Incoming! Yarn bombers hit Walla Walla

A combined project and prank adorned art in the city for April Fools' Day with knit decorations.

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WALLA WALLA -- The cavalry stormed downtown around 7 a.m. Sunday bundled in coats and fingerless gloves, armed with canvas bags of yarn.

Each of the 20 or so representatives of various knitting groups had a designated target -- a sculpture in the city's public art collection. From Heritage Park they dispersed with their April 1 tools of tomfoolery: needles, scissors and pre-knitted pieces to "yarn bomb" the art.

Not exactly an easy task, even for skilled knitters from groups such as the Yarn Babes, Twisted Stitches and Stitch 'n Bitch.

Scaling the base of the Marcus Whitman statue on a grassy stretch at Main and Palouse streets, Jen Stone quickly realized the representation of the legendary missionary is much larger than it appears from a passing car.

Her original hope to knit a bikini for the historic monument had already been dashed because of logistics, she said. As she attempted to wrap a pink stretch of knitting material around the statue it was clear a bathing suit would have been impossible without a ladder.

Still her workmanship, and that of fellow knitter Suzanne Morrissey, left the missionary adorned in a pink halter top, colorful neckwear and a huge ball of pink yarn with needles in the crook of his arm.

Over the course of an hour, frozen fingers pieced together covers and decorations for at least a dozen different sculptures. Tom Emmerson's "Mother and Child" in front of Carnegie Art Center was wrapped in a shawl and hat. Ralph Trethewey's "The Thinker" frog at Third Avenue and Main Street received a warm hat. Wayne Chabre's "Guard Pigeon" at First Avenue and Main Street was cloaked in a colorful wrap with a giant star around its neck by Chabre's wife, Jeanne McMenemy.

The yarn bombing -- also known as "yarnstorming" and "guerilla knitting" in some circles -- was more than just an April Fools' gag. It was intended to raise awareness for ArtWalla, the nonprofit organization behind many of the public art installations throughout the community.

The organization has been in a state of reinvention since the start of the year. After the January departure of Executive Director Jeana Garske, ArtWalla made a switch to an all-volunteer organization and broadened its mission. It's not only carrying on the public art installations for which it has been known for two decades, it's also working to support and strengthen the arts through a stronger online presence including social media and advocacy.

It was Garske's idea to organize the yarn bombing. Coincidentally, the event came about just two days after The Sherwood Trust announced it will grant $125,000 to ArtWalla for the next public art project -- a commemoration of the city's 150th anniversary this year.

Garske cleared the yarn bombing with the city, and alerted police it would take place Sunday.

That bit of news would have provided some relief to Chris Eckstadt, who accompanied his wife, Julie Carter, to the bombing event. If anyone were to be detained in the yarn graffiti, at least it could be in knitted handcuffs, he quipped.

Weeks, if not months, were spent preparing for Sunday's surprise. Garske said the word was spread starting in January. "It just grew from there," she said.

Knitters selected which sculptures and monuments they wanted to decorate. Some opted for long wraps that could be interwoven through the abstract pieces, such as Ian and Jennifer Boyden's "Convergences," and Bill Piper's "Holding It Together." Others sized up specifics, such as coverings for the horns and legs for Nano Lopez's "Matilde on Her Way to the Market."

Susan Levenson, a Yarn Babe who moved to Portland about a year ago, made a special trip back to Walla Walla for the weekend to participate. She created a cozy for one of the many eggs in Wayne Chabre's "A Delicate Balance," as well as tiny leg warmers and scarves for the chickens in the piece at Palouse and Main.

Garske worked with Levenson on that piece and then got a reciprocal hand as she applied her seven ring scarf to Brad Rude's "Thoughts Discovered" dog at First and Main. Garske said she got a little help from a life-size model as she created the leg warmers for Rude's piece.

"I kept trying them on my dog, who's a little bigger than the sculpture," she said.

Up the road on Main Street, members of Twisted Stitches converted Squire Broel's "Blooms in August" lemon piece into a patchwork jellyfish with chenille base and colorful tentacles. "Look at the color on there. I just don't know if there's enough," one Twisted Stitcher said to eruptive laughter.

Broel's piece had special significance for the group because of its location outside of Olive Marketplace & Cafe. Every week, Twisted Stitch members gather at Olive to knit together.

Each piece -- from the wry emoticon face on Bernard Hosey's eight-foot steel sphere outside the Power House Theatre to the tube-top-sporting Marcus Whitman -- was finished with a tag. On one side it proclaimed April Fools'. On the other it paid homage to ArtWalla, which "whole-artedly" supported the project.

"Mostly this was just for fun," Garske said as finishing touches were put on the pieces.

"It's just bringing awareness to public art. The city has an incredible collection."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

Request For Proposals

A request for proposals for the new sesquicentennial art piece is expected to be released March 30.

The Sherwood Trust grant award stipulates that "the selected art piece honors and respects the history of the City of Walla Walla."

ArtWalla expects the project will "contribute to building historical understanding, establish and reinforce a local identity as well as furthering the town's reputation as one of the best 'small towns in America.'"

Local artists and artists with local roots will be able to request the RFP from jeanagarske@charter.net beginning March 30. Completed proposals from artists must be returned to Garske by April 20th.

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