Yarn-bombing project hopes to bridge divide in a changing Brookland

Knitters in DC’s blossoming Brookland artist community hint at a secret upcoming street art installation. The Post’s Zoeann Murphy spins their story into video. (The Washington Post)
November 25, 2013

The unsolicited art piece coming to an undisclosed public space in Brookland is intended to be disruptive. And subversive. And it will involve a whole lot of yarn.

“Like a kudzu showing that the arts is taking over the community,’’ artist Leda Black explained to about a half-dozen potential partners-in-art. They don’t look like a typical street art crew. The group, which meets in a rented studio space in the neighborhood, is composed mostly of 40- and 50-something suburban moms, all of whom share a love of knitting.

Three years ago, Black became fascinated with the increasingly popular concept of “yarn bombing” — when crafty artists crotchet and knit large pieces for public display, sort of like street graffiti with a domestic twist. A particularly high-profile yarn bombing occurred a few years ago in New York when an artist covered the famous bull sculpture on Wall Street in a purple and pink pattern, reminiscent of a handmade sweater.

In this region, yarn-bombing projects have appeared near the Artisphere space in Rosslyn and in storefronts along H Street Northeast and the U Street corridor. But what’s happening in the more traditional Northeast neighborhood of Brookland, near Catholic University, has a character all its own.

The project is being planned in the bowels of a new $200 million-plus mixed-use residential and commercial complex that resembles the town centers found in Reston, Silver Spring and Rockville — except that the promenade features 27 artist studios. The coming outlandish display of yarn will serve as a declaration that the creative class has arrived — and that this neighborhood could be its canvas.

Call it the Brooklynization of Brookland.

Yarn-bombing is just the latest attempt to refashion the neighborhood as an affordable place for those who dance, sing, sculpt, paint — or knit. In 1986, there was only a dance theater. In 2011 came the artist’s lofts. Now there’s the massive new Monroe Street Market, which is rooted in the principles of the new urbanism — creating community-minded places where people can live, work and play in close proximity to one another.

“There is increased revenue and more exposure for the neighborhood as the artists come in, and that’s a good thing,'' said Debbie Smith-Steiner, a neighborhood commissioner and lifelong Brookland resident.

Of course, not everyone likes that vision.

“The other side is the people here who like green trees and the green grass and who chose this area because they are more surburbanites and don’t want to deal with the urban city,” Smith-Steiner said.

Black and her partners at Studio Eco Bricolage see their yarn-bombing project as a fuzzy way to soften the tensions between old and new.

“We want to give a valentine to the community,” said Marcelle Fozard, perhaps giving a hint of when the project will be completed.

The group is projecting a sense of intrigue to get the community involved. You can become privy to the specifics — What will it look like? Where it will be? — only if you attend the weekly meetings.

There’s another agenda, too. The yarn bombers are eager to show that Brookland’s artists have staying power. Like longtime residents, they worry about the stereotypical pattern of gentrification, as described by Black: “Artists can stay until the young and wealthy discover the neighborhood and price them out.”

Black, Fozard and Annalisa Leonessa, another member of the group, live in Takoma Park. They were a part of a knitting club there and bonded over the fact they all had children the same age. Black does graphic design. Fozard paints portraits of her pet chickens. Leonessa learned to knit as a child, and in adulthood she began to spool her own yarn.

“Funny story how that happened,’’ she said. Her pet rabbit, Gigi, would shed fur all the time. Instead of just throwing it out, Leonessa figured she might make use of it. So she bought a spinning wheel.

“Face it, you’re an eccentric,” Black joked.

“We all are.”

Their first collaborations happened three years ago when the Takoma Park business district solicited public art projects. The three dreamed up a forest entirely made of foam, with flora and fauna of different nations.

During the great derecho rainstorm of 2012, Leonessa watched as a foam cactus flew away in the wind. She chased after it. They love to reminisce about that. Together, they learned a downside of public art — it might be taken away in an act of God or by an enforcer of the law. Still, it was fun.

In August, they moved into Studio 15 in the Monroe Street development. Painters were on one side of them, sculptors on the other. It was so different from coming up with art projects in their garages. They immediately began to cherish the immediate community around them.

One recent Wednesday, as they ate popcorn, drank hot apple cider and knitted, a sculptor came to show off a felt scarf someone had made for her.

“Are you going to knit tonight?” Black asked, eager to get more people to join the project.

“No, I’m going to dance!” the sculptor responded.

“This is the community,’’ said Fozard, smiling. “Everyone here is so interesting.”

Until the mid-’80s, artists and sculptors and painters found each other in Adams Morgan, according to dancer Carla Perlo. Faced with rising rents, Perlo moved her studio, Dance Place, from there to Brookland, drawing residents into free community workshops and dance enthusiasts to the neighborhood.

Perlo long dreamed this area, with its undeveloped spaces and lower rents, could be the new haven for artists. That vision was emboldened in 2011 with the opening of a 41-unit building of affordable living spaces for artists. The $13 million building, which received $11 million in federal and local government subsidies, has a a three-year-long wait list.

“We had lost that sense of community we had in Adams Morgan,’’ Perlo said. “Now it seems we’re finally getting it back.”

The arts studios are an even bolder step, she said. Throughout the day, passersby can see artists crafting their works through large windows in the studios, arranged on the first floors of the multi-use complex, which includes 720 apartments and townhomes.

This highly developed project is a far cry from the industrial, decrepit studios that artists first colonized in parts of New York and San Francisco. When a manager heard about the plans for a yarn-bombing, Black said, the trio was given permission to hang the work up outside, on the property’s promenade.

“I was all for it,” Black said. “And then, I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not subversive!’ ”

Black and her fellow knitters wanted something less predictable. One artist suggested they put little beanies on traffic cameras. Cute — but perhaps a bit too aggressive.

If everything goes according to plan, the yarn creation will be family-friendly and debut in a very public spot, outside the Monroe Street property, in the middle of February. Some schoolchildren will be involved, in addition to a nun or two from Catholic University and maybe other residents from the neighborhood.

“We want this to be a collaborative process,” Black said. Anything to knit together a changing neighborhood.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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