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Knitters city-wide get stitching for Blanton Museum project

Luke Quinton

There are, surprisingly, 99 trees in the Blanton Museum of Art's Faulkner Plaza. And on March 5, the trunk of each one will be cloaked in striped Technicolor yarn.

This is the museum's contribution for "Explore UT," the University of Texas' annual open house. The "Knitted Wonderland" project is a collaboration with Magda Sayeg, the Austin knitter behind recent instances of "knit graffiti" such as the Lamar Boulevard underpass, and similar commissions all over the world.

But, as anyone who has ever picked up a crochet hook or knitting needle can attest, making 99 tree-sweaters will take a serious labor force.

A group led by Heather Sutherland has been meeting at Gauge Knits in North Central Austin to chat and share their progress.

Sutherland, who runs Knotty Knitters, a local knitting club, is the point-knitter for "Knitted Wonderland." "I just like bringing the community together through art," she says.

But for the group of women at Gauge, not all trees have been created equal. "Some are five feet; some are 11 or 12 feet. They're maybe 30 inches around," says Sutherland. Thankfully, the interest from knitters has been intense. More than 140 are working on a tree or splitting half the work. More work is coming from students enrolled in Sayeg's class at the Griffin School.

Tina Thering is a member of the Blanton, so when the call went out online, she rushed to get tree No. 3. But it turns out tree No. 3 is 11 feet tall, and although many trees have partners, Thering is going it alone. "I mapped it out on Excel," she says.

The colors are an eye-popping mix of turquoise, orange, pink and olive. Yarn stores around town sold out quickly as knitters scrambled to locate the few remaining skeins.

The colors and stripes are the only stipulation, to create some uniformity, so each knitter will leave her mark. "I wanted to make it more whimsical," says Sujo Plassman of Pflugerville. And so she's adorned her crocheted stripes with small triangular thistles.

Like a cross between the legendary "wrapper" Christo and environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, the project will be a comment on the value of time in the arts and crafts. But for non-knitters, it seems frightfully ephemeral.

A few jokes circulated. Couldn't this work do something more, well, useful? How about knitting for the homeless? Of course we don't ask restaurants to feed the poor, and it's unfair to peg knitters to just clothes. Many of these knitters participate in knitting charity groups all over town.

Still, even the volunteers let out a collective groan when it was revealed that the tree coverings would be displayed for just two weeks.

What is to become of all the displayed yarn? The knitters are welcome to retrieve it, and some say their yarn will be reused and donated.

"My daughter thinks it's going to be a skirt," says Plassman. But she's picturing a blanket. "It'd be an awfully heavy skirt," she says.

By ordinary standards, these projects are monsters. Gauge owner Karli Capps says one woman, after an hour of work, had just one inch. That's why Capps has other plans. "I'm going industrial with it," she says, explaining that she's waiting for help to unveil her secret weapon: the Ultimate Sweater Machine.

When Carrie Thielemann, whom Capps calls her "fixer," arrives, they arrange the keyboard-sized machine on the table and set up the lines of yarn to thread through it like an ancient printer.

Sure enough, despite much finagling, three inches of striped yarn had emerged from the mouth of the machine after a scant thirty minutes.

Borrowing the vernacular of graffiti to talk about a monster team of knitters who adorn public objects is definitely a stretch, but it probably sounds a lot cooler to say you're "yarn-bombing" 99 trees at the Blanton than to say you're laboring for 20 to 40 hours to cover a tree for the sake of arts and crafts.

"I don't know why we're using all this violent language around it," quips Capps, tongue-in-cheek.

The project also is related to the museum's upcoming exhibit, "Recovering Beauty: The 1990s in Buenos Aires."

Blanton educator Jennifer Garner says that, like the Argentinians', Sayeg's work "explores the notions of joy, beauty, color and playfulness."

But the museum is not quite ready to embrace the lingo that the practice has picked up, saying, rightly, "It's certainly related to that tradition, but is not graffiti."

"I love seeing people excited about art, and I love creating a space where I can invite participation in art," says Sayeg. When thousands of kids flock through the Faulkner Plaza on March 5, that participation will have its apex. With this in mind, knitters have been asked not to use any sharp objects to attach their yarn to the trees, in anticipation of kids who can't resist hugging the cozy-looking bark sweaters.

'Knitted Wonderland'

When: March 5-19

Where:Blanton Museum of Art, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Avenue

Tickets:Free

Information:www.blantonmuseum.org