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Yarn bombed

With her colorful tree cozies, alumna artist forms close-knit communities

by MB Reilly

As her life unraveled more than a decade ago, University of Cincinnati alumna artist Carol Hummel, 62, planted the seeds for a new beginning by crocheting tree cozies that stretched as high as 60 feet.

Yes -- tree cozies -- sheltering covers of colorful yarn fitting like a sleeve along a tree’s trunk and branches.

Hummel, with help from her mother and her two daughters, created that first tree cozy in Cleveland Heights, near her home in Newbury, Ohio. That was in 2003, as she ended a very painful 23-year marriage.

“As my life unraveled, I likewise began creating new objects by literally unraveling old afghans and remaking them into art that represented my desire to step into a new life, a new way of being. I made a yarn red carpet I entitled ‘Stepping Out,’ and a yarn cozy for a steel crib.

And then came my first tree cozy in front of Cleveland Heights’ town hall,” recalls Hummel, who studied graphic design and photography in UC’s top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning in the 1970s. And, then, something she hadn’t expected happened. In the 500 hours it took to crochet and install that first vibrantly colored tree cozy, a multifaceted community took root around the project.

States Hummel, “We have to climb parts of the tree and use a hydraulic lift to get to other parts as we stitch together the crocheted stripes of the cozy in a precise pattern. And people – all sorts of people – started coming around and asking us what we were doing up there. As it began to take shape, they loved it. They stayed and talked to us, taking pictures with their cell phones.”

She recollects that the first to come along were teen boys “who thought this was the coolest thing ever. They were real dudes. And then as the senior citizens from the nearby residential complex came by for their evening walks, these guys became something of on-the-spot tour guides, explaining the art and my intentions in creating it. This happened for days. People stayed and talked, and I’m still friends with some of those people to this day.”

Since then, Hummel’s tree cozies have been installed throughout Ohio, the United States and even internationally, as far away as India and Norway as well as other parts of Europe. The cozies, which are actually fairly loose fitting, do no harm to the trees nor to any of the squirrels, insects or birds making use of the nearby environment. In fact, birds will use the yarn materials for their nests.

Hummel has even expanded the cozy concept to urban settings. For instance, a recent installation had her up on a ladder for 10 hours a day for six days while she wrapped trees, lampposts and kiosks in a Long Island neighborhood. That work was featured in The New York Times.

Tree art stems from "ugly" marriage

The cozies of macramé cord stay in place from one to three years, depending on climate and environment, and speak of the tension between comfort and confinement, according to Hummel, who felt both in a long, unhappy marriage.

“I stayed in a very unhappy marriage because there was a sense of comfort there, of just being in a marriage, of being afraid to leave, and I had good work in my husband’s business. But there was also confinement, a kind of prison,” states Hummel, who expresses the pain of that marriage in other art works as well.

For instance, she once typed the phrase “You Are Ugly” a total of 8,395 times on a very long scroll. “I typed the ‘You Are Ugly’ phrase one time for each day I was married during those 23 years. Needless to say, it was an abusive marriage, and I was a victim.

“When I exhibited that ‘You Are Ugly’ work, a 20-year old woman burst into tears upon seeing it. She told me, ‘This is my life.’ And that’s what I want my art to achieve – connections with people and their lives. I want my artwork to transcend my ideas and experiences and connect very personally with each individual viewer.”

Alumna's artistic roots stretch back to UC

Hummel worked at different jobs for two years after graduating high school in Kettering, Ohio, in order to save enough money to attend UC. She started her fine arts and graphic design studies in 1971.

At first, she hoped to become a National Geographic photographer. Then, she quickly “fell in love with everything art. It was at UC that art as the vital constant in my life began, and I’m still friends with classmates I went to school with at UC. The close-knit program in DAAP does bring you friendships for a lifetime.”

For instance, onetime UC classmate Tony Walsh, who studied photography with Hummel, recently participated in an artist’s residency program she founded in India, a program she began because her own experiences in that country have been so powerful. For instance, she once worked with ten women in a village in India on a project called “No Shadow of a Doubt.” With crocheting as their common language, the group crocheted a black form to serve as a shadow for a tree that pollution had killed.

“Working with these women was very, very special,” Hummel says. “Women in India are minimized in many ways, but this art gave them a voice, a way to be heard, a way to make connections and to form a community.”

Similarly, when a 2012 school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, left three high school students dead and two others wounded, Hummel created a work titled “Tribute Tree” as a mark of respect for not only those who would never again climb a tree but also for the entire community that came together with love and compassion in the aftermath of the tragedy. One local mother even wrote her, thanking her for the “beautiful symbol of hope and unity for our children.”

More images from Hummel's work and travels