The Kudzu Project: Cultural Organizing Spreads!

Note: In November, Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard interviewed Margo Smith, of Charlottesville, Virginia. As a Citizen Artist, Margo originated The Kudzu Project, a guerrilla knitting project. Kudzu is a fast-growing perennial vine introduced to the U.S. from Japan more than 150 years ago. In the southern U.S., it’s not uncommon to see entire landscapes covered in kudzu; in fact, the vine can cover trees so completely that they die from light deprivation. Participants in this project followed patterns to create knitted kudzu leaves and vines that were assembled into a blanket to be draped over Confederate statues. Read on to learn how a work of art created for a USDAC National Action inspired the project and where it is headed.

Arlene Goldbard: How did The Kudzu Project come to be?

Margo Smith: Around the time of the violent white supremacist marches in Charlottesville on August 11 and 12, 2017, some people I'm friends with on Facebook in the arts community posted Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide. The little image that came up with it was by Dave Loewenstein.

Arlene: Yes, Dave originally created a series of “Defunct Monuments” postcards for our national action #RevolutionofValues (click the link and scroll down to see them) last April. They show the Wall Street bull (materialism), a tank (militarism), and a Confederate statue (racism), all completely overgrown with a green vine. We thought they’d be useful for people who were contemplating artistic response to the marches in Charlottesville and their aftermath.

 Created by Dave Loewenstein for  #RevolutionOfValues 2017 .

Created by Dave Loewenstein for #RevolutionOfValues 2017.

Margo: That image stuck in my mind. I'm a knitter and even before August 11th and 12th, I’d been thinking, is there some kind of knitting intervention we could do with the Confederate statues? I was driving to work one day and it just all of a sudden hit me. The image popped in my mind. I thought we could realize the vision that this artist had of vine-covered statues. And then I thought, “Kudzu, oh my God, it's got to be kudzu because that is just so Southern!”

It flooded in my mind, all of these ideas. Call it The Kudzu Project and get people to knit the leaves and put all this Kudzu together in a way that we could blanket a statue. Before I even had any partners or participants, I just thought to grab the social media for The Kudzu Project. I don't think I slept for two nights because I was so energized by the idea. Then I went and got some advice from some people who I knew did guerrilla knitting.

I shared the idea with a few people close to me. Not everybody liked it at first. Partly I think because of the Confederate statues, the idea that well, they're not all bad, you know? I had ancestors who fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War and on the Union side as well. After August 11th and 12th, I went to a meeting that was held over at the University of Virginia where we discussed Art Became the Oxygen, a kind of brain-storming session about how artists could respond.

[Note: This discussion followed the USDAC’s Citizen Artist Salon on artistic response; folks in Charlottesville tuned in, then had their own planning meeting. You can enter your name here to access the Salon recording and do the same!]

I alluded to the idea just briefly in the meeting, but I didn't explain it yet because I wasn't sure just how it was going to happen. A guerrilla knitter advised me to try to keep the idea a secret; that would be part of its impact. I did a little bit of knitting to figure out how to make a kudzu leaf and came up with a pattern. I circulated that through my own knitting network. I went the yarn stores and asked them to help circulate it, but just among people we knew so that there wouldn't be any risk of it being made public prematurely.

Arlene: When did you cover the first statue?

Margo: The first one we did for practice at the cemetery at the University of Virginia. It's a Confederate cemetery. We figured it was about the same size as the statue in front of the courthouse but it's not such a public space. We thought we could get it up and get it off without drawing a lot of attention. We tried that the weekend before we actually launched The Kudzu Project. It gave us an idea of how it would fit on the statue and how we could hang it and that we needed to add a little bit more Kudzu in various places. It went really well.

 Kudzu installation, Confederate cemetery, University of VA, Charlottesville, 17 November 2017

Kudzu installation, Confederate cemetery, University of VA, Charlottesville, 17 November 2017

Arlene: And then the Albemarle County Courthouse on November 9, 2017?

