Hands_Photo courtesy of James Stoddard
So, a few weeks ago my good friend Davina Pallone was commissioned to create a big art installation in Sugarhouse. Sugarhouse is a neighborhood here in SLC undergoing massive development and change right now. Many residents, merchants, and youth in our community feel REALLY strongly about the changes taking place.
Davina conceived of an installation that would be a talking point for the neighborhood, with the themes of change, community, and ownership. The city has given her permission to temporarily block a 20- by 8-ft portion of the sidewalk, utilizing or enclosing two trees onsite, and attaching directly to the chain link fence that surrounds the construction zone.
When planning her piece, Davina came to me and asked for my technical assistance to create a fiber enclosure for this space. My immediate idea of the two of us trying to knit a six foot tall, 36-ft-long “scarf” using needles was outlandish. So, I came up with a plan to create a human knitting machine.
I had some prior knowledge of how knitting machines work, thanks to a lesson many years ago from Sonya. I imagined that, with loops 6 inches apart, this fence could be accomplished with just 34 volunteers (68 stitches). Each “knitter” would hold a stitch in each hand, keeping it about 3 inches tall.
Davina wanted to include youth from my school in the project, so she came and presented to our art classes and several students signed up. I also asked our drama department, and got many students from the cast AND crew. I also asked random kids in the hall if they’d like to be involved. In the end, we had about 20 students and 4 staff from my school. Fifteen or so of Davina’s friends arrived to help out.
Knit Portrait_photo courtesy of James Stoddard
The day of the knitting, I was so nervous! I have never been involved in a big art piece like this, and I was terribly worried that the actually knitting wouldn’t work out the way I imagined. I hardly slept the night before, going over and over the process in my head, working out flaws and trying to foresee problems. I fretted that a knitting machine didn’t work the way I had remembered. It took an incredible effort to wrangle all these volunteers (did I mention that most are teenagers, and hard to get to commit to an after-school project?!), and right up until I arrived onsite, I was concerned that we wouldn’t have enough hands! Because Davina was choosing the materials, I also didn’t know what we’d be using until I arrived.
We used the vast space on the main floor of the Pickle Company to knit the substructure (you can also think of it as a canvas, to be overlaid later) from a thinnish, slippery nylon rope. We used a rectangular steel rod to hold our cast-on row, for weight and stability once we transfer to the site.
Things that went well:
* We had plenty of people. At first we thought that 36 people would be easy to find. But the chosen timeframe (a Thursday between 3-6 pm) was difficult for many.
Knit Panorama_Photo courtesy of James Stoddard
* It worked. It actually worked! The nylon rope was strong and easy to work with. With the help of a parent volunteer who really knew her knitting (Thanks Sheryl!!), it was so smooth and easy! Davina opted to get her hands into the fence, holding stitches and participating in the crush. I traveled back and forth, carrying the ropes to the awaiting hands. My hands or self can be glimpsed in many of these photos casting off, carrying, or moving yarn hither and thither.
* We had students representing all grades at our school (7th-12th grades). Boys and girls came excitedly to participate in the project!
* The pizza was delivered just as the knitting was being cast off, so the volunteers were fed hot pizza right on time. (Never underestimate the power of pizza as a reward for work!)
And some surprises:
* While this was a difficult concept to explain to non- or beginning-knitters, I was amazed at how quickly everyone understood what we were doing as the fence progressed and got taller. I had a few non-knitters standing by to correct dropped stitches. This was fantastic, since the person who dropped a stitch could not get down low to fix it themselves.
* At any point, a little tug on the strand can be seen and felt throughout the whole piece. Woohoo, theme of interconnectedness perfectly illustrated! If anyone had just walked away…all would have been lost.
Last Stitch_photo courtesy of James Stoddard
* This was like one of those team-building exercises you do when you go to camp. I had not foreseen that allowing only 12 linear inches per person meant they were standing REALLY REALLY close. Too close for comfort, but everyone was able to laugh and joke about it until the fence grew and people could stagger themselves. At some point we had an enthusiasm contest, judging by volume whether the students were most enthusiastic about this project (YAY!) or Davina’s friends were more enthusiastic (YAAAY!).
Beginning_photo courtesy of James Stoddard
* Because of the different sizes of knitters, and different distances they stood from the base of the fence, it was impossible to keep an even gauge. The result is a wavy, organic looking fence that wiggled and moved and morphed into a mostly 6-ft high fence.
* The doorway is round! I allowed six stitches for the door, and it turned out bigger than expected, and round! It looks like a hobbit door. It will partially wrap around one of the trees onsite.
Davina is currently spending every spare moment in the studio embellishing, weaving, sewing, and affixing fiber and other items (moop!) to the knitted canvas. We’ll spend Friday transferring the finished piece to Sugarhouse and installing it onsite. The weight will be supported by the trees (as it is, in the studio right now, it is suspended from eye-hooks and rope from the ceiling). It took Davina, Zach, and I as long to suspend it as it did to knit it (thanks also for the help of Jason, Zach’s brother, who was in town for the weekend).
I can’t even express how cool and inspiring this project was! I felt like the leader of a great big, successful team!
Almost Done_photo courtesy of James Stoddard
Please come and see this installation as part of the first-ever Sugarhouse Stroll. You’ll be able to get up close and see our handiwork in person, as well as works by other local artists.
UPDATE: See articles featuring this project in the Salt Lake Tribune and Catalyst Magazine (see pg.3 of calendar section)!!