So, Gang….this feature with Philadelphia-based, nationally exhibited artist Jessica Curtaz has been a long time coming. We’ve been holding on to it, but now that Jess’ work is on display at Philadelphia International Airport, we have the nudge we needed to highlight her guerrilla tactics for bringing vibrant artwork to the city’s urban — and often uninspiring — public spaces.
Jess, a California native with an MFA in drawing, works with multiple media and teaches the fiber arts. If you’ve seen her work and had the impulse to take it home with you — be it to protect it from the elements or because it’s too beautiful for chainlink — you’re apparently not alone. During our chat, Jess expressed the philosophy behind her yarn bombing, and let us in — at least a little bit — to her life when she’s not out creating street art.
Not only is Jess an inspiring, dedicated artist changing landscapes and making art accessible, she’s also one of my dearest friends. Raines and Esme, Jess’ daughter, were in preschool together, so Jess is one of the first friends I made after moving to Philly — pretty special. I’m thrilled to introduce her to you (if you haven’t met already).
You’ve been a successful artist for years, showing your work in galleries. And now you do street art. Can you tell us a little about that transition?
The crochet is related to my teaching. I teach fiber arts (crochet, embroidery, and weaving) in several programs around Philadelphia. For years I have been trying to get my students to yarn bomb. I thought it would be a way to inspire them, to show that interesting vital work is being done in this medium, that crochet is not just for making scarves. I ended up buying into my own rhetoric. I wanted to make something vital, that was not confined to galleries or the audiences that visit them. I want random people to interact with my work, for it to be funny and imaginative and unexpected. I want giant dandelions to magically appear around
parking lots and chimeras to be part of your commute to work.
Technically yes, especially the more permanent types, wheat paste, sticker art, spray paint. Yarn art is definitely a softer form of graffiti, literally and figuratively. It can be easily removed and causes no permanent change to a spot. So, I haven’t had any problems. I’m very blatant and don’t try to hide what I’m doing. I install in the middle of the day, when there are lots of people around (sometimes even with ladders, which is awkward). I’m quite interested with how people respond to me. One time a police officer stopped to talk to me, but she was very positive and just told me she liked the piece. There was no talk of illegality or that I should take the work down. I guess that is ultimately what it comes down to. I’m not permanently changing anything. My work is ephemeral and can be de-installed, torn, or cut up quite quickly.
How do you choose where to put your creations?
I walk around and look for spots that interest me. I pay a lot of attention to chainlink fences and what is behind them. They are translucent canvases in the middle of urban sprawl.
I wanted to make something vital, that was not confined to galleries or the audiences that visit them. I want random people to interact with my work, for it to be funny and imaginative and unexpected.”
Do you have problems with people taking them?
People do take them. Or at least they disappear on a regular basis. I choose to believe that someone appropriates them because I don’t like the idea that they are simply taken down and thrown away (although I’m very aware that happens). I don’t consider that a problem, but I do want them to stay up as long as possible. I want people to interact with them and taking them is a definite interaction.
What is the ideal lifecycle for one of your creations — how long should it last, do you want it to evolve or stay the same, and what kind of ending would make you happy?
Ideally I would like it to stay up as long as possible. I like the weathering process, the leaching of color over time and the breaking of the fibers. I like the idea that they are not static. Recently I took a piece down because it was starting to look trashy. The dirt and the fading didn’t bother me, but…it just looked sad.
I want giant dandelions to magically appear around parking lots and chimeras to be part of your commute to work.”
You’ve done some inspiring work with schools – can you tell us a little about that (and what kinds of programs you’d like to create).
I’m interested in breaking down metaphorical walls between the high arts and craft. I’m a huge proponent of functional art. I believe that people should live with art, that it shouldn’t be something unattainable. So that is one of the main focuses of my school residencies, teaching and presenting functional arts as a vital art form, but an accessible one. For the last four years I have been doing a bi-annual teaching residency sponsored by Main Line Art Center, at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. It is a two-part residency. The first part emphasizes new skills in fiber arts, knitting, embroidery, and crochet. The second part utilizes those skills to create large, public, collaborative pieces that focus on De’VIA (Deaf View/Image Art) principals, the cultural experience of being deaf.
