Tag Archives: community art

Block2Blanket: A Community Upcycling Project

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Last weekend our little town of Lyons, Colorado, celebrated its 40th Annual Good Old Days, a June event of music, food, and fun. Over the 25 years I’ve been in Lyons, the event has changed from year to year depending on location and community engagement. For many years Good Old Days included carnival rides, but the 2013 flood destroyed the field large enough to hold them. For this year’s 40th celebration, the town hired a kayak tank and airborne games (think “jumpy castle”) instead, along with providing space for area musicians and dancers, a chamber of commerce libations booth, and a local food vendor.

Our friend Priscilla Cohan, one of the artists behind the town’s amazing Clarifier Project, would like to see the town move Good Old Days in the direction of a Heritage Faire with craftspeople teaching old-time arts like basket-making, caning, welding, woodworking, food preserving, leather-working and even more mundane crafts like knitting and sewing—arts that are experiencing a resurgence nationally as people become interested in self-sufficiency and localism.

As a pilot project for a future Heritage Faire, we came up with the idea of Block2Blanket, an intergenerational craft event during Good Old Days. For Block2Blanket, we asked community members to donate gently used or moth-eaten 100% wool sweaters to be upcycled into a warm and colorful picnic blanket.

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A contemporary cross between old-time quilting bees and Sheep to Shawl competitions, Block2Blanket doesn’t require much money but rather depends on community donated materials and time. Basing the project on the idea that many hands make light work, we created tasks for children of all ages, from sorting and cutting to designing and sewing.

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Our first step was posting a notice in our local papers for sweater donation: “Spring cleaning? Don’t throw away the wool sweaters you didn’t wear all winter. Instead, donate them to Block2Blanket.” We collected a dozen sweaters and a couple blankets. Before the event itself, we washed the donations by machine in hot water and then dried them on high heat to felt the wool. This felting makes the wool denser and more stable for sewing.

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Other donated resources were scissors, thread, pins, and bobbins. After making sure we’d have electricity at our booth in the park, we borrowed two sewing machines with zig-zag stitch capability. We also made 6 x 6 inch square paper and cardboard templates to be traced around or pinned on the materials for cutting.

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Priscilla brought her canopy tent and made a colorful fabric garland to flap in the breeze; we each brought tables, setting up one for cutting, another for laying out the squares, and another for a machine at each end. We began by cutting the sweaters into sections along the seams so the pieces would lay flat. Friends came by to help cut, piece, and stitch as musicians took the stage.

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Our original thought had been that children would participate in the project, learning about upcycling, as well as sewing skills. I hadn’t even thought about the lure of the jumpy water games, which turned out to be much more of a draw than cutting and sewing. A few children stopped by the booth, but it was adults who were most interested in what we were doing. Some promised to donate sweaters and some were interested in learning the process. Everyone to whom we talked thought that turning old sweaters and blankets into something functional and beautiful was a cool idea.

While we chatted and listened to local musicians, we cut and sewed squares into long strips by placing one edge of a block over another and sewing the edges securely with a couple rows of zig-zag stitching. In three hours, we completed seven strips of 12 blocks each. We’ll finish the blanket at our Stonebridge knitting night or another outdoor summer event. Once completed, we’ll raffle the blanket as a benefit for the Lyons Redstone Museum. We plan to make pot holders out of the scraps to sell for the museum, too.

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This first go at Block2Blanket was a success. If we do it again next year, we’ll make a kid-friendly sign; perhaps we’ll do more outreach with children’s groups or the school. Maybe we’ll offer a cup of lemonade to anyone who helps. We’re still accepting donated 100% wool sweaters to expand the blanket’s pattern and color schemes. We’ve got five strips to go and we can’t wait to see how the blanket turns out!

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Introducing the Clarifier Project

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One cement wastewater tank, circa 1950.

Two visionary artists.

11 years.

13 birds.

325 volunteers.

450 buckets of water.

800 pounds of grout.

60,000 tiles.

Together they add up to the Clarifier Project, a community-based public art collaboration along the St Vrain river in Lyons, Colorado.

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The Clarifier Project was organized by Lyons artists Priscilla Cohan and Cathy Rivers, who approached the town about using the abandoned wastewater tank near the river for community art. Rather than view the outdated concrete structure as an obsolete edifice in need of demolition, the artists envisioned it as the basis for an ambitious cooperative mosaic.

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The design of the mosaic is based on the cycle of life symbolized by four trees made of Lyons redstone representing the four seasons along our Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. As you stroll around the clarifier tank, you can follow seasonal changes through various progressions, including the zodiac, evolving shades of flora, and varieties of birds seen at particular times during the year.

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Elementary and high school students created the ceramic leaves for the trees; local elders in The Golden Gang crafted the pottery sun; one family intricately pieced each glass-tiled bird. Individuals donated tiles, broken dishes, and many unique items to the design—a doll’s head, blown-glass paperweights, and a lipstick tube are just a few of the items among the 60,000 pieces covering the tank’s 96-foot circumference of concrete.

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The clarifier tank was the original wastewater treatment facility for Lyons. As local historian and institutional memory-keeper LaVerne Johnson reminded us at the opening, before the clarifier was built in 1950, every one had an outhouse. LaVerne quipped that the outhouses that are still around came in handy during the flood (I happen to know that the one in the old cemetery got some use, much to a patrolling police officer’s surprise).

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In fact, one of the reasons the town was evacuated was because of the loss of the entire septic system. As folks grimly joked, “People had to go because people had to go.” While operational today, the current wastewater treatment plant located just beyond the old tank is still in the process of rebuilding following the flood (a mirror in the mosaic provides a bridge between the old clarifier and the new, modern facility).

