haven’t shared photos for a while. Some of these are from my last sad visit to New York, others are closer to home.

The first one makes me think of how hopeful I was on September 24th, when I arrived in New York and stayed with my sister’s devoted friend. I learned that my sister was doing better than the day before although she was still in the hospital. She was talking again and saying she wanted to carry on with treatment. We allowed ourselves a flutter of hope.

The bed is a Murphy Bed, made famous in old, silent movies, where someone like Charlie Chaplin might accidentally get closed up in it. This one was comfortable and not at all recalcitrant.

My hosts’ balcony had a glorious view. I sat there and had a cup of tea. I also took an early walk around their neighborhood, which features a statue of the Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland (now New York), “Peg Leg” Peter Stuyvesant. I couldn’t help wondering what the descendants of the Lenape natives thought of the statue.

Alas, the next day my sister took a dramatic turn for the worse and died the day after that. Miraculously, our brothers arrived in time from Wisconsin and California.

On days that followed, my sister’s husband, her friend, Suzanne, and I wandered around the city trying to enjoy nature and art and focus on good memories.

Then I took a bus back to Rhode Island, where I had left my car in a hurry. The rooster is in Rhode Island.

The concluding set of photos embraces art and nature back home in Massachusetts, where a long-life sympathy plant from my niece and nephew holds pride of place in the living room.

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Photos: James Hill for the New York Times
A student at the Higher School of Folk Art in the village of Kholui, Russia.

Years ago, a Massachusetts industrialist who was fascinated by Russian religious icons turned his large collection into the Museum of Russian Icons, a site worth visiting if you are ever near Clinton, Massachusetts.

But after the Russian Revolution outlawed religion, icons stopped being made for a long time. Resourceful icon painters developed a new art form — lacquer boxes that drew on the same skills as the icons and were collectible in their own right. Then the Wheel of Fortune turned again. Icons are now on top, and the new art form is endangered.

Neil MacFarquhar writes at the New York Times, “Once upon a time, the small, picturesque Russian village of Palekh gained fame far and wide for producing religious icons.

“Then one day, a revolution came and its adherents, growling, ‘There is no god,’ banned such art.

“Hundreds of artists eventually learned to adorn lacquer boxes instead, painting scenes from Russian fairy tales or romanticized versions of country life. These delicate miniatures made the village famous anew, especially after foreign collectors plunked down tens of thousands of dollars buying an art form considered uniquely Russian.

“Then the fickle wheel of history rotated once more. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church revived icon painting. It is miniature art now facing extinction.

‘It is going to be lost,’ said Yevgeny A. Sivyakov, 71, an accomplished miniaturist. ‘It is a frightening period right now.’

“The youngest generation of artists shows little interest, he said. ‘Everyone speaks of commerce — what is the point of developing lacquer miniatures when good money is being paid for icons, for frescoes?’

“Stunning antique icons and miniatures fill the collection of the State Museum of Palekh Art. The boxes are adorned with characters from Russian fairy tales — princes and princesses, the legendary firebird and Baba Yaga, a sorceress — replacing the Virgin Mary and the saints. The four seasons were a favorite theme, with countless troikas dashing across snowy fields.

“Each papier-mâché box, blackened with mud from the Teza River, is a blaze of meticulous detail. To paint faces, for example, the artists commonly used a brush made of just one hair from a squirrel’s tail.

“The egg tempera paint gave the boxes a polished glow, enhanced by rubbing them with bone. In addition, the Palekh tradition of edging in gold every person, animal and sometimes every leaf made the details pop out of the black background. …

“When icons were banned, [icon painters] floundered about for alternatives, including book illustrations and set designs.

“Then Ivan I. Golikov, a painter, stumbled upon a small exhibition in Moscow featuring 18th-century Asian painted lacquer boxes. In December 1924, Mr. Golikov founded the Ancient Russian Painting Workshop in Palekh. Throughout the Soviet years, a single collective produced the boxes.

