GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - ideas about the subtle power of art to transform the way each of us sees the world.
MAGDA SAYEG: I say something similar to that. I always say, like, art won't solve world hunger or war, but it can provoke people to critically think hopefully.
RAZ: This is Magda Sayeg. She's a textile artist, and she basically invented yarn bombing.
SAYEG: It's like any street art, but instead of a spray can, I picked up knitting.
RAZ: Magda essentially covers random objects on the street in yarn. It's kind of like knitting a sweater for a stop sign or a street pole or fire hydrants.
SAYEG: I've done 30-foot statues. I've done stairwells. I've done columns that span seven stories that are 100 inches in circumference, a hundred trees in front of the Capitol. Some of my biggest projects are definitely the bus in Mexico City that happened in 2007.
RAZ: A whole bus - an entire bus?
SAYEG: Yeah. And what was interesting about that is that, at the time, it was considered the largest object to be covered in knitting. And then from that point on, I just wanted to go bigger or weirder or do hundreds of small things. So, you know, I couldn't stop after that.
RAZ: It feels like, in the middle of the night, like, magical elves came in and just knitted all this cool stuff everywhere. I've seen it. And I think these elves came in the middle the night and made this happen.
SAYEG: Well, I mean, you do do it incognito. No one gave you permission to do this. So you kind of have to do it without getting caught. Now, granted, people with knitting don't usually look like they're threatening in any way. And it's not really caustic. Or people don't really consider it vandalism. But it's, you know, it's going on other people's property or city property and putting your knitting on it.
RAZ: So how did you start doing this? Like, how'd it start?
SAYEG: I was barely 30. And I was sitting in my shop. I had a clothing shop back then. And I - it was a cold winter day. And it was very gray. And I personally wanted to see something handmade and colorful and something that put a smile on my face and made me happy. And so I knitted the door handle.
And it was a very selfish pursuit. I didn't care what other people thought. I wanted this. But little did I know that people that would pass by my shop were also sort of intrigued and effected by it. And they would walk in and ask me about it. And I really did not realize that it would have this kind of effect on other people.
RAZ: Here's Magda Sayeg on the TED stage.
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SAYEG: So clearly, the reaction was interesting. It intrigued me. And I thought, what else could I do? Could I do something, like, in the public domain that would get the same reaction? So I wrapped the stop sign pole near my house. The reaction was wild. It was like people would park their cars and get out of their cars and stare at it and take pictures of it and take pictures next to it and all of that was really exciting to me. And I wanted to do every stop sign pole in the neighborhood. And the more that I did, the stronger the reaction.
So at this point, I'm smitten. I'm hooked. This was all seductive. I found my new passion. Any urban environment was my playground. And I realized something - we all live in this fast-paced digital world, but we still crave and desire something that's relatable. I think we've all become desensitized by our overdeveloped cities that we live in and billboards and advertisements and giant parking lots. And we don't even complain about that stuff anymore.
So when you stumble upon a stop sign pole that's wrapped in knitting and it seems so out of place and then it gradually, weirdly, you find a connection to it - that is the moment. That is the moment I love. And that is the moment I love to share with others.
RAZ: All right. So eventually, you started to do bigger projects all over the world. And one of them is a statue of a guy holding a gun. Can you tell me about that one?
SAYEG: Yes. It is a statue of a soldier. And I went with cases and cases of material because my original intention was to cover the statue. But when I got there and I looked at the statue - stared at it for a solid 20 minutes - I realized that the significance, the meaning that I wanted to achieve would be from the the weapons - you know, the dagger and the gun that he was holding.
RAZ: Yeah. He's like this sort of bronze statue, very sort of stern and...
SAYEG: And intimidating.
RAZ: And intimidating. And then he (laughter) - he has this, like, yarn-covered pistol and a yarn-covered dagger and, like, these bright, like, yarn-y (ph) colors.
SAYEG: Yeah. And it really struck a chord with me because there is something really significant in this simple gesture of taking this material that represents nothing but love. I mean, I can't imagine it representing anything else, you know?
You knit for love. You knit for someone that you care for. And to put it on an object that only represents our instinct to kill or hatred - and, to me, it felt very significant to cover this weapon and symbolically obliterate it and paralyze its function by covering it with love.
RAZ: And, I mean, yarn bombing isn't just yours anymore, right? I mean, people all over the world have picked this up. You - people have covered tanks and the bull statue on Wall Street. And it's kind of like your work on that statue. I mean, it has a pretty powerful message - right? - because it's a lot different than covering a stop sign or a bike wreck with yarn.
SAYEG: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there's different meaning. A lot of the times, art is, you know, a response or has a social agenda to it. And it's quite successful.
SAYEG: We see this craft as something that's functional. That's domestic. We see it as a woman - women's work. And we're taking it out of all of those different boxes and putting it in this other world and reshaping objects with it and re-identifying them and enhancing them and even shining a new light on them. And I think that people are intrigued by that.
And if I can send a good message out, then that makes me so happy. As an artist, you hope that you can stimulate conversation and help community and help connection happen and dialogue with each other. And that's what I believe art can do.
RAZ: That's textile artist Magda Sayeg. You can see her full talk and some of her work at ted.com.
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