Locals craft their own brand of activism

The Kudzu Project has draped knitted vines over four local Confederate monuments including the Robert E. Lee High School sign in Staunton. Courtesy photo The Kudzu Project has draped knitted vines over four local Confederate monuments including the Robert E. Lee High School sign in Staunton. Courtesy photo

Editor’s note: The participants in the Kudzu Project act anonymously, and to protect their identities we refer to them by last names only throughout the article.

Seven hours and 10 minutes into the new year, a Subaru station wagon pulls out of a Charlottesville driveway and sets out for Lovingston, exhaust billowing from the muffler pipe into the frigid air. The dashboard says the outside temperature is 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the car zips down 29 South, a creamy orange-yellow dawn creeps forth from the horizon, slowly overtaking the fading night sky. The new light casts a pink glow on the frost twinkling on the bare trees and brittle brown shrubs on the roadside, and minimizes the effect of a lit plastic Nativity scene standing at the edge of a lawn.

Her puffy winter coat swishing against the back of the front passenger seat, Ms. Smith half-turns around to talk to her friend, Ms. Lane, who sits in the back. They lament the closing of Sprouse’s Furniture in North Garden, and talk about attending political protests like the Equal Rights Amendment marches in Washington, D.C., during the 1970s and ’80s before the conversation shifts to the task at hand.

Here’s the deal, Smith tells Lane: The gray stone statue of a Confederate soldier that stands outside the Nelson County Circuit Courthouse in Lovingston was put up in 1965—just a year after the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and around the same time Nelson County began desegregating its schools.

Smith and Lane are contributors to The Kudzu Project, a new guerrilla knitting activism project that seeks to call attention to the history of Confederate monuments throughout Virginia by encouraging people to consider and question their relevance. They do so by temporarily covering the monuments, one at a time, with a shroud of knitted kudzu.

The Kudzu Project was inspired by “Defunct Monument I – Racism,” a drawing by artist Dave Loewenstein that shows a statue on a pedestal that has been overtaken by green vines. Smith says she’d been trying to think of a way to intervene with the statues using knitting—she’s an avid knitter—and when she saw Loewenstein’s drawing, she thought immediately of the visual similarities between vines and yarn.

She also thought of kudzu, the invasive, often destructive vine that grows rampant throughout the South. According to the Nature Conservancy, once established, kudzu can grow a foot per day, and a single mature kudzu vine can be up to 100 feet long. The vines damage and kill other plants by smothering them with solid blankets of chubby, three-lobed leaves and curl around stems and trunks to the point where they can uproot entire trees and shrubs. Kudzu creeps across untilled fields and up the sides of abandoned barns; it climbs up telephone poles and tears down trees. As Smith points out, it grows over that which is neglected and forgotten.

When the Subaru pulls up to the Nelson County Circuit Court, Smith, Lane and a third Kudzu Project participant—who aren’t trespassing, because this is public property—work quickly. They lay the shroud, a large piece of netting to which hundreds of knitted kudzu vines and leaves have been sewn, on the grass in front of the statue, then carefully lift it onto the statue using two extendable poles with hooks attached to one end. Once the shroud is in place, they snap photos to post to the Kudzu Project website and to include in press releases sent to local media outlets, then gingerly remove the shroud. They work deftly, frosty leaves crunching beneath their feet. Before they head back to the car, Ms. Smith drapes a lone strand of knitted kudzu over the soldier’s stony arm.

The idea behind the lone strand is that from one kudzu vine, many others can grow. From one flash installation, perhaps one person’s view on the statues can change.

The whole shrouding takes about three minutes, start to finish.

“Next stop: Amherst!” Ms. Smith says when everyone is back in the Subaru and headed to the Amherst County Courthouse, where they’ll temporarily cover an obelisk erected by Lost Cause valorizers United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1922, during the Jim Crow era, when a codified system of racial segregation dominated life in the American South.

The Kudzu Project originated in Charlottesville, and while its concept and execution is unique, its use of crafting to make social and political statements is not. The Kudzu Project and a few other local needlework hobbyists—knitters, crocheters, stitchers—are part of a growing global (and, thanks to social media, more visible) niche phenomenon called craftivism.

