They’re adorable, festive and seemingly emblematic of a free-spirited city. But those cute sweaters adorning the bronze figures and sculpted critters in downtown Portland aren’t as off-the-cuff as you’d think.
The “yarn bombings,” as they’re called, are more coordinated than that. Whereas Texan knitter Magda Sayeg pioneered the practice a few years ago as a guerilla tactic to make sterile public places seem cozier, this new wave of yarn graffiti in Portland is business-driven and allowed by the city.
“I think that we like to try different things in Portland,” says Courtney Ries, director of the Downtown Marketing Initiative, which is coordinating the yarn bombings as part of its UglySweaterPDX campaign to promote shopping in downtown. “And from a marketing side of things, it’s just been so much fun and was something that was worth trying.”
Judging by the coos and delighted giggles that bubble up around the displays, the not-so-ugly sweaters seem quite popular with many passersby. And the four knitters and crocheters hired to make the yarn art are comforted knowing the city won’t snip their work off as vandalism.
“I haven’t done the classic yarn bombing before,” says knitter Jenny Mosher, who has a day job as a social worker, “but I don’t think being tied to the campaign makes it any less fun. And I think were it not a city project, maybe things would have ended up getting taken down rather quickly.”
As it is, the yarn art is being removed quickly enough — but not by the city. The original sweater worn by the “Allow Me” statue — the man holding an umbrella in Pioneer Courthouse Square — was cut off by someone less than 48 hours after it had been put on. It was on display for only slightly longer than it took Mosher to make it: 43 hours. Another piece, a cloak of knitted snowflakes made for the statue called Kvinneakt, or the nude woman, was removed after only a day.
“Hopefully whoever has it is able to appreciate the amount of effort and love that went into it,” says knitter Amanda Miller. “But what can you do? Once you sew something onto a public statue, you treat it as public art. You’re no longer in possession of it.”
Not all public art was fair game for the project. The Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC), which maintains the sculptures, didn’t want the yarn going too far from the shopping area around Pioneer Courthouse Square. The Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln statues in the South Park Blocks were off limits — they were too far away, and officials at RACC didn’t want people to get in the habit of climbing on them. Another statue, the modernist sculpture of a woman and a dog named “City Reflections,” has a glossy finish that RACC officials thought would be too sensitive to corrosion.
Still, RACC officials don’t want the public to see the yarn bombings on any statues as a carte blanche for the public to do whatever they want with them.
“We don’t want to be seen to be encouraging people to do anything to the statues,” says Public Art Collections Manager Keith Lachowicz, “but since this was done in concert with people whom we met, and they sort of checked off all the boxes of care and concern and safety, our role was really to advise instead of saying just, ‘No.’”
Ries, with the Downtown Marketing Initiative, says the yarn embellishments are doing the opposite of harming the sculptures; they’re bringing them new life.
“I think some of this lets us see these great works of art in a new light,” she says. “Sometimes I think people walk by them without even seeing them.”