by Jenn Thornhill Verma
In these parts, trigger mitts, work socks and delicate doilies are often the handiwork of grandma (or grandmudder, as we affectionately refer to Nan down home in Newfoundland and Labrador). But on the islands that make up Twillingate, off the northeastern shores of the island of Newfoundland, yarn has arrived in surprising new forms — stapled to clapboard structures as street art. These are definitely not your grandmudder’s variety of knit and crochet goods either. Picture hearts and happy faces; life-sized characters like Waldo (of Where’s Waldo?) and Popeye; and familiar Newfoundlandia such as a tin of Carnation evaporated milk and a bag of Purity hard bread. Now imagine those hand-stitched wares affixed to wood siding, boarded-up windows, light poles and abandoned roadside signs. It’s the work of Nina Elliott, who goes by the alias “Rock Vandal.”
Newfoundlander. Elliott’s an occupational therapist, yogi, new mother and, since 2015, impassioned yarnbomber (identifying herself on Instagram as Nina Yarnbomber Elliott, if that’s any indication). Ask her why she does it, and her response may be vague, but her dedication is definite. “I can’t really explain why, but it’s a fun hobby that’s become a bigger part of my life,” she says. “I’m pretty much working on it or thinking about it seven days a week.”
Yarnbombing involves making decorative installations of knit or crochet yarn and other fibres, often in urban settings, where it can surprise and delight unsuspecting passersby. To some, it’s considered graffiti (earning the title graffiti knitting). But given the nature of the medium, yarnbombs are temporary and leave no permanent mark. “It depends on your perspective whether you consider it street art or vandalism, but there is some element of art to it,” says Elliott. “The work I do is intended to spark joy and bring creativity to a space and to whoever finds it. My vision is to keep following this thread of having a bit of fun while making colourful art in places where you don’t expect it.”
Following the thread — if you can pardon the pun — is actually a fundamental element of the Rock Vandal’s work. Elliott offers an interactive experience for her audience with her “shape-oriented” yarnbombs, as she describes them. By layering and sewing doilies into intricately patterned angel wings, for example, she encourages onlookers to step into the artwork, transitioning it from two to three dimensional, then to snap a photo and share it via social media.
“I like for people to see my art and enjoy it, but I really like when people engage with it,” says Elliott. “I like to work on pieces that are not quite complete without the viewer in the installation.”
The social element is all the more interesting in this charming island community of less than 2,200 people. While Twillingate, like many parts of the province, experiences a population explosion during tourism season, it’s otherwise a quiet place. Off the beaten path, it is an overfive- hour drive from the capital of St. John’s and 90 minutes from the closest airport in Gander. Tourists trek here, unofficially the iceberg capital of the world, for their chance to get up close and personal with a chop off the old glacial block. Others come to experience life in a rural fishing community — despite fisheries and plant closures across the province, the fishery remains a source of employment in this region, when elsewhere signs of the fishery are often a nostalgic reminder of yesteryear. Twillingate is also a hiker’s and kayaker’s paradise, with its rock faces towering above the Atlantic Ocean and coves twisting and folding, granting sheltered spots for nesting seabirds and whale watchers. Even with these outdoorsy perks, for a 30-something like Elliott, moving here was a move against the grain. At a time when the rest of Canada is growing, this province’s population is shrinking. Tourism is the season that brings people for a good time but not a long time. To put it in context, Elliott moved here from Hamilton, a city with a population of over half a million, roughly the same size as the entire population of Newfoundland and Labrador. The median age in Twillingate is 55-years-old, higher than Canadian and provincial averages of 46 and 41 years-old, respectively. The older demographic in the province is yet another sign of outmigration, among other factors, as young adults leave their rural communities and the province for education and career prospects elsewhere.
The kind of person who thrives in a place like this is the make-your-own-entertainment type like Elliott.
A couple of years ago, while travelling with family through Twillingate, I first happened upon the Rock Vandal’s work. On our way to Long Point Lighthouse, we spotted a knit happy-face emoji with the tagline “Knit happens.” In town, we came across a half-dozen more smiling, crying and kissing emojis. Then, on an abandoned building facing Notre Dame Bay, we saw a crochet heart with the message “Always choose love.” Among her fan-favourites is a yarnbomb featuring a crocheted codfish with Purity hard bread set against a red and white checkered tablecloth with the question, “Can you smell what the Rock Vandal is cooking?” The answer: fish and brewis, a traditional Newfoundland meal of salt cod and hard tack.