It sounds like ‘Yarn Bombing’ is a thing. How could others get involved if they choose?
Make something. Put it up in the world. Change your environment. I think it is a powerful thing to have that potential…to directly influence the aesthetic environment in which you live. It’s easy to be inspired by the amazing work already out there. A few of my favorite yarn bombers (all women, incidentally) are Olek who worked with refugee women — she’s also known for her beautiful yarn bombing of the Wall Street bull. [Also], ishknits (here in Philly), who focuses her energies on giving voice to sexual abuse survivors. London
Kaye out of NY does some pretty large-scale projects using fences, or the streets themselves.
You’re a mom, and you teach, and you are an artist. How do you find the time for everything? What does your weekly schedule look like?
I work a lot. There is no easy way to do everything, I teach three to five days a week —
often all day. I crochet in the evenings, sometimes until 3:00 a.m. I never stop working before 10:00 p.m. It’s very unglamorous. I also have an amazing kid. She likes to spend time in the studio with me (sometimes eight hours at a time). We listen to books on tape, and she draws, paints, sews, or beads while I crochet.
My partner, although grumpy that my work takes up our whole house (I am a messy disaster), is VERY supportive. He puts up with my divided attention, our house being covered in yarn, the dining room being covered in prep work for classes, random chainlink propped against walls, and 15-foot crocheted flowers covering our couches and floors. Did I mention he likes things tidy? And he’s married to me. Sorry, Hon.
Make something. Put it up in the world. Change your environment. I think it is a powerful thing to have that potential…to directly influence the aesthetic environment in which you live.”
Jess Reflects on Her Personal Style
Top Three Beauty Products. Go.
Moisturizer, moisturizer, moisturizer. Eucerin Rich Creme is really good. I need crazy hand cream because I also work with clay at least once a week, and it leaches moisture from my hands. And crappy black eyeliner. I won’t tell you the brand. I won’t endorse that junk.
You’re facing a day where you’ll be running around the city. You want to look cute, but you’ll be doing a TON of walking. What shoes do you wear?
Do you have a daily uniform? Or a go-to look for when you are running behind?
I work in an art studio…so I wear clothes that can be washed easily and that I don’t care about too much.
What do you wear when you have to go out in the rain?
Boots and a rain jacket. I don’t install in the rain.
And your favorite giant mom bag is….???
I don’t have one. I carry around my supplies in free tote bags.
Jess: OK, I have moderate-sized bags, stuffed full of crap. And they’re all vintage. One is from Lost & Found on 3rd street. They have some really cool knitwear and jewelry from local artisans, too.
How would you accessorize jeans and a t-shirt?
Honestly, I don’t really. DO jeans and a t-shirt need accessorizing?
Shana: Humor me. You are going out somewhere NICE and the only thing you have, clothes-wise, is jeans and a tee.
Jess: I would put on a sweater. From Lost & Found.
Shana: You’re lost and found.
Jess: I am. I think I’m becoming that aging hippie lady.
[S rolls eyes]
Jess: I have earrings. I’m uncomfortable with this line of questioning.
Your most-worn item of clothing? (Underwear doesn’t count)
I have a pair of jeans that I love enough to not wear to work. I don’t know what brand they are. Should I go check?
Jess: Black jeans with my combat boots.
Shana: Weird how this is your answer for everything, yet you always manage to look so feminine.
Jess: I like oversized sweaters that are thin and drapey. Or from Lost & Found.
Shana: I give up.
Jess: My husband buys me clothes.
To learn more about Jess and her work, check out her website or follow her on Instagram, @bindingthings. And if you happening to be traveling soon, you will be delighted to see her craft up-close in Terminal A-West if you’re passing through PHL.
For more insight into breaking down the barriers between the high arts and crafts, listen to this WNYC interview with Dr. Elissa Auther, Windgate Research and Collections Curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, or, if you’re in New York City, see the Miriam Schapiro exhibition Surface/Depth where Schapiro’s “femmages”(painting + collage) offer a feminist critique of the hierarchy of art and craft.