Graff 101: Naomi Rag
I've taught The Art History of Graffiti and Street Art class every other semester or so since 2011 at City College. Every semester we meet with a section of amazing artists. On Wednesday July 17 the hottest day of the year so far we wandered over to 121st Street and and 6th Avenue to meet with florist / yarn-bomber the marvelous Naomi Rag. My students and I were enamored of her tag - Naomi her first name, and in true old school style the R.A.G. for "Random Acts of Generosity," a perfect nom de crochet and according to one pupil, "a cool way to remind yourself to always help others." We met under her current site specific collaborative work titled La Flor De Mi Madre made up of the national flowers of the countries represented in this part of East Harlem - Dalia for Mexico, Frangipani for the Ivory Coast, Christmas Orchid for Columbia, Bayahibe for The Dominican Republic, Hibiscus for Puerto Rico, and Impala Lilies for Ghana. Then in an "across the pond lilt" and dandelion image of one of her works used in on the TV series "The Village" tattooed on her wrist, she spoke to us about gifting, community, sudden fame, living in Harlem, and giving back.
This is what my students had to say about the visit.
Amy L. Young
Reph: I think it’s dope that she’s a florist and brings that skill to yarn bombing. It makes the work more realistic and relevant since she changes the flowers seasonally. The fact that she had flowers from all over the Latin American diaspora on the gate was impressive and I’m sure people who recognize those flowers really enjoy seeing them. I was also impressed by how she balances her time between her family life and the work, knitting is a time-consuming art form, especially in the sizes she’s doing it. It was interesting that during our conversation she acknowledged that although her intentions are positive she is concerned about how her privilege takes space from artists of color who are from El Barrio where her work is mostly found. I think it was good that she tries to alleviate that by collaborating with community-based artists to create these pieces but I think the situation is complicated and unfortunately she’s in the middle of it.
Ruben: Naomi Rag in particular was an amazing example of a very culturally sensitive and people oriented artist. She told how with each of her pieces that she puts up around mostly East Harlem but other places in the city as well, she makes sure that she is collaborating with people of the neighborhood to create and erect each piece. Even more impressive than this, she sees these people as her brothers and sisters and not just as a way to “become accepted” by the neighborhood. In the case of her latest piece, “Flores de mi Madre,” she hired each of the people from her neighborhood and paid them properly. She said, “I was not just going to pay these people minimum wage because they are skilled artists like me and they deserve to be paid well.” Naomi’s pieces are flowers, because she was trained as a florist and loves flowers, but more because she believes that flowers are an image that brings people together and then she can use the images to speak on other issues. With the piece, “Flores de mi Madre,” Naomi purposely created flowers that represented the various ethnic groups of the neighborhood. She jokingly said, “Yes the Puerto Rican flower is up there twice because the Puerto Ricans like being noticed…..also they are the largest ethnic group on my neighborhood.” Even though Naomi is a British native, she has come into Spanish Harlem and for the last five years has given not just her art but also her heart to the people of the place she now calls home. This artist is an example of grassroots street art that truly benefits the community that the art is in.
Nicholas: Initially from the U.K, Naomi Rag initially began to work as a florist. Upon meeting her husband; living in Cambridge opened her eyes regarding the reception that people offered regarding her work. As a result, Naomi, became Naomi Rag as to stand for “Random Acts of Generosity.” The acronym fits perfectly in the world of street art, as the use of an organic fabric, blends well with the term rag. Her inspiration derives from flowers, with an interest in the works of Georgia O’Keefe. Notably, her work was noticed in the East Harlem area by an employee of NBC. This resulted in her creating two works of art, dandelions, for the show The Village. The two works were collected by NBC, as for one to use on set and the other for backup as in extra.
Badiallo: Meeting with Naomi RAG, it amazing to find out that she had initially begun her career as a florist and then transitioned into creating flowers out of yarn for public art services. While speaking to the artist, her passion and morals were very prevalent in her words. For one, she based all of her works around her community. It always deeply upsets her when people try to take or destroy her work as they are symbols of her community and are created for them. She even makes endeavors to reach a broad range of people by allowing people to create small flowers all over the world and sending them back to her to stitch together. Although she tries to refrain from political messages within her work, she chooses to represent the important things that she cares about through the specific type or species of flowers. I think that that is an amazing way to be subtle and blunt at the same time about significant topics through works of art. It is a great way to avoid any opposers from having works that are so forward, however, the message will reach people who understand and who appreciate it. For example, one of her past works included a white lily for a victim of gun violence and she has also used red flowers to show her solidarity for Puerto Rico. This is the artist and person I aspire to be as I wish to create art in ways that benefit everyone. Her selfless ways of trying to mend a greater and larger community are inspirational to a young and upcoming artist such as myself.
Sean: Seeing yarn bombing done on such a large scale was really awe-inspiring, especially after hearing that each one of the larger flowers in her composition took over 30-40 hours to create. Perhaps my favorite part about Naomi’s work is that she hires local men and women from the communities to help her knit the pieces, and through the help of grants from local government and arts foundations she is able to pay them the same rate that she would be asking for making her work. That’s really great, and something I think is very important when artists consider putting pieces up in all kinds of different neighborhoods across the city. Giving back to her community in the form of art and employment is a great act of generosity, and an inspiring move. I can’t wait to see more work of hers around the city, and hear more about her community oriented projects. It would be cool to see her collaborate with other yarn-bombers in the city and maybe do something super large scale, like cover a billboard or an abandoned building in yarn! It would also be cool to see her collaborate with street artists of other mediums, to see how yarn-bombing and traditional forms of street art can work together.