“Palekh attracted both Russian and foreign visitors. Virtually everyone in Palekh will tell you that the Soviet Union earned some $1 million annually in hard currency off the boxes, which Western collectors considered a rarity.

“Lacquer boxes, as did all things following the Soviet Union’s demise, experienced a period of anarchy. Cheap fakes flooded the market and prices collapsed. If a shoebox-sized lacquer box that required a year to paint once sold for more than $40,000 abroad, that same box would earn about $5,000 today.

“Something smaller — a glasses case, for example — goes for $121 in the Palekh museum store. An imitation in Moscow costs less than $5. Demand for originals has fallen sharply. Few Russians can afford such prices, and foreign collectors died out.

“Sergei Bobovnikov, an antiques dealer in St. Petersburg, said there might be 150 regular buyers in the country, with an antique piece commanding $350 to hundreds of thousands for an original by Mr. Golikov or other founders of the Palekh school. ‘They invented a whole new style,’ Mr. Bobovnikov said.”

Learn what has happened since here.

Top: a Soviet-era Palekh board painted in 1975 and entitled “Holiday of Russian Winter in Palekh.” Bottom: detail from a Soviet-era Palekh plate, painted in 1955, entitled “Flourish, land of the Kolhoz!”

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Photo: DS Shin
The Chicago bookstore called Semicolon is also an art gallery and community space.

The future of independent bookstores will probably be determined by owners who combine selling books with other services — coffee bars, author events, children’s story hours, community meetings, or art galleries. In Chicago, Semicolon is one example of how to do it.

Taylor Moore writes at Chicago magazine, “At Semicolon, creatives of all stripes can find common ground. Located near the Grand Blue Line stop in West Town, the city’s newest bookstore is also a community space and gallery for Chicago’s street art scene.

“But Semicolon is notable for more than just its unique concept. When it officially opened on Tuesday at 515 North Halsted Street with a party and mural unveiling, it became one of just a handful of woman-owned bookstores in Chicago and its only bookstore owned by a black woman.

“An author and editor with a PhD in literary theory, proprietor DL Mullen first explored the world of art curation through her writing business, which landed her gigs penning exhibition copy for museums like LACMA.

“ ‘Explaining art is really [key] to how people understand it and connect to it,’ she says. ‘It became important to me to bridge art and words.’ …

” ‘[Semicolon] represents the point in a sentence where it could stop, but the author decides to proceed,’ Mullen explains.

“As a curator, Mullen brings an aesthetic sensibility to the bookstore’s interior. Semicolon is filled with lots of small personal touches, from author quotes on the walls to colorful furniture bought and carried from the Salvation Army two blocks away.

“But what might be most visually striking about the space is the art itself, like the mural which dominates the shop’s north wall. Street artist Ahmad Lee painted it in one 11-hour stretch, vividly depicting two of Mullen’s favorite artists: Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat. …

“Mullen plans on featuring different Chicago street artists monthly, in addition to hosting author and artist talks every few weeks.

“As for the books, they’re unconventionally arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves with their covers facing out, not unlike a gallery. Keeping with Semicolon’s curatorial spirit, Mullen hand-picked all 400 titles, grouping them by association rather than genre. In her ‘Books That Make You Think’ category, for example, you can pick up Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a collection of James Baldwin essays, and biographies of Henri Matisse and Georges Seurat.

“Mullen also wanted the store to be an asset to aspiring and self-published authors. For those looking to print manuscripts on the fly, Semicolon houses an Espresso Book Machine, a printer that can print up to 450 pages in minutes.

“Throughout Semicolon’s creation, Mullen has never lost sight of the fact that the store is currently the city’s sole black woman–owned bookstore.

“ ‘It means everything to me. To be able to create something that I love, as a black woman, that other black women and people can love just as much is a huge deal,’ she says. ‘You don’t get into bookselling looking for money; it’s really hard to build up your career to actually open a bookstore. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to do that.’ ” More here.

Still more at “Because of Them We Can,” here, Melville House, here, Chicago Review of Books, here, and the Literary Hub, here.

