Carol Hummel Carol Hummel's Art Creates Community
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The trees outside the Valley Art Center, in idyllic Chagrin Falls, recently exploded with color. The lindens along Bell Street, up the hill and around the corner from the popcorn shop and the boutiques and the cheese monger, were enmeshed in a swath of brightly colored fabric. Crocheted twirls of neon green and sky blue and sunset orange covered the gray trunks, swirling in a series of merry wheels that wrapped themselves up into the higher boughs, until at the tippy-top they vanished into a canopy of deep chlorophyll green.

In addition to commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Valley Art Center, the trees are a prominent symbol of the quiet revolution artist Carol Hummel is ushering into the world of fabric art. Hummel has earned a reputation as one of the godmothers of yarn bombing, an art form that injects whimsy and wit into public spaces by wrapping architectural features in brightly colored fabric. 

Yarn bombing has slowly gained momentum over the last decade and a half, in no small part due to Hummel, who first wrapped crocheted patterns around a Cleveland Heights tree in 2005. She has since wrapped trees, poles and parking meters in New York, West Virginia, Colorado, India, Ireland, Switzerland and Norway. 

But it is the purpose, rather than the ubiquity, of Hummel’s work that sets it apart. Many yarn bombers fall into the “guerrilla” school, creating loud statement pieces, sometimes in the dead of night, that critique the architectural features they enclose. Hummel, however, aims in the opposite direction. 

Her goal is to create and heal communities through her projects. Her pieces are organized with the cooperation of community organizations and institutions, and much of the labor is done by volunteers. She brings people together beneath the trees to work as a group, crochet, laugh, argue, hang out and, hopefully, heal.

The pieces in Chagrin Falls, for instance, were created by more than 50 people from across Cleveland’s far-east suburbs, from Chagrin Falls and Kenston schoolchildren to experienced crocheters from local fiber groups. Despite COVID-19 restrictions keeping them physically apart, they crocheted each of the hyper-colored circles at home, and in socially distanced classes, using kits they picked up from the art center. 

“It ended up with people of all ages and backgrounds coming in and picking up crochet kits, and then sharing them with their family,” says Mary Ann Breisch, Valley Art Center executive director. “In some cases, we didn’t even know who the volunteers were. And, magically, all the circles came back to us.” In May, Hummel joined the fabric circles together and wrapped them around the tree trunks, bringing together the labor of hundreds of fingers.

In a world in which the divides between us — national, racial, ideological, religious — seem to yawn wider and our trust in institutions to bridge those gaps has faded, Hummel’s message is a refreshing call to grassroots, collective community action: get your crochet hooks and show up to make something beautiful. There is room for all here, beneath the tree.

“These projects have taken us around the world,” she says, “forging friendships, building relationships and creating dialogue between all kinds of people who would never have known one another except through art.”

When Hummel is not traveling the world, her home base is on a 78-acre farm in Newbury. The farm, which has been passed down through her family, is her first community, the trunk from which the rest of her work has branched. She lives there with her daughter Molly Sedensky, Sedensky’s husband and their three children, who Hummel and Sedensky homeschool and feed with food they grow. 

One of five children, Hummel was born in Royal Oak, Michigan. When she was about five, the family moved to a Dayton suburb, where her father and mother worked for Frigidaire and General Motors. In her youth, Hummel dreamed of being a scientist or an archaeologist. But eventually, her attention shifted toward art. She longed to be a commercial artist, inspired by the ad agency where Darrin, Samantha’s husband on the 1964 sitcom Bewitched, worked.

While Hummel was in school at the College of Design, Architecture, and Art in Cincinnati, her father purchased the farm in Newbury. Hummel, who had married her high school sweetheart, was meanwhile finding graphic design to be not at all what she had signed up for. She switched majors to photography, switched schools to Kent State University, and switched homes, moving onto the family farm.

Like the suburban rubes they were, the family killed many a garden vegetable and acquired many an ill-fated animal before finally learning to live off the land, which gave Hummel fodder for a sharp left turn into journalism. She worked as a stringer for the Geauga Times Leader, and then dropped out of college to go full-time at the paper. In addition to covering car crashes and fires, she wrote a weekly column called Barefootin’ about her city slicker family’s rural escapades. “All I had to do was watch my dad,” she laughs. 

As the decades passed, Hummel got divorced and married again, moved to a Christmas tree farm in Mantua, had two daughters and continued to pursue journalism. But she still dreamed of being a full-time artist. 

In 2000, amid an ugly and painful second divorce at age 49, Hummel decided to stop postponing her dream. “When I got a divorce, it was, basically, ‘What do I want to do with my last life? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ And what I wanted to do was art and travel,” says Hummel. 

