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.”