Photo: The North Star
DL Mullen is the founder of the combined bookstore, art gallery, and community space in Chicago’s West Town.

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Photo: David Jennings for the New York Times
David Esterly in 1989. His woodcarvings were in the tradition of a 17th-century English master.

How some artistic geniuses stumble onto their metier is a mystery. This wood carver didn’t even know how to carve wood when he was blown away by the beauty and intricacy of works by a 17th century master. He had to know more.

Katharine Q. Seelye writes at the New York Times, “David Esterly was in London in 1974, walking with his girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time, when she steered him into St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, to see the intricate woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons, widely considered one of the greatest woodcarvers in history.

“Mr. Esterly, an American who had studied at Cambridge University in England and was trying to figure out what to do with his life, had never heard of Gibbons and knew nothing of woodcarving.

“But inside the church he was mesmerized by what he saw — a cascading cornucopia of delicate, lifelike blossoms, foliage and fruit above the altar, all sculpted in wood by Gibbons in the late 1600s.

” ‘I was seduced by the power of the carving and its capacity to convey the beauty of nature,’ Mr. Esterly told the New York Times in 1998. ‘It seemed to me beyond belief that a human hand had fashioned those seashell swags, drooping bellflower chains, birds with laurel twigs in their beaks and dense whorls of acanthus. My fate was sealed.’

“He decided to learn more about Gibbons, and to do so, he realized, required taking chisels into his own hands. He taught himself woodcarving, becoming so skillful that when some of Gibbons’s 300-year-old carvings were destroyed by fire, Mr. Esterly was summoned to recreate them. He became not only an expert on Gibbons, but also the maker of sought-after sculptures of his own. …

“Mr. Esterly’s life was shaped by his obsession with Gibbons, master carver to the crown, who was commissioned to work in Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral, among other landmarks. …

“For Mr. Esterly, carving was as much an intellectual exercise as a physical one.

” ‘The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them,’ he wrote in his book ‘The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making’ (2012). ‘To carve is to be shaped by the wood even as you’re shaping it.’ …

“He worked slowly, creating only about 50 pieces in his lifetime. But as his literary agent, Robin Straus, said by email, he was ‘equally fluent with words and wood’; besides books, he wrote numerous articles and reviews about art and carving.

“The subjects of his carvings varied. One might be Gibbons-like but with a twist — a spray of delicate roses, but with insect holes in the leaves, or a broken stem; another might be a head covered in elaborately carved vegetation.

“In most cases Mr. Esterly carved to the specifications of a patron. For a buyer who revered Thomas Jefferson, he carved a necklace like one sent back by Lewis and Clark, whom Jefferson had sent to explore the Northwest Territory. In others he whimsically updated traditional themes by inserting, say, a carved iPhone or a set of car keys.

“After a fire in 1986 at Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s palace, Mr. Esterly spent a year creating a replica of a seven-foot-long Gibbons carving that had been destroyed.”

More of the story — and some terrific photos — here.

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Art: Finneas Avery Roels, high school student
The theme for the Arlington, Mass., banner competition this spring was Trees.

One day back in June, when I happened to be in Arlington, Mass., I was struck by some delightful banners hanging from lamp posts. I decided to see what I could discover about them. Turns out, the designs were created by kids.

From the website Your Arlington, I learned that the “youth banner initiative aims to promote and encourage development in the visual arts and to provide an opportunity for youth to participate in temporary public art projects in Arlington. The effort is geared to young people in grades 6 through 12 (and the equivalent home-school level).

“Funding is provided by the Gracie James Foundation in memory of James, who was a beloved, artistically talented Arlington High School student. The program invites teens to submit designs relating to a specific theme to be digitally reproduced on vinyl banners which are then hung on light poles along Mass. Ave. in Arlington Center.”

This year’s theme was Trees, and three designs were chosen to hang in town. The one above is by Finneas Avery Roels of Arlington High School.