Handmade history

Craftivism—mostly simply defined as craft plus activism—is “a very gentle form of protest,” says Sandra Markus, a professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City who is writing a doctoral dissertation on the intersection of craftivism, feminism and new media. But gentle doesn’t necessarily mean weak.

A political or social message displayed in yarn, fabric or thread—materials used to make sweaters, mittens, quilts and declarations of “Home Sweet Home”—is still a charged message. But when materials used to make that statement are familiar, approachable, less threatening, it’s perhaps a more accepted, or acceptable, version of protest, says Markus. It’s not throwing a rock through a window or graffiti-tagging a wall. Because of that, Markus says she’s “beginning to think that ultimately, [craftivism] might be a more powerful conduit for change than more violent ways of protest.”

Women, who were historically excluded from most fine art academies and were instead encouraged to put their creative energy into the domestic arts (sewing, embroidery, quilting, knitting, etc.), have long used crafts to advocate for social change, says Markus. And while craftivism as it exists right now isn’t a women-only movement—there are plenty of men and non-binary people participating—its history is very tied to the domestic sphere, a place usually inhabited by women.

During the French Revolution, women called the tricoteuses (“tricoteuse” is French for “knitting woman”) sat beside the guillotines during public executions in Paris, all the while knitting, among other things, the “bonnet rouge,” a wearable symbol of freedom and the pursuit of liberty. Remember the radical revolutionary Madame Defarge from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? She’s a tricoteuse, using different sequences of stitches to encrypt in her knitting the names of aristocrats to be executed at the guillotine.

Throughout history, the domestic arts have been used to make political and social statements, some more radical than others. In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the French revolutionary Madame Defarge encodes in her knitting the names of aristocrats to be executed. She’s a fictional character, but it’s true that women of the era sat near the guillotine, knitting among other things the “bonnet rouge,” a wearable symbol of liberty and freedom, between executions.

In 1912, while jailed in London’s Holloway prison for her active (and sometimes militant) participation in the women’s suffrage movement in England, Janie Terrero embroidered on a handkerchief a record of her imprisonment—the details of her own arrest and sentencing, the names of other incarcerated Suffragettes, particulars of their hunger strikes, treatment by guards and more. Because needlework was considered a women’s leisure activity and not a potential political act, Holloway prisoners were allowed to knit and embroider in silence. Terrero likely stitched right under the guards’ noses, defiantly chronicling an experience that, had it not been recorded, might otherwise have been left out of history.

Between 2003 and 2008, textile artist Cat Mazza and fiber hobbyists from more than 40 countries created the Nike Blanket Petition, in which they knitted and crocheted hundreds of “anti-sweatshop” squares to create a 15-foot-wide blanket of the Nike swoosh logo. The piece, which demonstrated how much work goes into creating textiles, petitioned for fair labor policies for Nike garment workers.

And then there’s the ubiquitous pussyhat, the bright pink, cat-eared knitted cap that is the most visible recent example of craftivism; it even made the cover of Time magazine’s February 8, 2017 issue. The Pussyhat Project began in November 2016 with the aim of providing a visual statement—a sea of bright pink hats—of activism in support of women’s rights at the January 21, 2017, women’s marches that took place all over the world. Knitters could follow a pattern from the Pussyhat Project website, knitting caps for themselves and their friends, even mailing them to strangers who didn’t know how to knit but wanted to wear a hat. The hot pink hats were certainly noticeable and empowering to many, but the project has been criticized as a form of empty activism aimed at, or at least taken over by, cisgender (people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth) white women who want to feel like they’re enacting real change without risking much, and for excluding certain groups of people—such as women of color and transgender women—from its narrative.

“I guess knitting one pussyhat in isolation doesn’t do much,” says Markus. “But engaging in craftivism and engaging in the dialogue that surrounds it can change a lot.”

Good yarn

Craftivists use their work to call attention to a variety of issues, and for the Kudzu Project, that issue is the history of Confederate monuments (statues, schools, streets, buildings) inhabiting public spaces in Virginia and across the U.S. Its members are particularly interested in monuments sitting outside of courthouses: What sort of message does that send about the law?, Lane asks.

