There’s Something About Mary
Photos by Ilana Goldmeier
Stuffed gallon-size Ziploc bags overflow from cardboard boxes in the corner of Mary Giehl’s self-built backyard art studio. Each bag holds knitted and crocheted items: scarves, hats and infant slippers varying in color, size, and design. Standing above the organized chaos, Giehl—wearing rounded glasses, a simple gray T-shirt, light wash jeans, and blue Crocs splattered with paint—searches for an example of excellent craftsmanship. “Oh, there it is,” she says, pulling out a knitted scarf embellished with rows of delicate white and yellow flowers and green stripes resembling grass. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asks. Giehl folds up the scarf and places it back in the bag. Next, she pulls out a heather-gray structured hat with a cream-colored stripe around the middle. Giehl wishes she could keep the hat, one of 750 items scattered around her studio. According to her, however, that would defeat the purpose of her project. With a sigh and a smile, she repackages the chunky knit back into its designated bag.
Giehl, a local installation artist and former Visual and Performing Arts professor at Syracuse University, never anticipated the feedback she received from her project, “Connecting with Something Warm.” Through this community-inspired project at ArtRage Gallery, Giehl has spent the last year collecting donations of yarn-made items contributed by local knitting guilds. Within the next month, Giehl will travel around downtown Syracuse, placing packages filled with pieces on city walkways, park benches, bus terminals, and other accessible areas where people can find these gifts. Each Ziploc bag also contains a postcard, which Giehl hopes the recipient will mail back to the gallery to explain how they encountered the items. Then, on Nov. 2, ArtRage Gallery will display the postcards as part of their exhibit, “Spoken Threads: the Art of Craftivism,” an exhibition of fiber social justice projects.
As a collection of fiber art inspired by traditional craftsmanship, “Spoken Threads” and “Connecting with Something Warm” considers the impending Syracuse snowstorms—and the people who are left without the means to comfortably survive them. With over 400 homeless individuals and families living in emergency shelters in Onondaga County, Giehl’s project displays something more than just yarn. For Giehl, it’s all about the connections, specifically the recipients and knitters who will be able to meet each other at the post card installation. ArtRage approached Giehl about the project since they knew of her expertise in fiber work from her previous work. Giehl was inspired by a project she worked on in 2004 called “Inner Light of Children.” The project happened when Giehl found herself with an excess of sewn Muslim children’s clothing protected by beeswax. Giehl built mannequin-like stands dressed in different outfits made from the clothing. Over 16 weeks, she left three structures at a time in bus shelters around the city of Syracuse, with an attached postcard that asked individuals to name the structures and then send the postcard back to Giehl. The postcards were then arranged in a window downtown next to images of the figures around the city.
For “Connecting with Something Warm, ”Giehl contacted multiple knitting groups around the Syracuse area. She attended their meetings, explained the project, and asked for their assistance. Around a year ago, Giehl contacted Deborah Gardner, a member of The Knitting Guild Association who attends the Northern Onondaga Public Library Knitters meeting each week. Giehl attended a meeting to explain the project to the group and after that, Giehl kept coming back. “I was supposed to be the drop-off person for the group, but Mary enjoyed our group so much she kept coming back for more,” Gardner says.
Most of the Northern Onondaga Public Library Knitters donated around two items each, but some members asked others to contribute as well. “I even used the project to barter with someone,” Garnder says. “I had a couple of books I wanted to get rid of and a group of members wanted them. Instead of paying for them, I suggested she knit a scarf for Mary. She said ‘How about I make two?’”
The project escalated after it received some attention from the press. When the Post Standard published an article about the project in July, the newspaper provided the community with Giehl’s contact information. Since then, the project contributions have been overwhelming. One day over the summer, Giehl received an email asking her to pick up donations for the project from a house. She thought she would only be getting a couple of items. The woman sent 200.
Donations to the project were not limited to the borders of Syracuse. Giehl, who has ties to North Carolina after completing an artist-in- residency project there, received two boxes of donations from a knitting group she attended while living there. Giehl was touched that the women who were part of the inspiration for the project wanted to help her reach her goal.
The project inspired others to clear out their yarn collections. Giehl says that five or six women donated 15 to 25 items each. And when they said they were done, they would come back with two more items. Giehl even received a pair of infant’s socks in the mail made by a 96-year-old woman.
Giehl says she can see the time that went into each item she receives. The creativity of the knitters and complex designs inspire her. One woman sent in six scarves that she made by thrifting old sweaters, unraveling them, and creating new scarves for the project from the salvaged yarn. Attached to each scarf was a handwritten label describing the type of fabric used. “She told me that each item only cost her two dollars, but how about the time she dedicated to the project?” Giehl asks. “I hope someone appreciates it. ”
Though some women in the knitting groups tear up over “Connecting with Something Warm,” not everyone was receptive to the project. A woman expressed her hatred of the project to Giehl. “It was tough for her to realize what was going on,” Giehl says. “As I continued to explain, she became more receptive but was still resistant.” The woman argued that it was disrespectful to the items and the women who made them to leave them at random locations. Giehl walked away feeling defeated, but waiting for her at the meeting the following week was a Pandora bracelet bag, with a crafted wine glass monogrammed ID tag around the handle. Also inside the bag: two delicate scarves and a note from the same woman. She had come around.
The original goal for the project was to collect 500 items. A week before she started distributing packages, Giehl realized she surpassed that goal. Giehl hopes ArtRage is pleased with the turnout for the first stage of the project. “It is a unique community bonding experience and has the ability to impact many,” says Kimberly McCoy, the community engagement organizer at ArtRage.
This project opened Giehl’s eyes to a generous and creative group she hopes to stay in touch with. “People love the idea of giving away knitted and crocheted items,” she explains. “They love to work with their hands and keep busy. These women and men contributing to the project are a
unique bunch. They love the activity, the feel of fibers, and patterning. To them it is something they get immersed in.”
On Oct.7, Mary drops off 20 scarves around Liverpool. She places an item on a bench and drops a pin on her Maps app at the location of the package. She walks away, unsure if the handmade items will find a home, but excited for the warmth they will bring.