But, oh, dear, I thought. What happened to Gracie, whose foundation provided the support? Alas, those answers were in an obit.

“Gracie Christine James, beloved daughter of Chris Bobel, James Lundy and Thomas Hartl, all of Arlington, Massachusetts, died on October 20, 2010, of injuries sustained in a car accident in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah three days earlier. She had just turned 17 years old.

“Gracie Christine James was born on September 29, 1993, in Whitewater, Wisconsin where she lived until moving to New Orleans just before her fourth birthday. After her father and mother separated in 1998, Chris and Gracie moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they lived until relocating to Arlington, Massachusetts, with Thomas in 2001.

“Gracie’s father, James, moved to Arlington in 2006. Until this fall, Gracie had been a student at Arlington High School. In mid-August, Gracie began attending a boarding school in Hurricane, Utah. On the morning of Sunday, October 20th, Gracie and fifteen other girls and school staff were enroute to a full day excursion in Arches Natural Park when the staff driver of their SUV lost control and the vehicle rolled over outside of Sevier, Utah. …

“Gracie was an unusually creative, intuitive, affectionate and sensitive young woman with a shy smile, beautiful eyes and a deep, feeling soul. She was an accomplished figure skater, an avid reader and a budding artist who created evocative and vibrant abstract works in soft pastels. But her main passion was writing. A brilliant and imaginative writer of both short and longer fiction and poetry, she aspired to a career in professional writing.

“Gracie’s gifts for caring, compassion and emotional connection touched everyone she met as shown by the outpouring of grief and support expressed by her peers at both her current and former schools. The day after her death, grieving students at Arlington High School wore green, symbolizing peace and honoring her memory. …

“The family invites donations in lieu of flowers to the newly established ‘Gracie James Foundation,’ which will focus on closing the gaps in systems of support for local teens. Donations can be sent to 76 Paul Revere Road, Arlington, MA 02476.”

Life is precious, Guys. I do like to think that at least people are reminded of the life of this young girl as they make art for the competition or, like me, drive by during the months that the banners are displayed.

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Photo: Christian Chavez/AP
Children on the Mexican side play on a cross-border seesaw that two professors designed to highlight human connection.

The language of illegality has for many decades gotten in the way of our communal understanding that seeking asylum is a basic human right. Seeking asylum doesn’t necessarily mean being granted asylum — efficient processes have to be put in place to weigh individual circumstances — but it is not illegal to ask.

I get very discouraged about the way our country has long been treating human beings who have run for their lives. Then I see that not everyone is on board with the policies.

Lanre Bakare writes at the Guardian, “A set of fluorescent pink seesaws has been built across the US-Mexico border by a pair of professors seeking to bring a playful concept of unity to the two sides of the divide.

“Installed along the steel border fence on the outskirts of El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, the seesaws are the invention of Ronald Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and Virginia San Fratello, an associate professor of design at San José State University, who first came up with the concept 10 years ago.

“In an Instagram post that has received tens of thousands of likes [see @rrael ], children and adults can be seen playing and interacting on both sides of the fence using the seesaws, which provide ‘a literal fulcrum’ between the countries, according to Rael. He said the event was about bringing ‘joy, excitement and togetherness at the border wall.’

“He added that it was also about finding ‘meaningful ways on both sides with the recognition that the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side.’ …

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Photo: Carolina Miranda/ LA Times
Japanese art collective Chim↑Pom is one of many groups to build art projects along the U.S.-Mexico border. This one is a tree house called USA Visitor Center.

“Other art projects have been planned for the border. Estudio 3.14, an architectural practice in Mexico, designed a pink interpretation … inspired by the 20th-century Mexican architect Luis Barragán, employing the pink pastel colour he often used in his designs.

“Dozens of artists have used the wall as a setting for projects, including the Japanese art collective Chim Pom, which created a treehouse in Tijuana with ‘USA Visitor Center’ written on the side.” More at the Guardian, here. And for the Carolina A. Miranda Los Angeles Times report on the treehouse, click here.

 

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