About a dozen people make up the core of the Kudzu Project, but they’ve received hundreds of leaves from knitters locally and in many states, mailed to a post office box that Smith set up to help maintain anonymity and keep the project focused not on the people involved but on the issue at hand.

In covering up monuments with knitted kudzu, the project’s knitters do not advocate for hiding the past, but rather stripping away contrived narratives that obscure the details of the true intent of the monuments themselves, Smith says.

The Kudzu Project draped its first statue, the Confederate soldier outside the Albemarle County Courthouse in Charlottesville, on November 9, 2017, the rainy morning “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell was in court for a preliminary hearing on three felony charges (two of which were thrown out). They covered the statue—another United Daughters of the Confederacy effort, erected in 1909—early in the morning, then left the scene to get coffee. In the few minutes they were gone, a man came along and pulled the knitted kudzu-covered net down and stuffed it in a nearby garbage can. When the Kudzu Project knitters returned, they fished the soggy shroud out of the trash.

The guerrilla knitters had draped an extra strand over the soldier’s rifle, as it was the only thing not covered by the shroud. Coincidentally, this was the only thing the detractor did not remove from the statue, and so the single strand remained.

A little after 9am, the man notified police of the knitted kudzu draped over the statue. According to a statement on the incident issued by Albemarle County Police, the yarn was removed and the statue was inspected for damage. The process took about 10 minutes, and “no damage to the statue was evident.”

When recalling the details of that first Kudzu Project installation, Lane can’t help but think of how the man who tossed their work in the trash unknowingly (and likely unwillingly) helped crystallize the Kudzu Project’s activity. Smith and Lane say he helped them realize that a flash installation works better—cover the monument just long enough to take pictures for the Kudzu Project’s online gallery. They’re particularly grateful for his accidental invention of the symbolic lone strand that the knitters now leave behind on every monument they visit. So far, in addition to the Albemarle, Nelson and Amherst courthouses, they’ve also visited Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton and draped the school’s sign.

The Kudzu Project uses flash installations of kudzu created from yarn to call attention to the oft-obscured history of Confederate monuments they hope will eventually be removed. So far, the Kudzu Project has draped knitted vines over the Robert E. Lee High School sign in Staunton, the Confederate soldier statues outside the Nelson county and Albemarle courthouses and the obelisk outside the Augusta County Courthouse. Courtesy photos

With each installation, the Kudzu Project posts photos of the temporarily covered monument along with a paragraph or so of information about that particular monument’s origins—when it was erected, why it was erected, plus the messages inscribed on bases and in plaques—so that people can understand what is not necessarily evident to the eye alone. The posts also include links and citations to scholarly sources in order to encourage broader, deeper reading on the topic.

On social media and elsewhere, some people have called the Kudzu Project’s work an act of vandalism. But the yarn itself doesn’t physically alter or damage the stone and metal monuments—it leaves not a mark behind. “Some people think it’s defacing the statues, but it couldn’t be a softer way of putting a message out there,” says Smith.

Knitted together

The Kudzu Project isn’t the only craft-as-activism project to appear in Charlottesville in recent months.

During the summer of 2016, lifelong Belmont resident Rabia Magee began wrapping tree trunks and branches with colorful, crocheted tubes of yarn. The practice, known as yarn bombing, is a popular form of street art around the world (particularly in Europe) that intends to embellish—not vandalize—a space with a bit of temporary color. Some yarn bombers, like Magee, tie strands around telephone poles, tree branches or bike racks while others hang small crafted ornaments from trees or doorways.

“She made all of Belmont Park into an art installation,” says Aileen Bartels, another longtime Belmont resident and avid knitter who admired the work for months. “It inspired me to think, and it occurred to me that you can [use yarn] to send a message,” she adds.

Bartels learned to knit when she was about 6 years old—she asked her grandmother, an expert in knitting stylish Barbie clothes, among other things—to teach her how. More recently, she’s made intricately patterned mittens, slippers and sweaters.

After Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, she was upset; she was angry. Bartels says that though she’s a Democrat, she respects Republicans and people who hold beliefs that are different from her own, but the election and inauguration of a president who profits from his office and is an acknowledged sexual predator, she says, is something to resist. She’d been making intricately patterned mittens, slippers and sweaters, but, with Magee’s Belmont Park yarnbombing in mind, she wanted to use yarn to make a statement.

