Yarnbombing: Street Art Even a Suburban Mom Could Love

Meet the woman behind the new look of the Art Museum's Perelman building.

She’s put a blazing pink sweater on the Rocky statue, sewed über-fuzzy seat covers onto the El and covered a Girard payphone with a multicolored slip. Now, yarnbomber Jessie Hemmons, 25, also known as ishknits, is going the gallery route. This week alone, Hemmons wrapped up one solo art exhibition at City Hall, opened a group exhibition at the Long Beach Island Foundation, and appeared on WHYY’s Radio Times to discuss craft-making and art. And that’s in addition to knitting some 350 skeins worth of yarn into the massive, intensely colorful scarves and blankets that now tastefully cover the PMA’s Perelman building as part of the museum’s ongoing Craft Spoken Here exhibition.

I talked to Hemmons about her craft, future plans for her fuzzy—albeit illegal—yarnbombs, and whether or not street art is dead.

Why yarnbombing?
I can’t paint or stencil or even draw, so I always thought I’d end up just a street art admirer. But with yarnbombing, it was something I felt I could do. Knitting just really appealed to me as a way to enter the world of street art because it is what I am technically good at. I think that I have always admired the unsolicited assertiveness associated with street art and felt as though it was a natural environment for me to work in. It has gotten me in touch with my “feminine side,” if I dare say it, and it’s now an integral part of why I do street art. It really helps broaden my audience and my community.

How do you decide where and what to bomb?
It really depends on the message. Sometimes I like for my work to be political, which it generally is, but sometimes I just want to do something that will be aesthetically pleasing. Either way, I look for an object that, once covered, will meet my objective in terms of message or appeal. I measure the object with a tape measure and then, using the measurements, I knit a piece that usually looks like a blanket and bring it back to the object. From there, I wrap it around the object and sew up the side seam to finish the piece.

It seems like most of your work is bright and flashy, based around super-vibrant shades of green, orange and pink. Any particular reason for those colors and shades?
They’re aesthetically pleasing colors for me, but they’re also mockingly feminine—a way of asserting myself publicly as a woman doing street art. Lots of street art uses the technique of bright graphics, and I want my work to stand out as much as possible from the urban environment. I never use red or yellow, I don’t know if it’s a ketchup and mustard thing or what.

Does it upset you when the city removes your bombs?
Actually, one of my favorite parts is finding out what happens to my work. It gives me an idea of Philadelphia, what people thought and how they felt when they saw it. It’s like a dialogue with the city. Once I put it there, I don’t own it anymore—it’s public property. Sometimes there’s remorse if there was a lot of time and work involved, but that goes away quickly and I can always make more. I usually find out what happens to my pieces through social media, mostly Twitter.

Why do you think yarnbombing is quickly becoming known as a new artistic medium?
I feel as though since we perpetuate gender stereotypes, they’re only brought to our attention when something conflicts with them. I don’t know if it’s shock and awe that there are all the girls doing art in the streets or what. Graffiti has strong undertones of rebellion and asserting yourself against the system, but yarnbombers aren’t thought of in that way and they don’t think in that way usually, so that might be part of it. I’d be doing this whether it was getting somewhere or not.

With the unveiling of your yarnbombing of the PMA’s Perelman building, you’ve completed your largest work to date. What’s next?
Don’t ask me that! I think I’d like to go to other cities, but I’ll probably be sitting on that for a little while. I’ve been in Philly for six years and people around here are familiar with yarnbombing now, so maybe I can take it to other places. I don’t consider myself a fine artist, so this is a whole new world for me.

Recently, Los Angeles graffiti artist Sever put up this mural in Detroit commenting on the death of street art. Is street art dead, or are movements like yarnbombing the next generation?
Street art in its original form might be dead because of commercialization. It’s mainstream at this point. Having companies pay you for your work, that is the antithesis of street art. But it’s evolving to people using more experimental mediums to make things like sculptural and 3D street installations. Those more experimental mediums are replacing the older generations of street art.

Where do you see yarnbombing going in the future?
I think that yarnbombing will be forced to evolve or will disappear from the public realm. It really depends on the artists to keep yarnbombing from becoming a “fad.” The work must evolve to keep people interested and feeling like they’re looking at something fresh. I believe it’s already evolved in some ways. Yarnbombing started out as knitters’ scraps sewn together and placed outside. Now, many of the projects are heavily conceptualized. Artists will be forced to incorporate other mediums and maintain fresh ideas.

You’ve mentioned in the press several times that the “ideal” yarnbomb would be to complete an entire abandoned house. What about that idea is so appealing? Any plans in the works?
When you grow up in a dilapidated neighborhood, you start to feel like you don’t matter and that everyone has forgotten about you. A yarnbombed house would say, “I haven’t forgotten about you, I’m paying attention.” It’s about comforting people, letting them know they aren’t isolated from the community. It would also bring attention to the abandoned buildings problem and what that does to the community and surrounding homes. I’m starting to get in touch with community groups, but since my name is attached to my work, I can’t do one uncommissioned. It’s a long-term goal.

[Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke]