Badass yarn artists are fighting against sexist ideas of what makes art worthwhile

Creatures of the mist.
Creatures of the mist.
Image: Yarn via TouTube
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Does diversity change anything?

From film to comics to television, activists and critics have long been calling on mainstream art to include more creators and characters who are not cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white guys. On the one hand, diversity advocates hope such efforts could result in more opportunities—if James Bond and Doctor Who and Superman aren’t portrayed by white guys, for example, then that’s a few more big roles for members of marginalized communities.

But another goal is to actually change representations and attitudes in media. This doesn’t always work out. Casting Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch did not change the Fantastic Four film in any substantial way. Despite hyperbolic fan panic, the film was just another (not very good) superhero film. Different voices don’t necessarily lead to different art. But sometimes, as the new documentary Yarn brilliantly demonstrates, they do.

Yarn, directed by Icelander Una Lorenzen, is a film about four fine artists who work with yarn. Tinna Thorudottir Thorvaldsdottir, also from Iceland, makes yarn graffiti, nailing up embroidery on the street from Spain to Cuba. Polish-born Olek crochets costumes for street performances and installations for galleries. Japanese-born Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam creates giant nylon jungle gyms for children. And Tilde Bjorfors, the artistic director of Copenhagen’s Cirkus Cirkor, helped design the backgrounds and sets for “Knitting Peace,” a performance in which acrobats throw themselves about environments constructed of fabric.

All the artists in Yarn are women, which isn’t an accident. Fiber art “is a feminine art form,” Tinna says in a Skype interview. “We didn’t even talk about it as an art form, but this has been here for many centuries, it’s been very traditional to knit and embroider. I learned crochet from my great grandmother, and I learned how to knit from my grandmother, so it starts with the women.”

Tinna adds that yarn has a “feminine energy.” As the documentary demonstrates, this isn’t a vague claim; the fiber artists in the show approach their work, and art, in ways that incorporate and honor women’s life experiences directly.

“This handmade yarn work is everywhere, ” Iceland director Lorenzen said. “It’s all around us, since we are kids, and we kind of maybe undervalue it. We don’t see it, because it’s so close to us.” Yarn doesn’t just ask for women artists to be included in discussions of art; it points out how conceptions of art are limited and blinkered when so-called women’s work is excluded.

Toshiko, for example, began her career as a gallery artist, making relatively small, stand-alone pieces meant to be looked at and admired. Over time, however, she became dissatisfied. “Textile is made for people, developed for our comfort,” she explains in the film. “I had forgotten about people.” She was also concerned about the growth of apartment buildings in Japan; she worried that children no longer had as many opportunities to play together, or to play outside. “Someday, I would be a mother and I don’t want to raise my children like this,” she said. And so, in order to reach out to people and especially to children, she began to create large-scale nylon climbing structures, with comforting wool orifices for kids to slide into and out of.

Toshiko’s installations are wildly popular—but almost none have been placed in art museums or galleries. Her promising career as a mainstream artist essentially ended when Toshiko started including the public in her work.

Olek also has a wary relationship with the gallery scene. In that milieu, she said, “I’m the one who doesn’t paint.” She adds, “I get a lot of shit, usually from men. It’s a really sexist, fucking chauvinistic art world.”

Olek deals with this exclusion in much the same way that Tinna and Toshiko have—by shunning the gallery right back. The film highlights, for example, a project Olek did with the environmental conservation organization PangeaSeed. Olek crocheted outfits, including amazing full-body mermaid suits donned by divers in the Caribbean. The documentary shows the colorfully clad swimmers sliding through the water amidst marine life.

The giant yarn installations of Cirkus Cirkor aren’t complete until the acrobats start climbing around inside them, just as Toshiko’s art needs children crawling through it to come alive. When women are artists, Yarn insists, art becomes about tangling people up together, rather than staring at each other from a distance.

A painting is flat; you’re supposed to look at it from outside. But fiber art is tactile; you’re meant to touch it and feel it and wear it. When you acknowledge that women can be artists, art is freed from the gallery. Art literally jumps into your lap, as long as you’re willing to look down and see what your hands have been doing.

Unfortunately, the mainstream art world isn’t always willing to take up that yarn. But Tinna doesn’t care about the opinion of the mainstream world, anyway. “If they don’t recognize this as art, their loss.” Diversity in art is sometimes presented as a kind of charity; something you do for those who are excluded. But, as Tinna says, an art scene that can’t appreciate her, or Olek, or Toshiko, is an art scene that is circumscribing itself, not them. Art, Yarn insists, can take on whole new shapes when grandmothers, and women, are wound into its fabric.