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Begun nine years before the 2013 flood that evacuated the town amidst tremendous damage, the Clarifier Project has come to symbolize the power of community to heal itself. While the rushing floodwater did reach the tank (the high water mark is commemorated with its own tile), the mosaic, which was still in process, was not significantly destroyed. Instead, the disaster strengthened the public commitment to the project’s completion.

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This past weekend marked the two-year anniversary of the Front Range flood, the perfect time to gather as a community in celebration of this amazing structure. Even our governor showed up to congratulate the artists and volunteers for the perseverance required for a project of this scope.

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The project isn’t finished; landscaping is the next phase, with plans to integrate the Clarifier into the natural riverscape.

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Our town’s healing isn’t complete, either—178 homes were lost, many of which still await demolition, and many friends and families won’t be returning to the community.

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This project, though, reminds us that beauty lies along the same river that created chaos and destruction just two years ago. I’m grateful to Priscilla and Cathy for their vision of collaborative, place-based art and to the volunteers for their hours of work. I only spent one afternoon grouting tiles at The Clarifier, but it was enough to help me recognize the power of fulfilling a dream, one tile at a time.

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Put a Sweater On It

Take a right at the end of Main Street in Lyons where the road forks to the mountains and you’ll see it: a catalpa tree in bloom.

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But this tree isn’t covered in white, frilly flowers. This catalpa blooms with rainbow stripes and crayon blocks of color, a Dr. Seuss tree besweatered in bumpy, shaggy, wavy, nubby yarns knit around its trunk and limbs. If you look quickly enough as you round the corner, you may even spot a small bear flying a kite from her variegated perch.

Julie's Little Lyons Bear

Julie’s Little Lyons Bear

What you’re seeing is a “yarnbombing,” a community’s collaborative endeavor to bring knit art to an unadorned corner of their world. Our sweater tree was the inspiration of Sandra DeVries, a Dutch artist now living in British Columbia. Following projects she’s designed in BC, our tree is her first international yarnbombing effort.

Artist Sandra DeVries

Artist Sandra DeVries

A grant from the Lyons Arts and Humanities Council provided yarn and a stipend for Sandra’s creative management and overall design. Sandra knit the blanket-sized piece for the trunk and other interstitial pieces, while Sandra’s friend, the Dutch artist Jakob Leeuwenburgh, a Lyons resident and Stonebridge member, organized knitters here to create individual pieces in specific sizes matched to a limb or branch of the tree. Each knitter had full artistic license over her swatch, using yarn (or, in one case, recycled sweaters) of her choice.

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Jakob directs the placement of each piece from Sandra’s design

My piece was 28 x 70 and wrapped the crux of the tree where two large limbs emerge from the trunk. 28 x 70 centimeters, that is, something I figured out after I’d knit 28 inches and wondered whether I was making an afghan. Then I remembered that Sandra and Jakob are Dutch and checked with a friend about the measurements. Centimeters went much more quickly.

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Sandy’s swatch before it went on the tree

I chose green eyelash and pom pom yarns from the grant yarns and added my own purple from leftover skeins. To make the yarn go further and the knitting go faster, Jen taught me the drop stitch (wrapping the yarn twice around the needle before making a knit stitch but only picking up one loop of it in the next row, “dropping” it from the needle in a larger, more open weave), perfect on size 13 needles for eyelash yarn that benefits from a looser stitch. In green, that portion of my swatch looks like grass growing in the trunk of the tree.

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My grassy swatch to the left of Jen’s fancy yarn collage

Last Friday, all the knitters met to assemble the tree’s sweater. Following Sandra’s diagram, we stitched our swatches in place around the tree and then attached them to each other to create a finished, seemingly seamless piece that looks like a many-fingered glove. Because the trees are slow to leaf out this cool spring, we had an easy time crawling up in the tree to fit the upper branches.

Jen sewing her multi-patterned piece to the tree.  You can follow her work at songknitter.blogspot.com

Jen sewing her multi-patterned piece to the tree. You can follow her work at songknitter.blogspot.com

In my knitting, I always think of myself as a color person, but, in fact, I love the textures of yarn just as much. As I started whip-stitching my swatch to the tree, I noticed how the dual texture of tree bark and yarn wool beneath my fingers was doubly stimulating and pleasurable to the touch. Yarnbombing a tree, I decided, would be perfect for children, introducing them to a craft and a natural object, synergizing the values of making something by hand and tending the environment in a way that highlights its beauty and function.

Many hands make light work

Many hands make light work

As a community endeavor, yarnbombing combines individual artistic vision and skill with collaborative design and implementation. It unites a group of people with a common goal while allowing for personal expression. Sandra DeVries’ artistry helped us see the tree in a new way, but we each contributed our own ideas to the larger creation.

The group assembles the tree outside the Lyons Fork restaurant

The group assembles the tree outside the Lyons Fork restaurant

Undoubtedly, as with any public art, not everyone will enjoy or approve of yarnbombing a tree, so another aspect of this project’s beauty is its organic nature. Soon a bright green canopy of leaves will integrate the colorful trunk and limbs. As the tree grows and meets the elements, the yarn will fade and fray. Perhaps birds will make their homes in the tree’s branches, unraveling a thread or two for their nests. Eventually, the pieces will blow away or be removed when it gets too bedraggled for public viewing. We’ll see. For now, the tree will get more attention than it ever has before and after its sweater is gone, we’ll remember our tree as the synthesis of art and nature.

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