The Immigrant Yarn Project Brings Powerful Art to the Bay Area

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For the next two months, Fort Point, the former garrison of San Francisco Bay, will serve a purpose entirely other than its original. The now National Historic Site will be home to the largest work of crowd-sourced art in the country– The Immigrant Yarn Project– a collection of over 75 woven totems in tribute to “our crazy, wonky, diverse and colorful country created by immigrants and their descendants,” according to the project’s website.

Situated on the lip of the mouth of San Francisco Bay, Fort Point is a formidable presence, and has been since the civil war. Often, it was the first thing the hundreds of thousands of immigrants coming through Angel Island saw of their new country, and “a symbol of xenophobic and hateful sentiment, in its defense against outsiders,” according to Cindy Weil, founder and creative director behind the project. “How we can repurpose it to promote a message of kindness and acceptance is truly an amazing opportunity.”

The totems, which make up the body of the work, vary in motif: from flags to pom-poms. However, regardless of style, the totems serve a common purpose. “So many of the communities I worked with on this project have been historically or are currently voiceless. […] For example, I made things with the homeless community in Los Angeles; I worked with the seniors at Kokoro assisted living; I made things with with the LGBT community […] and obviously with immigrants as well. All of these groups who are, or have been, voiceless in society,” said Weil. “Knitting, in how bright and vibrant it can be, was my way of giving a platform to all these groups who have struggled to find one, or don’t have one.”

Totems, in Algonquin tradition, serve as bearers of life for a certain group, such as a family or tribe. In other words, the totem is representative of who that group is as a whole, and what is intrinsically theirs. The varied, humanoid forms of Weil’s totems serve a similar purpose. “[The totems] are like a collective experience, of all immigrants. Their human-like style was done to show how it could be anyone, and how their experiences speak for us all.”

Historically, the fiber arts have been primarily female, as they first arose out of what was traditionally seen as ‘women’s work,’ passed down generations matrilineally. This is, in part, why Weil chose yarn as the medium for her project. According to Weil, “Because of that, the artform has always kind of received ‘second-class citizenship,’ in that it was viewed more as a craft than actual art. I wanted to put it on a pedestal, and give it the platform it deserved.[…] I also thought it made sense with the totems, as that too was very much connected to family and lineage.”

The planning and early execution of the project began in 2017, during the ban on immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries, which she also cites as a reason for the project.

“I was really put out by all the negative rhetoric and divisiveness surrounding immigration at the time, and being the descendant of an immigrant– well, I guess we all are– I felt that I should challenge that,” said Weil.

The project’s positive messages have garnered massive support both locally and at a national level, with cosigns from the likes of Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, as well as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. The project will be traveling around the country after the end of its time at Fort Point, in May.

But according to Weil, while she understands how people can see the installation as politically motivated, or an attempt incite some change in policy— especially with immigration as partisan of an issue as it is— she said that is not her intention. Instead, it is meant as a celebration of what has come as a result of not only immigration, but all the minority groups which make up the country. Weil said, “If people can come in and see it, and feel represented and happy for a day, or even a couple hours, then I’m happy. That’s as much as you can really ask for.”

To learn more about the project, visit them at their website here.

Nat Gerhard is a senior and second-year journalist with the Chronicle. He enjoys writing about hiking and nature, along with art and other local interests.

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