Courtesy photo

By New Year’s Day 2017, Bartels tied her first resistance banner to a tree at the corner of Avon Street and Druid Avenue in Belmont. Fixed around a thick branch, it said, in golden yellow letters on a black background, “Resist Trump.”

Knitting before and after work during the week, and in spare time on the weekends, Bartels started making banners of various sizes. She maps each one out on a piece of graph paper, where each square represents a single stitch, then refers back to the pattern as she goes. Depending on the banner size and length—some of them have been four feet long—each one takes Bartels between a week and two weeks to complete.

Bartels says the process is therapeutic—the act of knitting is “almost like a meditation…your brain can unravel a little. It’s a way of dealing with the stress and at the same time you feel like you’re doing something, however small.”

She knitted banners for the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., tying them to signposts, trees and lampposts all over Capitol Hill as she walked toward the National Mall with a group of fellow marchers who’d taken a bus up from Charlottesville. When the march was over, they retraced their steps to the bus, and Bartels noticed that someone had safety pinned a small green and white “solidarity” patch to one of her “No Trump” banners—the banner had been noticed; it had served its purpose.

In February, Bartels tied another banner, this time “Resist” knitted in white on a black background, to a signpost at a certain local winery. It was taken down quickly, but it only made Bartels want to create more. A purple “Resist” went up on a telephone pole on Garrett Street. She tacked “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” to a board on the Landmark hotel frame on the Downtown Mall.

Courtesy photo

For the Ku Klux Klan rally in July, Bartels knitted another series of banners (“Black Lives Matter,” “KKK Go Away,” among others), and intended to put them up around Justice Park. When she arrived to tie them to trees the morning of the rally, the police turned her away, saying that signs in the park could raise tensions and encourage conflict. Bartels was struck by the strangeness of the fact that people could bring guns to the rally, but she wasn’t allowed to hang a knitted sign.

She put them up in the surrounding neighborhood instead.

Bartels doesn’t knit under the illusion that her banners will actually get Trump impeached, or stop the KKK from coming to Charlottesville: “What I hope it accomplishes is that, people who maybe aren’t engaged in what’s going on will become engaged.”

The combined effect of spotting Bartels’ knitted banners around town and seeing a bumper sticker that read “Do something,” propelled Magee—whose work inspired Bartels in the first place—to craft once again. But this time, she didn’t make colorful, abstract tree adornments; she wanted to say something specific.

Courtesy photo

In July and August 2017, Magee sewed burlap strips to larger swaths of patterned fabric, then stitched messages—“Love Wins,” “Disarm Hate”—into the fabric with black thread. She tied them around trees and telephone poles all over town, on Water Street, on Hinton Avenue, near Justice and Emancipation parks in advance of the Ku Klux Klan and Unite the Right rallies. By September, Magee simplified the approach by using permanent marker to write “Stand Strong” and “Stand Strong Charlottesville” directly onto the fabric, in order to produce more banners and more widely distribute the messages.

The wraparound fabric banners are to Magee a more public, highly visible version of the black armbands that she and her friends wore in the 1970s to protest the Vietnam War. “If somebody sees it, and they stop and think about what it says, it’s served its purpose.”

Magee has made between 40 and 50 banners and Bartels has made about 25, but at press time, only a few remained in place, including Magee’s “Love Wins” on Hinton Avenue and a weather-worn “Stand Strong” on Water Street, and Bartels’ “She resisted and persisted” surrounding a thick-trunked tree in Belmont Park, plus another near the intersection of Cherry Avenue and Roosevelt Brown Boulevard in Fifeville.

“That’s the way of these things. They disappear very quickly,” says Magee, who has found some of her fabric banners stuffed into trash cans only hours after she put them up. She frequently drives by her banners to see which ones survive, and she’s noticed that anything close to Emancipation and Justice parks are removed especially quickly. More than once, she’s dug a banner out of a nearby trash can and put it back up…only to have it disappear again hours later.

What is Craftivism?

Perhaps you’ve already guessed: craftivism = craft + activism.

