The idea seemed crazy at first: More than 500 knitters from 25 countries, hunkered down in their far-flung corners of the world, feverishly crafting granny squares — 14,000 of them altogether. Then, on a bright morning last May, knitters here affixed metal grids of these cushy yarn squares to the exterior of the Craft & Folk Art Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, turning the building into a giant, multicolored tea cozy.
The 2013 project, "CAFAM Granny Squared," was an urban installation from the knit graffiti collective Yarn Bombing Los Angeles. It elevated the art group, which officially formed in June 2011 and has 20 to 30 members, from relative obscurity to local renown.
Now the yarn bombers have a new "head poncho." The group's founder, Arzu Arda Kosar, has moved on, and artist Carol Zou, a master of fine arts student who was instrumental in executing the CAFAM project, has taken her place. Under Zou's leadership, the group will continue to forgo spray paint for knitting needles and bushels of yarn to blur the lines between contemporary art, graffiti and craft.
"Street art has traditionally been a masculine undertaking," Zou says. "You see these sexist images — posters of topless girls or girls with their heads blown off — and it creates a sense of who gets to belong in a public space.
"Craft is something men practice, but it's traditionally associated with being feminine and activities that keep women inside the home. By putting craft out in the public, we're challenging the history of craft as well as the culture of street art that has a lot of embedded sexism."
Smothering CAFAM in knit squares was actually an attempt to question artistic and institutional identities. The craft museum is dwarfed by its behemoth neighbors across the street, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Yarn Bombing L.A.'s brightly colored facade elevated the building's profile and subtly drew attention to how craft can be overshadowed by fine art.
"They're artists," says Suzanne Isken, executive director of the craft museum. "But their art isn't to paint, it's to organize people, to create human connection, to take craft into their hands and make a statement. That statement may not always be filled with meaning, but it's about putting something out into the world and being recognized."
Los Angeles' wealth of public art and performance collectives, such as Fallen Fruit and Los Angeles Urban Rangers, is partly why Zou relocated from Austin, Texas, in 2009.
"I was really inspired by the grass-roots arts projects happening here," she says. "And I was not disappointed. There's a culture in L.A. of artists getting together and forming their own organizations from the ground up."
Under Zou's leadership, Yarn Bombing L.A. still aims to cultivate community among artists and crafters worldwide — a search for "yarn bombing" on Tumblr brings up photos from New York to Poland — and it still hopes to challenge preconceived notions of what street art can be. Monthly stitching sessions, where members gather at CAFAM to knit, remain on the agenda.
Toward that end, the "guerrilla knitters," as they're often called, are holding yarn bombing workshops throughout March at the Manhattan Beach Creative Arts Center. Classes will cover the concept of yarn bombing as well as practical implementation, be it spinning yarn around outdoor fire hydrants, knitting messages on chain link fences or hanging mobiles made of yarn from tree branches to decorate public spaces. In June, the group will stage an exhibition of members' work and the art pieces that come out of the workshops.
On view will be an elaborate knit forest installation called "Forest, for the Trees: A Fiber Environment," a collaboration with the northeast L.A.-based Arroyo Arts Collective that was on display at the craft museum in 2012.
New pieces for the show include a woven volleyball net symbolizing beach culture and a multimedia installation that includes photos from another yarn bombing project under way, "Put a Ring on It." And, of course, plans call for yarn bombing the Manhattan Beach art center itself.
"The unifying thread," Zou says, laughing at her pun, "is the idea of a landscape being an open work that people contribute to and continually reshape, whether it be the forest, the sea or the built environment."
Long term, Zou's "pie in the sky" goal for her group, which uses Kosar's art studio in Santa Monica as its headquarters, is a permanent space in which to create art and host events.
"My ultimate fantasy is that we become a real live artist space and resource center where people can come for classes and meetings and generate art," she says. "The 'Granny Squared' project really pushed us all; we hadn't done monumental public artworks like that before. Now we know how to do it — and we're ready to do it again."