Issaquah’s downtown Rainier Trail has donned a new back-to-school outfit, courtesy of emerging public artist Tina Velazquez Hays and the yarn artists of Issaquah (and beyond).
In some ways, Americans might be feeling like children of divorce right now- with both Democrats and Republicans viciously fighting for custody in arenas sometimes outside of the traditional scope of politics. Artists like Hays have decided there’s another way: we can come together, connecting through creativity.
Supported by the City of Issaquah’s Art Commission, multidisciplinary “craftivist” Hays has put together a gentle infusion of color and fun in the shadier part of the trail where many locals (including Hays) run and walk every day.
Craftivism (using crafting to make a political or social statement) has been steadily growing since the early 2000s and is something Hays easily tapped into for this project. Her goal was to inspire a “collaboration that wouldn’t involve getting together,” since many still don’t feel safe doing in-person activities. She also wanted to highlight “the power of interconnectivity” and “what is getting us through these times.”
Throughout the summer she handed out packets of yarn, knitting needles and pre-addressed envelopes at the Farmers Market and in parks. She also taught kids to finger-knit and engaged with local yarn groups. People could mail her small finished strips of fiber art (which she whip stitched together at home, then zip-tied on-site) or they could keep the supplies and simply enjoy a new hobby. As far as Hays is concerned, “that’s a win right there.” What she wants most is a celebration of process, of relationships, of learning, of focusing on health and happiness.
As a result, from the Community Center to 2nd Ave SE, you can now see the 170 donated pieces done by people aged 5 to 104. Collaborators included first-time knitters to experts, girl scout troupes to retirees who have been in knitting clubs for years. As far as Hays knows, every 6 in x 12 in (approximately) rectangle was made by a female. Contributions were sent from as near as a couple of houses away to as far away as Austin, TX. Anyone who wanted to demonstrate affection for Issaquah and its people was welcome to join in the joy.
In her original proposal, Hays had hoped to be able to wrap at least four lamp posts. But by the time she finished hanging them on August 19, 2021, she had wrapped all 17 lampposts on that stretch of trail and had to start wrapping five different sections of fencing because she had gotten so many responses.
Almost reminiscent of modern totem poles celebrating connectivity through covid, it’s hard not to wonder if this project was influenced by that aspect of the artistic heritage of the Native Peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Or perhaps the trees of Washington gently whispered to Hays to create a new type of man-made tree, letting community wellness sprout out of the threads of yarn-bark.
Put together in what Hays describes as a Jazz-style assembly, the finished artwork is a carefully randomized collection of snug weavings. With varying color, even some sparkle, and uniquely designed (see if you can spot the sweet handmade bees!), you can feel the musical and improvisational quality she wanted to evoke. Each post has a completely different feel as you stroll this quiet, well-worn path.
The idea for the project was originally sparked by two main sources: the experience Hays has as an art therapist and the pandemic activities of her seven-year-old daughter.
Before relocating to the Pacific Northwest several years ago, Hays supported community wellness in Arizona by teaching and using art to nurture people. What she encountered was a frequent chorus of “But I’m not artistic...”
This is a stumbling block not unique to visual art. It’s often the case for singing and dancing too. But truthfully, if you find the right teacher and style that feels organic to you, you can do either one. If you can speak, you are already producing sound with a rhythm and a pitch- so the next step is merely to sustain those notes you are already producing. Which is what we call singing. Same with dancing- simply start by thinking of it as a series of steps or gestures, they just have a more specific timing than walking down the street. It’s the same principle with creating visual art.
Hays remembers when she was younger, visiting older generations of women who loved Hays’ work but maintained that they could not do what she does. “Then I’d see their houses and how they use creativity in the myriad of ways you can… of course you’re artistic! Have you seen what you’ve done with space, how you’ve used creativity to make your life (and home) amazing?” She’s been on a mission to expand our definition of creativity ever since.
She’s even had to coach herself through those feelings of inadequacy when it came to making public art. Before recently- since the majority of her professional experience was in studio work- she didn’t see that she was already doing public art in her private practice when she had her first ideas for temporary outdoor installations. But she was embraced by the local offerings, inspired by the spaces and the people of the Eastside of Seattle, and she discovered that public art doesn’t have to be enormous events or displays. It can be small beauty sprinkled into everyday life.
Hays’ other revelation came from something she witnessed through last year’s quarantine: her daughter was learning to sew by taking zoom lessons from her grandmother. As they grew closer, and Hays also connected electronically with local knitting groups, she was heartened. Seeing how these women were holding each other together virtually, she thought “why not let that out in the open,” why not follow their lead and draw others into the spirit of making and checking in with one another.
She had not intended to put together a work focused on feminine interconnectivity, but it organically turned out that way. An aspect Hays loves about her work is that making it is more about the progression than the result; she revels in not completely understanding it until “it reveals itself later… usually about halfway through working on it.” This project originally involved chicken wire around the posts and anticipated contributions from men too. It’s interesting that this medium, and crafting in general, having historically been relegated to typical women’s work, stayed consigned there for this particular art piece. But the beauty of weaving together generations and ideas and touch makes the gender of the creators less relevant than the relationships we can see buoyed by mutual engagement- as if they’re all holding hands across the distance.
Whether you created a piece on the Rainier Trail or not, this socially connective fiber display includes everyone in its overlap and intentionality. Optimism, synergy, and support are tied together, made tangible and visual as a potent collective expression.
It’s also hard to miss the symbolism of emphasizing the lamp lights. Many artistic works being created right now are similarly lifting up those things and people that are a light in the darkness. Additionally, new public art can invite you to see something you view a lot in a brand new light. It can make you smile. For those who regularly run in this spot, the lamp lights also serve as markers of progress (“I’ve just got to make it to the next lamp post!”). This collection sheds light on how we’re surviving and thriving together, how we have made progress as a community.
The installation will remain up through autumn and early winter (the pieces themselves will dictate when they need to come down, depending on how well they weather the weather). If you’re interested in more of Hays' gorgeous art and public projects, find additional info and inspiration for your own #YarnBombs here.
Whatever struggles you may be enduring at the moment, remember that we, like these groupings of yarn, are much more than the sum of our parts. In this challenging time, you're not alone - our lives are all beautifully woven together.
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