This past Thursday, the Polish-American artist Olek watched, smiling, as her newest work was carefully nailed onto a sixteen-by-forty-six-foot billboard overlooking a busy New Jersey highway. The piece, which was crocheted by Olek and thirty-eight volunteers, all but two of them women, was an enormous neon-pink blanket featuring Hillary Clinton’s smiling face and the hashtag #ImWithHer rendered in black and white. “This is my gift to Hillary,” Olek said.
The thirty-eight-year-old yarn artist, best known for covering the Wall Street bull, in 2010, in pink and purple crochet, first dreamed up the pro-Hillary piece in January, while considering the political art she had seen so far in this election cycle. “A lot of artists had at one point been doing pro-Bernie art, and a lot since were doing anti-Trump art, but there simply had not been much pro-Hillary art,” she said. At first, the notion of making an overtly political piece did not sit well with her. But with one month to go, she changed her mind. “I couldn’t turn my back,” she told me. “There was too much at stake.”
What followed was a mad-dash marathon of crocheting: 794,880 stitches in less than four weeks. It culminated in an all-nighter at her Lower East Side studio the night before the piece was installed. When I visited that evening, the studio looked like the scene of a frantic blanket-liquidation sale-colorful crocheted items were scattered everywhere, and yarn spools unravelled here and there on the floor. Olek, wearing pink-and-black camo cargo pants, a T-shirt with flowers on it, and oversized red glasses, sat in the center of it all drinking maté and directing a group of six volunteers. (There was a seventh, I would later learn, who was napping in the folds of a finished portion of the piece.) A few of the volunteers had worked with Olek on past projects. Others had responded to Olek’s posts on Facebook and Instagram asking for help. All of them, along with a number of other crochet volunteers, had been cycling in and out of Olek’s studio for weeks. Now, with about ten hours left before the installation, the small group looped their hooks rapidly over and over again, according to stitching charts Olek had provided, while half-listening to NPR podcasts playing on Olek’s phone.
One of the podcasts, an episode of “Hidden Brain,” happened to concern the representation gap between men and women in the United States. The episode’s narrator, Shankar Vedantam, said that the odds of randomly having forty-four male Presidents in a row would be one in eighteen trillion. The seven volunteers, including one man, appeared to listen intently as they crocheted. “It is definitely in part sexism,” Olek said later, during a cigarette break, about the dearth of pro-Hillary art. “But it’s also because she isn’t hip.” She took a drag from her cigarette, which she had hand-rolled. “I don’t give a damn about that,” she continued. “Hillary might not be cool, but she is qualified, experienced, and competent. Yeah, I don’t want to hang out with her. I don’t want to drink beer with her. I don’t want to go dancing all night with her. But I want her to be our President.”
Back in the studio, one volunteer was explaining “the knitter’s curse” to some of the others who had never heard of it. “Don’t ever give your boyfriend a sweater you’re knitting for him,” she explained. “He’ll break up with you before you get to the sleeves.” The other volunteers laughed. “The only way around it is to knit some of your own hair into the sweater.” Olek held up a portion of the poster she was working on and said, “Don’t worry, there’s a lot of my hair in this piece.”
Shortly before noon the next day, the completed work arrived at an abandoned building in New Jersey, the roof of which looks over Route 139, several hundred yards before the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. (About forty-three thousand vehicles pass eastbound through the tunnel each day.) The building is owned by Mana Contemporary, a New Jersey-based arts center which devotes several of the billboards to rotating public-art exhibitions. Stanley Sudol, the director of Mana Urban Arts Project, had been told about Olek’s project by a mutual acquaintance in the art world and had offered the space.
As four construction workers carried the rolled-up blanket up the stairs and hoisted it on top of the billboard, Olek, Sudol, and a couple of Olek’s volunteers chatted about the piece that preceded this one. It was by the anarchist art collective INDECLINE, and consisted of a naked Donald Trump statue standing in front of an upside-down American flag. (The naked Trump statue, a similar version of which recently sold at auction for twenty-two thousand dollars, had been stolen, the thief having carefully sheared off the statue’s bolts over the course of three hours one night in September.) Stanley had worked on a number of other anti-Trump pieces as well, including a billboard by the Brazilian artist Sipros in Jersey City, featuring Trump, painted like the comic-book villain the Joker, sewing grenades into the American flag.
When asked why he had chosen to do anti-Trump pieces instead of pro-Clinton ones, Stanley said, “Negativity inspires art. Positivity is for hotel rooms.” With Trump, in particular, vitriol had been a powerful catalyst. “Trump is riling up such hatred and divisiveness,” he said. “We’re throwing that shit back in his face.” Stanley went on to say that Bernie Sanders had inspired supportive art because “the artist gestalt is Bernie Sanders-pissed off, saying truth to power, feeling like they don’t give a fuck.” Hillary, on the other hand, “isn’t cool,” he added, echoing Olek. He also agreed with Olek that, right now, this was beside the point. “Hillary’s not about posters or anything like that. That’s anathema to her. She’s about getting things done. And this country doesn’t need cool. We need insurance. We need economic stability.”
Once the piece had been unfurled, Olek directed the construction workers to stretch it in certain areas so that Hillary’s carefully stitched face did not look bloated or lopsided. “The funny thing is I hadn’t been a crazy Hillary supporter at first,” Sarah Murphy, one of Olek’s volunteers, who had sustained a shoulder injury from excessive crocheting, told me. She said with a mischievous smile that she had even considered wearing her Bernie sweatshirt to the installation. But since working on the project she had become increasingly pro-Hillary. And she thought that the piece would have a similar impact on others: “When it says ‘I’m with her,’ it means Olek is with her. It means artists are with her. It means the crochet community is with her.” She looked up. “I mean, maybe that’s small, but it still means something.”
Some cars honked as they drove by. Olek took that as a sign of support; she yelled “Wooo” back. One man yelled, “Hell, no,” from his car, but Olek did not hear it. She was busy rubbing out the creases of the piece with both of her palms. Then she leaned forward and gave crocheted Hillary a kiss on the cheek.