As I came to learn more about the Rock Vandal, I realized her work is more than a pleasant distraction in a picturesque setting. Sometimes her yarnbombing ventures into craftivism, where craft meets activism or crafting for a cause. In February 2015, for example, the Rock Vandal launched her first act of craftivism with a project she called Old Manolis and the Sea. The Manolis L was a paper carrier that sank off the coast of the Change Islands in Newfoundland in 1985. The wreck sat dormant for years, but a storm disturbed the vessel, dislodging 500 tonnes of fuel into its hull. While the Canadian Coast Guard reported the situation was under control at that time, concerned citizens feared the shipwreck would leak oil. If that happened, it would spell devastation for the nearby fisherydependent communities. To mark the 30th anniversary of the wreckage and as an act of silent protest, Elliott knit and displayed sea stars (or star fish), which are “widely considered good bio-indicators of marine ecosystems,” she wrote on her blog. “I got a really cool response (to the Manolis project) because it had an element of environmentalism, community action and connection through creativity,” says Elliott, who was relieved when the Canadian Coast Guard cleaned up the oil three years later in September 2018.
Last summer, the Rock Vandal struck again, this time using her crocheting skills to silently protest a Crime Stoppers poster campaign gone wrong in downtown St. John’s. The posters, which displayed anonymous tips, had been designed to raise awareness of Crime Stoppers’ raison d’être, according to news media. Instead, local business owners and residents criticized the campaign, arguing it left a false impression of one of the country’s safest capitals.
One of the posters read “The time was 7:30 p.m. I saw them in the alleyway with a crack pipe.” Another read “The time was 1:33 a.m. He was holding a can of spray paint and wearing white high-top sneakers. He tagged the building.” By contrast, the Rock Vandal posted crocheted signs that read: “It was 10 p.m. She had hooked all day. The rug was done” and “It was 6 p.m. The stranger asked for directions then said thank you very much.”
The community’s reaction to Elliott’s yarnbombs — craftivism and all — has been unflinchingly positive. Her most recent act of craftivism earned her glowing news media reports, but it’s the hometown support back in Twillingate that means the most to Elliott. There, the Rock Vandal has few spaces to feature her work and is dependent on business owners for the most visible real estate. One such business is Split Rock Brewing Co. and Stage Head Pub. Co-owners Matt and Allison Vincent say they love how tourists engage with the Rock Vandal’s work, adding that yarnbombing is good for business because it attracts customers.
“Rock Vandal has brought a unique artistic experience to our community,” says Allison Vincent, “We are always excited to see what might show up next and how our patrons will react to it. During the tourist season, our brewery team would look out the window to see people stopping for photos with the latest yarnbomb. Then they might notice the fermenters in the window and realize, ‘Oh, there’s a brewery here,’ and stop in. We enjoy it as much as our customers.”
The Vincents say they were particularly delighted when Homer Simpson arrived stapled to the clapboard outside the pub, making the switch from his usual Duff Beer to craft beer. Then, when Waldo appeared, the pub picked up a Where’s Waldo book, so patrons could further get in on the fun. Business owners also appreciate Elliott’s respectful approach — she always seeks permission and never leaves an installation up for more than a month at a time.
There’s also the novelty factor. Elliott figures she’s the only one consistently yarnbombing, certainly in the province, but likely the entire country too. Her work has also gone international. Besides having yarnbombs in Newfoundland (in Twillingate, Gander and St. John’s) and in her hometown of Hamilton, her work has appeared throughout Southeast Asia. In 2016, Elliott spent 13 months travelling in that area, knitting something unique for each country she visited while studying yoga. Then, last year, as part of the world’s first-ever yarnbombing festival, the works of 80 different artists, including the Rock Vandal, decorated the mountains of Trivento, Italy. Being a part of the international yarnbombing community motivates Elliott to keep evolving her art.
“That’s what’s cool about social media. You find your little tribe or niche, and you support each other by showing you are continuing with this practice,” says Elliott, who also interviews fellow yarnbombers and features them on her website.
Her main reason for yarnbombing comes down to making people happy.
“Instead of knitting a hat for one person,” she says, “I could knit something for the community that everybody would like. There’s a warmth and comfort associated with fibre art, knitting and crochet. We all have strong associations like that with some loved one, or it’s physical warmth because it’s cold outside. I hope it makes people just kind of unplug, just take a moment and see the world around them because it’s something unexpected.”
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