Craft and social and political activism have been intertwined for centuries (at least), but Betsy Greer is credited with coining and popularizing the term in 2003. Greer defines craftivism as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper and your quest for justice more infinite.”

Both Bartels and Magee, who are also careful not to trespass and to display their banners only in public spaces, are almost certain that many of their banners are taken down by people who don’t agree with the message, or by those who “just don’t like the idea of unsolicited art in public places,” says Bartels. Perhaps others take them down to display at home. Still others, they suspect, might remove the banners for fear that the yarn will somehow damage the trees.

Bartels’ latest work is a banner that says “Heather” stitched in white on a purple background, tied it to a metal signpost on Fourth Street SE, where Heather Heyer was killed and more than a dozen others were injured when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters during the white supremacist rally on August 12. Not long after Bartels installed the banner, in November, the signpost was covered with a plastic black coating. But Bartels notes, with palpable excitement, that whoever coated the post took care to remove the knitted banner before doing so and tied it back on when the job was done.

Getting crafty

Ms. Gibbs, a longtime Staunton resident, is one of the people who’s been affected by local craftivist activity. Gibbs’ family has deep Virginia roots: Two of her great-grandfathers fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War; one was an officer who was with Lee at Appomattox and another was a quartermaster, responsible for delivering supplies to troops.

“To my knowledge, they were good men,” Gibbs says. “I had some respect for these men.” So when her daughter started knitting for the Kudzu Project, Gibbs says she was “offended. My feelings were hurt. I felt like she was attacking my heritage, and her heritage. It distressed me. And I went around for a week, angry about it, not understanding where she was coming from at all and not wanting my ancestors to be demonized.”

But when she started talking with her daughter about the statues and began seeking more history on the Confederacy, the Civil War and Confederate monuments—particularly the work of Mary Baldwin University history professor Clayton Brooks and University of Richmond president (and former UVA professor) Ed Ayres—she was surprised by what she learned, particularly that many of the Confederate statues and memorials were erected during the Jim Crow era with the aim of intimidating African-American people. Gibbs, who is in her early 80s, says this was completely new information to her—she never learned it at home or in school—and upon finding out more, she found her perspective shifting.

“I did, in fact, feel like I was an owl, and that my head turned completely around,” she says. “This has proved to me that openness is absolutely important to any sort of progress.” It’s as if “we’ve made up our minds,” she says, “and if we’re closed to any other way of looking at things, we’ll never be able to reconcile.”

Now, when she thinks about her Civil War veteran great-grandfathers, she says she maintains a level of respect for them and that she has a more nuanced, complex understanding of what their lives might have been like. “I’m not letting them off, but I think we have to take into consideration the culture,” she says. By that same token, she says we have to consider the culture that allowed the monuments to be erected, and reconsider whether we want to perpetuate that culture in the present and in the future.

Gibbs, like so many other women, learned to knit from her grandmother when she was a little girl. Though she mostly knits prayer shawls for her church, in the past couple of months, she’s knitted piles of green-hued leaves and vines for the Kudzu Project.

Markus says that her research has led her to believe that craftivism is changing the way people (women especially) participate in a democracy. “We really believe that there is a way to have our voices heard at a very grassroots level now, and that we can be active participants in our democracy. The combination of craftivism and new media is really lending to new modes of civic engagement in a way we really haven’t seen before.”

Much like a single sweater is made from thousands of knitted stitches, Markus expects this shift to happen incrementally, as a craftivist’s work is largely done on an individual level, just as every sweater begins with a single stitch.

Courtesy photo

C’villes hearts

After the Unite the Right Rally on August 12 left three dead and many others injured, Laughing Sheep Yarn organized the Hearts for Cville project, requesting knitted and crocheted hearts that would be put up around the city, “demonstrating that love defeats hate. If you see one, take it home with you as a reminder that we are unified in love in Charlottesville,” says the project’s Facebook page. Knitters and crocheters from near (Harrisonburg) and far (Texas, California, Kentucky and New Hampshire) sent in boxes of hearts of all colors, and the yarn shop strung a garland of hearts at the August 26 memorial for Heather Heyer on Fourth Street SE.

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