Giant Harriet Tubman “Yarn Bomb” Portrait Debuts in Upstate New York

Artist Olek’s creation is one in a series of 50 planned installations across America celebrating important women throughout U.S. history

Measuring 32 feet in size, the massive "yarn bomb" of Harriet Tubman now hangs outside the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, New York. (Olek)

The sound of dozens of excited voices reverberates off the walls of the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, New York, where a group of volunteer crocheters has gathered. Leading the group is Agata “Olek” Oleksiak, a New York City-based multimedia artist known for her avant-garde art installations using yarn. Her latest project, a 32-foot mural in honor of American abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman, will be no small feat—which is why she has recruited a team of crocheters like herself to help complete what is, no doubt, a massive undertaking.  

Olek kicked off the project in March to coincide with Women’s History Month by putting out a call on social media inviting crocheting aficionados and beginners alike to help execute the art installation. After leading multiple crocheting workshops at the center, Olek provided each of the more than 150 volunteers with donated yarn from Red Heart Yarn and a 2-foot-by-2-foot pattern to follow. Once each piece was finished, Olek combined the squares together and created the immense tribute to Tubman, which now hangs in front of the non-profit gallery and art institution in upstate New York beginning May 4 and continuing throughout the summer. The site is significant since Auburn is the same town where Tubman once resided and is the future site of the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park.

“So far the project has been very inspiring for me,” Olek tells Smithsonian.com. “Both women and men signed up to help. We even had a father and son who wanted to learn to [crochet] and participate.”

The Harriet Tubman installation is just one part of a much larger project Olek is spearheading called “Love Across the USA” that includes similar large-scale yarn creations dedicated to “strong female figures” across the country. Her plan is to install one creation in each of the 50 states by 2020. 

“It’s important to include community in the project,” Olek says. “I could do this on my own with the crocheters in my studio, but it’s more powerful this way. It’s not just my creation in the end. It’s our mural; it’s a community-based effort.”

Each volunteer received a pattern to work on. (Christopher Molloy)
Volunteers included first-time crocheters and experts at the craft. (Christopher Molloy)
Olek leading a crochet class in Auburn, New York. (Christopher Molloy)
All told about 150 volunteers offered their time to work on the massive project. (Christopher Molloy)
Now complete, the mural measures 32 feet and will be on view throughout the summer. (Christopher Molloy)
Many participated, even those without opposable thumbs. (Christopher Molloy)
Olek hanging up the massive piece of art. (Christopher Molloy)
The finished piece (Christopher Molloy)
Olek in front of the final piece (Christopher Molloy)
The site holds much significance since Auburn is the same town where Tubman once resided. (Olek)
The Harriet Tubman installation is just one part of a much larger project Olek is spearheading called “Love Across the USA” that includes similar large-scale yarn creations dedicated to “strong female figures” across the country. (Olek)
Measuring 32 feet in size, the massive "yarn bomb" of Harriet Tubman now hangs outside the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, New York. (Olek)

Olek had been toying with a way to celebrate the achievements of American women for some time, and ultimately decided to kick off her massive project in upstate New York, often considered the epicenter of women’s suffrage. (Not only did Tubman live here, but so did women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. Olek is concurrently creating an installation in honor of Anthony in Rochester, also slated to be revealed in May.)  

“I decided to create two pieces in New York, one for Harriet Tubman and one for Susan B. Anthony,” Olek says. “They were fighting for the same thing. Installing the two pieces will be a historical moment for me, and I couldn’t choose one over the other.”

And while doing a large-scale project of this caliber is nothing new for Olek (she once “yarn bombed” a locomotive, after all)—it is for the Schweinfurth Art Center, says Donna Lamb, the center’s executive director. 

“I thought Olek’s project is fantastic,” Lamb says. “We’ve been wanting to do a big, splashy public art project. We’re a small organization and fairly nimble, which gives us the advantage to take this on.” 

We have a feeling other organizations and individual crocheters across the United States just might be lining up to participate, too. 

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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