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Purls over Broadway

Thread of an idea becomes community art project marking bridge birthday, helping homeless


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Malissa Heinen, Kristin Leamy and other members of the Timbers Army Loopers and Knitters (TALK) are helping prepare squares for the Broadway Bridge centennial celebration, which means therell be plenty of green and yellow involved in the project.What do you give the Broadway Bridge for its 100th birthday?

A hand-knitted blanket might be nice. But 42 hand-knitted blankets might be nicer.

Thus the Bridge for Blankets project came about, the brainchild of Tyler Mackie, a 32-year-old Northeast Portland resident. Her big idea: wrap the bridge in blankets constructed from 1,500 hand-knitted, 12-inch squares.

But then Mackie, who has a degree in fine arts from Oregon State University, had another thought.

“I wanted this to be a social engagement — art engaged with the community. So I had the idea to donate the blankets to a homeless shelter after they were removed from the bridge,” she says.

Although the official birthday party for the bridge took place April 21, the celebration for its centennial is ongoing throughout the year. The Bridge for Blankets art installation will take place in late July, culminating in an Aug. 10 block party, sponsored by the PDX Bridge Festival.

Since late February, more than 100 Portland-area knitters have been busily crafting colorful squares that make up the blankets, so Mackie does not need people to pick up their needles and pitch in.

“What I need now is donations. I need the community to help pay for the yarn for the blankets, which are going back to the community,” Mackie says.

by: COURTESY OF DICK TRTEK - Tyler Mackie came up with the idea for Bridge for Blankets when she spotted a tiny yarn bomb on the Broadway Bridge one day as she was biking over it. The blankets will be installed in late July for a block party.She ordered all the yarn at once, since that was most economical, and although Abundant Yarn and Cascade Yarns gave her discounts, she needs to raise more than $10,000 to pay for the materials. Mackie felt it was important to give the yarn free to all the volunteer knitters, because Bridge for Blankets is a community art project.

She encourages people to visit the website pdxbridgefestival.org, click on Bridge for Blankets, and donate to the indiegogo account. All donations are tax-deductible.

Earlier this year, inspiration struck Mackie as she was crossing the Broadway Bridge and noticed a little “yarn bomb,” a small hand-crafted knitted piece, on one of the pedestrian handrails.

A yarn bomb, she says, is like “soft graffiti that can easily be removed.”

She also was inspired by a large-scale art project that she followed online, where a group of women got together in Portugal, crocheted traditional white bibs, and hung them over a bridge.

With that in mind, Mackie decided she wanted to do a project “where a group of individuals could take ownership over a portion of a public space.”

She began visualizing a huge blanket hanging from the Broadway Bridge down toward the water. On advice from bridge engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, Mackie later modified the idea so the blankets would be installed on the upper part of the bridge and not have any impact on river traffic.

“I initially thought the blankets should be knitted out of acrylic yarn, but Sally Palin, at Close Knit on Alberta, suggested Cascade 220, a super-wash wool. Wool is warmer, and we decided we wanted to be able to wash the blankets after they came down from the bridge. We wanted the recipients to be able to wash them,” Mackie says.

She chose the colors for the blankets based on the chakras, a Hindu metaphysical tradition and belief system that “focuses on the way energies flow through the body,” she says.

“Red is rooted from the earth, and energy flows up from there with orange, yellow, green, light blue, indigo and violet,” Mackie says.

Once she had the creative aspect of the project nailed down, Mackie knew she needed to get permission from the county and the bridge engineers to make it work. She made a presentation in February to the Multnomah County commissioners, and they were unanimously in favor of the project.

“We have in-kind support from the county to pay employees to install the blankets and take them down, and I will be there to supervise,” Mackie says.

Nuts about knitting

The Bridge for Blankets project has united a community of knitters throughout the Portland area and beyond, some of them breaking out their needles for the first time in many years.

Sixteen women residents at The Springs at Tanasbourne, a Hillsboro retirement community, signed on to create 60 squares in a variety of colors. Most of the women are in their 80s and have been knitting for upward of 40 years, says Marlene Schenter, who heads the Ladies Club, a group that meets weekly to do needlework of various kinds.

They wanted to participate in the project, and since they can knit, the yarn was given to them and deemed a worthy service project, Schenter said.

Elcena White, one of the volunteers, had not knitted since she was in high school, when she made blankets for servicemen in World War II.

“Someone cast on for me, and I picked up my needles, and it just all came back to me,” she says.

And then there’s the Timbers Army Loopers and Knitters, or TALK, a group of about 49 Timbers Army fans who have been meeting for more than a year at different homes. Everyone brings a nosh and drink and they craft, talk soccer and more, says Janet Potter, a member of the group.

It’s a given that the members all love soccer and the Timbers, but a dozen volunteers are knitting squares for Bridge for Blankets for a variety of reasons.

“We were told by our team leader that there are enough people on our team that we get to fully represent the Timbers by knitting the green and the gold (yellow) color blocks. Added to the fun, the skeins are not all the same shade/tone of each color, so we were told to have as much fun mixing shades within our colors as we could. This is going to add texture and individuality to each person’s squares and make this project more of an artistic expression,” says Sunday White, one of the TALK members.

“The Broadway Bridge was part of my and my children’s life. I think this art project that gives back to the poorest of our neighbors is wonderful,” Potter says.

“When it was brought to my attention, I thought, what a great way to be able to yarn bomb a bridge. It was very appealing, and we get to help people when it gets cold. Wool can keep you warm even if it is wet and here, in Portland, that is very important if you’re living on the streets,” says Malissa Heinen, another TALK member.

“I’m very excited to see the banners all put together, and when I see them broken down into the 42 afghans it will be even better. The Timbers Army Loopers and Knitters have all the green and yellow, and to know that this entire group has found another way to help is wonderful,”she says.


Bridge Knit

Visit www.pdxbridgefestival.org, and scroll down to Bridge for Blankets Public Art, for more information about the project, to donate to the fundraising account, and to learn more about Tyler Mackie.

Or visit www.indiegogo.com/projects/bridge-for-blankets—8?show_todos=true.

Donations by mail also are welcome. Send them to Bridge for Blankets, 3111 S.E. 13th Ave., Portland 97202.