Liz Flynn says that her and Alyssa Arney’s love of crochet is an obsession.
“One can only make so many cute crochet tissue cozies and pillows before one’s partner is like, ‘Please stop. I’m drowning in yarn,’ ” she jokes.
The Costa Mesa-based artists who make up the duo Threadwinners were inspired to pick up needlework from the women in their families.
As a kid growing up in rural Indiana (“I was surrounded by cornfields on all sides and would have to ride two to three buses to get to school every day”), Arney watched her mother embroider clothing and pillows but was initially intimidated to learn.
Flynn, who was born and raised in Riverside County, learned to crochet from her mother, who learned from her mother and grandmother.
Arney and Flynn met in 2013 as interns at the Orange County Museum of Art, and in 2016, Arney asked Flynn to be an assistant for her solo show, “Pleasure Objects,” a crochet project exploring “the physical and psychological relationships people have with food and consumption.”
They worked so well together that they decided to present it as a collaborative show. Threadwinners was born.
It’s frustrating to them that the fine art world doesn’t take fiber artists and “craft” — a term associated with handmade objects that are functional, often found in homes and stereotyped as “women’s work” — as seriously as other mediums. It’s an oversight they say is rooted in elitism, racism and sexism.
“Our main aim is to have people question the norms of the art world and to subvert the patriarchy,” says Arnery, who explains that Threadwinners is a play on the term “breadwinners,” also generally associated with men.
Some of their art has been political, pushing the boundaries of what can be conveyed through thread.
2016’s “There Is a River Here” was a public art collaboration with Carolyn Schutten and the Riverside Art Museum that brought awareness to the Santa Ana River as an often-overlooked environmental landmark.
2017’s “REVENGE OF THE PUSSY!!!” was an homage to 1950s sci-fi and horror movies as well as criticism of President Trump’s leaked audio recording describing his penchant for grabbing women’s private parts.
2018’s “The Weeping Willow Project” was their community art installation at Gather DTLA made from crochet teardrops donated from the online fiber community. Each tear represented a child separated from their parents at the border under Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, and the exhibit was a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Others pieces are more whimsical.
“Comfort Food Blanket,” the first piece they made together, has a mix of crocheted desserts, burgers and noodle soups.
“Techstile Blanket,” which features mobile phones, cassette players and handheld gaming devices, can currently be seen at the Irvine Fine Arts Center’s “All Media 2019" show.
“Chromatic Cascade,” which was featured at WorkWell’s “Now Entering Irvine” show earlier this year, is a ceiling-high threaded waterfall with an intricate, crocheted stream bed.
This month, Threadwinners returned to WorkWell with a solo show, “zer | o,” created for the unique gallery housed within a co-working space in Irvine that is curated by Jasmin Pannier and James Thistlethwaite of Aquila Projects.
“We went back to basics, back to zero,” says Flynn, describing their simple shapes made from basic crochet stitches. “And from there we built up the much larger, more complex pieces that you see in the show.”
“You can immediately approach their work,” says Pannier. “It’s fun, there’s energy, but at the same time, it’s completely grounded and rooted in theory.”
All their work starts with a rough sketch by Arney after they discuss color schemes, shapes, sizes and artistic intent. But the act of crocheting is part of their development process.
“Crochet is very forgiving, so it’s easy to unravel some work that’s not succeeding and start over,” says Arney. “Nine times out of 10, our final product is noticeably different from our original sketch and idea because of the organic way that we troubleshoot, discuss and collaborate.”
They encourage gallery visitors to touch their work.
“A piece of ours may be hanging on a wall as an art object, but it still carries the comforting connotation of a handmade object, so allowing people to gently touch bridges the divide between art and craft,” says Flynn.
“The skill involved is tremendous,” says Thistlethwaite, “but it’s light, airy and bubbly — something that everyone can connect with.”
IF YOU GO
What: Threadwinners’ “zer | o”
Where: WorkWell, 17322 Murphy Avenue, Irvine
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 2