A group of local women are leading the charge to create a large-scale crocheted billboard in downtown Akron, which will depict a significant woman in U.S. history and bring together 100 local crocheters for its installation.
“To put crochet in the limelight like this is pretty special and it also legitimizes fiber arts,” says Cindy Michael, owner and “yarn wrangler” of Harps & Thistles Yarn Emporium in Cuyahoga Falls, who recently received a recent Knight Arts Challenge grant for the project, called “Love Across Akron.”
Also on board are Art Educator Jennifer Davis, owner of smART Studio; Mary Oliver Bethel, an artist, crafter and instructor; and Sarah McKee, store manager of Harps & Thistles.
The four are part of a larger collaborative of artists, teachers, business owners and community leaders involved in a number of creative projects that are at once eye-catching and socially aware. Most significantly, they’re helping to establish fiber art (like crocheting, knitting, and the like) as a serious art form and as a way to explore feminism and equality, while providing education.
The fiber art project is expected to be created later this spring and is a component of the “Love Across the USA” initiative, led by internationally acclaimed fiber artist Olek. “Love Across the USA” has installed billboard-size portraits around the country of significant women who have helped shape U.S. history.
Installations so far have included those of Nina Simone, in Raleigh, N.C.; Harriet Tubman in Auburn, N.Y.; and Susan B. Anthony in Rochester, N.Y. The subject of Akron’s portrait will be kept secret until its installation, says Michael.
A hundred crocheters, a hundred stories
The 100 or so creators of the Akron piece will be from all walks of life, says Michael. “When we get together to create this, I want it to be like a melting pot, because that’s what Akron is. It’s a huge melting pot, and I think that needs to be represented in this artwork.”
“This is an example of the community of women coming together,” says Davis. “We all as individuals do our own separate things. That speaks to Olek’s mission, too.”
Known for her uniquely eye-catching large scale fiber art pieces, Olek will come to Akron to conduct workshops and help with the installation of the piece. The New York-based artist also visited Akron last February, as part of the Akron Art Museum’s “High Fructose” exhibit, when she made a living art piece which found local volunteers donning wearable, full-body fiber sculptures.
While the space allotted for the project is 23 by 66 feet, says Michael, the actual piece will not occupy all of this area but will be huge, nonetheless.
“Love Across the USA,” according to the website, “is a community public art project with the goal of bringing women, men, and children together through community workshops and public art installations. It is only as a united group that we can promote positive women’s voices and create real change.”
Like other Knight Arts winners, the funding is based on a matching grant, so the Akron team is required to match the amount awarded ($16,000). Davis and Bethel will donate proceeds from their Cartwheel arts and craft classes, along with smArt Studio’s “Wake and Make” workshops.
Heather Wagner, a Harps & Thistles dye instructor, also has created a custom dyed yarn that bears the same color scheme as Olek’s billboards (pink, orange and black) and will donate sales to the project. The city of Akron also has been an enthusiastic partner, says Michael, offering the group space for the installation at Lock 3 on South Main Street.
In order to fully meet their match, though, the project is in need of donations from the community. (To donate, visit give.miamifoundation.org/givenow# and select “Love Acoss the USA Fund.”)
This won’t be the first time these women have installed a large-scale fiber art piece in the area. The same group helped create an 800-square-foot “yarn bomb” for the Cuyahoga Falls Better Block in 2016. The project wrapped along the side of a circular parking deck stairwell, and the vividly colorful piece became a memorable landmark at the event.
From knitting circles to public art
Knitting and crocheting have always been feminist outlets, as knitting circles have served as spaces to discuss equality and social issues. “Love Across the USA” also serves to teach people about history and share stories of significant women. The project’s website perhaps best illustrates the effectiveness of this creative teamwork: “Just as many loops create a strong crocheted fabric, we are stronger together.”
“It has a rich history, the fact that you can teach history just by looking at different cultures and how they have worked with fibers in different ways,” says Davis. “You can tell a narrative, a story, with fiber art.”
And social elements aside, there’s something satisfying about the creation itself.
Bethel says for her, knitting and crocheting are meditative and even spiritual. And every person who works on this will be able to see a part of themselves in the piece. “For an 11-year-old little girl to look up at this once it’s all put together and say “right there, I did that” will be something special, she adds.
Other upcoming fundraisers for the group include the heART Strings string art class Friday, Feb. 9, 6 to 8 p.m., at Compass Coffee, 647 E. Market St. (Click here to register); and on Tuesday, Feb. 13, between 4 and 8 p.m., 50 percent of sales at the Highland Square Chipotle, 825 W. Market St., will be donated to the “Love Across Akron” project.