Margo: Yes. We went in the very early hours of the morning to the Confederate soldier statue in front of the courthouse. There was nobody about. It was raining, so putting it up was a little difficult. The rain made it heavier. Then—this is the part where I really learned a big lesson—we left very briefly. We were waiting for it to get light enough to take photos. When we got back someone had already taken it down. We should have secured it on the statue, wrapped it around the rifle or something.

We put it up on November 9th because that was the day that Christopher Cantwell—who's been called by the press “the crying Nazi”—he was having his preliminary hearing at the Albemarle County Courthouse. That courthouse is right in the heart of Charlottesville, just blocks away from where the Unite the Right rally was supposed to be held. I thought it would be good to send a message because the statues were the starting point for the KKK and Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville. There might be press there and it might be an opportunity to show a community response. I was also hopeful that the people at the courthouse would have their hands full and maybe not be able to do anything about it straightaway, so it would be seen by more people. We figured it would be taken down and we might not even get it back.

Arlene: Wow, that would have been a loss! A lot went into creating the kudzu blanket, didn’t it?

Margo: Yes, people from all over did this knitting and sent it in—a lot of local people and then people as far away as Philadelphia. Hundreds, probably thousands of hours of knitting all told. We got photos of the installation. But when we went back, there was just this one single strand of Kudzu hanging from the rifle. It's kind of pathetic but we got a picture of that too. Then I went home and I wrote up the press release, including the fact that it was taken down. [Note: You can find links to press coverage here.]

Even though the idea started with me, there was a group of us figuring out how to do the installation and actually assembling the project. We ended up sewing all this knitted Kudzu and vines onto netting to get the drape you want but still be able to see the statue underneath. A few people helped in such an enormous way, but don't want their names out there.

Arlene: Say a little more about guerrilla knitting. What is it?

Margo: Guerrilla knitting is the unauthorized installation of knitted projects in a public setting. I wasn't aware of it until a few years back, even before I started knitting, when I saw some knitted tree trunks in Melbourne, Australia. I thought they're charming, they're fascinating, wonderful. I guess my first experience with this kind of political knitting and protest was the pussy hat project for the Women’s March last January. I put out on social media that I’d knit pussy hats for the next four people who tell me they want them. I ended up knitting seven pussy hats.

Arlene: And the future?

Margo: I'm interested in future projects like this where we can make a statement and do things collectively that'll be really impactful because of the number of people that they involve and the number of people that they reach. It can be a big visual sign of resistance or support.

I haven't heard from anybody yet who wants to do a Kudzu installation in their community. A lot of people here want to be a part of it going forward. I want to propose this to Charlottesville City Council, to see if they would allow us to cover one or both of the equestrian statues with kudzu. That would be a larger project that would involve more people and put it out there as an authorized project. So it wouldn't be a guerrilla knitting project so much; it would be an authorized art installation involving people from here and those elsewhere who might want to send in their kudzu in solidarity with the people of Charlottesville.

I don't know whether or not that's even possible. I do know the city council was entertaining ideas for ways to cover the statues other than the black plastic bags that are on them now which just look like giant garbage bags. So we'll see. Because we still have the original Kudzu Project blanket, we are hoping to deploy it again.

I'd love to see The Kudzu Project have more use in other communities too. If there are people reading this who might be using art in an activist way and have an idea, get in touch! Just write to thekudzuproject@gmail.com.

Arlene: You might want to have that as one of your website’s menu items, right? “Invite The Kudzu Project to blanket your objectionable statues.”

Implicit in what you're saying is the threshold here is different than other kinds of activism because you do something that gives you pleasure and that you have skill at and that you enjoy and is pretty benign—knitting. But then you get to deploy it in a way that can awaken awareness and interest other people in the issues. That seems really fun and effective and important. I just love that you did this. Thanks for talking with us!

Note: for the latest from The Kudzu Project, check out this story on a “flash installation” of kudzu at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, VA, a small town 40 miles west of Charlottesville.

Kudzu high school 12-19-17.jpg