She kicked her second husband out of the Mantua farmhouse, painted it purple in an act of defiance and went back to school at Kent State. Having swiftly completed her bachelor’s degree as class valedictorian, and bristling with the righteous pain and indignation of a twice-wronged divorcee, Hummel entered Kent State’s MFA sculpture program and channeled her experiences into her art. “The joke at school was my work would fall apart if I ever got happy,” she says. 

Hummel’s work from that period was fed by raw personal reflection, but already hints at the fabric medium she would later embrace. In Unraveling, created in 2003, an afghan had been unwound until it was just a series of threads hung on a horizontal pole, the threadbare yarn falling to the ground. To create a similarly personal piece, Mother-in-law No. 1, shown as part of Kent’s student exhibition and in a solo exhibit at Millworks Gallery in Akron, Hummel unraveled another afghan that had been given to her by her first mother-in-law, splashing an expanding explosion of yellow, orange and blue yarn all across the concrete floor of the gallery. 

“My first mother-in-law gave me this afghan soon after my marriage. I hated it,” Hummel wrote in the description. “It outlasted my marriage, stuck with me, lived my day-to-day life, survived. When I pulled it out of the back of the closet, I was surprised that it was no longer ugly.” 

Other artworks transformed the experience of divorce into visual metaphors. To create You Are Ugly, Hummel typed the words “You are ugly” over and over again onto a 25-foot-long rice paper scroll using a manual typewriter, one entry for each day she was married. She dipped the scroll in wax and hung it in Kent State’s gallery in 2003, where visitors could see the three words at the scroll’s very bottom: “I am beautiful.” 

As Hummel was hanging the scroll, a young student wandered in. The student read the words and burst into tears. “This is my life,” she said. Hummel rushed over and hugged her. 

It was a small moment. But it shaped all of Hummel’s work that came afterwards. “That was the moment I realized that artwork goes beyond the maker,” says Hummel. “It started with my personal story, but I wanted it to go, and realized that it did go, beyond my personal story.” 

The idea came to Hummel in a dream, as so many do. One day in 2005, she rolled out of bed and the image was there in her mind: a full-sized tree, rooted in the earth covered to its eaves in yarn. As part of an exhibit at Kent responding to the revolutionary land artist Robert Smithson, Hummel had recently covered three saplings, which she dug up from her farm and transplanted into the gallery in their original positions, in striped orange, yellow, purple, red, pink, white and green yarn. But this was something else, something new and far, far larger — a study in confinement and freedom, a full-grown, growing tree jacketed in brightly colored yarn.

“That was a big theme in my marriage, or my feminist kind of pieces, was comfort versus confinement. Something that looks comfortable might be confining,” says Hummel. “So I just came up with the idea to crochet the whole tree.”

Marshalling her journalistic background, Hummel wrote up the idea and submitted a proposal to a public arts competition being planned by Heights Arts. The yarn bombing form was then in its relative infancy — the act of “yarn bombing” is generally credited to Magda Sayeg, a textile artist in Texas, who started the trend in 2005, the same year Hummel entered the competition — and was seen as somewhat new and subversive. Skeptics even liken it more to nuisance graffiti than art. But Heights Arts took a chance on the idea, and, with the city’s blessing, Hummel began her first full-size tree wrap. 

The tree they selected, just outside Cleveland Heights City Hall in Severance Circle, was tall as a two-story house. Hummel and Sedensky used a ladder to measure the dimensions of its trunk and branches before they could get to work crocheting each section with heavy-duty, moisture-resistant yarn. “I made a map of [the tree], and then we would work on the tree all day, map out the next section, and go home and crochet,” says Hummel.

The expertise and labor to wrap the trees came from Hummel’s first community: her family. Hummel, Sedensky, Hummel’s younger daughter Emily Ellyn, on summer break from culinary school, and Hummel’s mother Shirley Nordquest hunkered down for days of intense crocheting. Nordquest taught them all how to do it, and for about three weeks, fueled by Nordquest’s junk food favorites — cookies and ice cream — and whatever was on TV, three generations crocheted their fingers raw. 

At times, they also drove down to Cleveland Heights, and crocheted beneath the tree itself. In the shade, their family project began to evolve naturally into a larger one, as they attracted small crowds of curious onlookers from nearby apartment towers. 

One day, while Hummel and her daughters stretched the crocheted patterns over the tree using a power lift and ladders, several young men sauntered up and craned their necks at them, silently. Hummel and her daughters were not sure what to do; they thought the guys might be about to tell them off. But then, much to their pleasure, the guys took their phones out and started taking pictures and chatting with nearby senior citizens about the tree. “No way would these guys [and the seniors] have ever uttered one word to each other in their lives,” says Hummel. “And they were having a conversation, a fun conversation.” 

As the days wore on, more and more people started showing up to see the tree. Kids came and Hummel, Sedensky, Ellyn and Nordquest taught them to crochet. One of Hummel’s friends brought her 100-year-old grandmother, who joined the crochet circle. Hummel began to see the makings of something new: maybe the crocheting was just as important as the community-building. Maybe the tree could be more than a tree. 

“There was just this big community of Cleveland people and country people and elderly people, and people from all these different neighborhoods,” says Hummel. “That’s when I said, ‘Look at what we’re doing. We’re bringing all these disparate groups of people together, and they all like each other. That’s what the world should be. So how can I turn this into something?’ ” 

As word of the Cleveland Heights tree spread, and yarn bombing grew in popularity, so did Hummel’s work. Since that first tree, Hummel has completed dozens of community-building yarn art projects across the globe. She has taught English and art in Nepal, and traveled to India as part of an arts residency. 

In 2013, during a stint as a visiting artist at West Virginia University, she brought together residents of a local senior center and sculpture students to cover a tree on the college’s campus, in the hopes of bridging the divide between the college’s students and its townies. 

“The kids helped me install that one. But underneath the tree would be some elderly people that would come and would be crocheting the pieces for us, or bringing us cookies,” says Hummel. “It’s such an easy way to hang out with people you don’t know, and you’re a part of it, too. They all came to see what they had created, and the community just built.” 

Hummel has done similar projects in Norway and Colorado, as well as continuing to exhibit her own work. One project in Oyster Bay, New York, united 150 crocheters from across the city to make 500 pieces that covered six blocks of the city’s downtown, and another in Carouge, Switzerland, brought together a legion of local crocheters to transform the city’s iconic but gray Brutalist concrete fountains into spouts of color.

“I try to always let people that come talk to us on-site when we’re doing the tree and know what the projects are for,” says Hummel. “What [the trees] are intending to do is bring communities together.”

COVID-19, with its damper on in-person gatherings, put most of Hummel’s projects on pause. Hunkered down on the farm, she proudly talks of the things she and Sedensky had grown, tended, slaughtered, canned, cooked or frozen during their pandemic year including 286 pounds of hamburger and 197 loaves of zucchini bread. 

But as pandemic restrictions lift, Hummel hopes to travel again. The installation on the trees outside the Valley Art Center, which will remain there for at least a year, are just the beginning of healing the wounds left by a year full of social upheavals. In the face of extraordinary hurt, Hummel knows that the communities her projects form can be a salve. 

They certainly were for Civia Wiesner. On Feb. 27, 2012, Wiesner’s son Jacob was at Chardon High School when three students were killed and three were injured during a shooting. Wiesner was relieved to find he was not among them. He had left the cafeteria just 10 minutes before the killing. But the scars of that day remain. “It was a horrific day, lots of terrible trauma,” says Wiesner. “Lots of kids saw things they should never have seen in their lifetimes.”

Hummel watched coverage of the shooting on TV. Like so many others, she wanted to help in any way she could, and when Sedensky suggested that they crochet a tree, Hummel jumped at the opportunity. With permission from the school, and a donated lift and materials, they set about crocheting a tree at Chardon and Maple avenues, beside the school sign that well-wishers had turned into an impromptu memorial. As the hours passed, the stripes in black and red, the Chardon school colors, climbed higher up the trunk, and people filtered past to talk and cry. 

“It was just like a magnet,” says Hummel. “People came and talked to us about what happened that day. Kids, their parents, survivors. We were crying, it was just an incredibly moving experience.”

Wiesner was one of the visitors. She found Hummel and Sedensky sitting beneath the tree on a lawn chair, crocheting, as Sedensky’s young children toddled around. Wiesner, a lover of knitting, decided to sit with them for a while, and helped roll a few balls of yarn. They talked about their families, about the shooting, about how the yarn was rough on their hands, but resilient in tough weather. 

“Something blossomed in tragedy,” says Wiesner. “There were three children who died, one who was paralyzed, two others who were injured, and then a lot of emotional trauma. But there can still be beauty and healing. That tree kind of held things together.” 

The Chardon tree just drove home what Hummel had already seen: her projects could be a balm, building community when it’s most needed. 

Hummel, who worries about issues such as education, the environment, race relations and so much more, knows there is immense tragedy and hurt out there. Yet even when all signs point toward more struggle, Hummel still believes in humanity’s essential goodness, in the power of communities to weave themselves back together through art, even if only in small ways. 

While she has no specific projects planned yet, she still wakes up with a head full of dreams: the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank, covered from bottom to top in yarn, or pillars of crocheted fabric rising above the atrium at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, forming a canopy of color to cheer up young patients. 

“I would like to explore more areas where communities need to be brought together by a simple thing like this,” says Hummel. “The more separated [people are], the more fun it would be to try to pull them in.”

Art, Hummel likes to say, is a universal language, and she has resolved to let it speak. “It’s hard to be real hateful when you’re crocheting,” she says. 

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