Elias: Meeting with Naomi Rag helped with understanding a lot of logistical aspects of street art. Yarn bombing has a lot of differences from traditional street art, one reason being that the art can be stolen. It was slightly bizarre to learn about her Valentine’s day rose that was taken down a day before her birthday, and how when she made a point of asking for it back, the students of the school where the rose was initially placed all wrote out thank you notes to her and arranged them in the shape of a rose. The whole event wouldn’t be able to happen with an artist that only uses paint, having your piece white-washed feels more like an inevitability than someone stealing the art you worked hard on, unless you’re Banksy and someone cuts your piece out of the wall. I thought her take on gentrification was somewhat surface level, as she chose not to define her art as “beautifying” a neighborhood. She has received nothing but encouragement from people in the neighborhoods she works in, however, which is a fantastic thing for her to claim. I also loved hearing about how polite some people in England are concerning street art, especially the woman who folded up one of her pieces and put it on her doorstep. Here, the piece is either lost, or in pieces in a trashcan. Similarly, the way her art was treated in a small town is a huge difference from the city, getting a lot more attention and even newspaper interviews in the small town compared to NYC, where everyone already knows about street artists.
Faolan: The one thing she experienced from New Yorkers was a sense of community. When artists are working and putting up these pieces of artwork, there is a sense of respect from the bystanders. She found this inspiring and grew to love the sense of community that the people of Harlem gave her. I really enjoyed her visit and she taught me a lot. You could feel her passion and love for her craft and that she viewed her medium as more than just yarn but something that has limitless potential. You can tell she is a confident person and has great morals and I really loved what she had to say. She also talked about mixing more inspirations of graffiti and spray paint into her artwork. Personally, I feel like if she were to find a way to pull this off it would be amazing. There both two forms of street art that are inherently different and if you could pull that off it would be super tuff. I hope to see that one day and hope that more great artists like Naomi Rag come around.
Mariah: When I first heard yarn bombing, I was very confused on the verb and when explained that yarn bombing is crochet pieces used in street art I thought “oh, that’s cute.” Little did I know it’s not your regular granny making these crochet pieces but rather artistic people brightening city corners with cool knit pieces. One of these humans is Naomi Rag, and her British accent did take me by surprise. She is the epitome of an artist, and very real and called her piece on 121st and Park Ave a public art piece, claiming she is a “street artist who so happens to make public art.” She told of the time she put up crochet blankets around her home town on trees with her friends and how they were taken down by an elderly woman on the block, folded and placed on their front stoops. Probably one of the pettiest yet respectful way of telling someone “your art doesn’t belong here.”
Daisy: Found it very interesting that she would create pieces for people if they ask her too in return for nothing. Every street artist we have met have said that you shouldn’t get attached to the work you create. This makes a lot of sense since when you are creating these pieces, they don’t really last a long time due to the fact of people buffing them. This reminds me of an artist who stated that the best part about creating is knowing that your piece is going to be thrown away.
Alexis: A beautiful story that Naomi shared was, when someone stole one of her pieces that she worked very hard on. In a pitiful response, she wrote a note by where her yarn bomb was taken down [sacrastically] applauding the person who took down her work. But to her surprise, it wasn’t the person who took it down that responded but rather the community supporting her in sadness for the fact that her piece was taken down.
Seth: I had suspected that underneath the surface layer of ridiculousness that yarn-bombing thrusts forward, that underneath was a gritty and dedicated desire to construct work and hang it in public, on a gigantic scale, for all to see. Naomi Rag proved my suspicions in the most epic of ways, admitting she had in fact spent upwards of fifty hours on the piece we were standing in front of. I thought it was interesting that Naomi also discussed the business side of things, as I would love to someday be so skilled in a medium that I can work on commission. Specifically, the point she brought up surrounding deadlines and how unrealistic they can sometimes (often) be is something which most working artists and designers I know constantly bring up. The pressure of deadlines in the art world are fierce, and when one is given a certain amount of time to be creative it can often deter from their enjoyment and therefore sacrifice your output. Yet I feel like she does not let the business side of the work influence her art.
Ricky: Naomi is invested, supported by, and woven into her dynamically energetic community of East Harlem. Being active and a creative person in her community is important for her. Her and her husband have strong long-term ties with religious organizations and ministries. Consequently her work has always been in tuned with outreach, and community growth. She found a calling and although a self proclaimed ‘hermit crab’ she found a way to come out of the comfort of her shell and engage with the community. Partnering with with The Marcus Garvey Park Alliance and the Parks Department she created a magnificent work to be admired by the neighborhood, the Amtrak travelers traveling into the city adjacent to the park, and the residents of the elderly home across the street.
Derek: Naomi Rag is a product of society's split understanding of street art. Like Aaron Li-Hill, she was not U.S. based and her upbringings is as a knit artist. Nonetheless her credit of creating original and self practiced work should’ve been accredited the same. Unfortunately this trip helped me understand the opposite side of the spectrum. Through my experience of other street artists, they trended producing deeper content in their works, in this case Naomi Rags installations are more so aimed at beautification. This brings to question if her work is as valid, dependent on the viewer like all art it’s subjective. I digested her work as unique and a positive addition to the environment. Unlike the nature or perception of graffiti art, knit bombing is easily taken as a pleasant form of art. Especially since her composition involves flowers and nature, yet society, more specifically street artist and critics made claims to defame her presence to do work in New York. I remember her stating her crowd’s outburst of opinions, some referring to her as a “white devil.” This shows even though the world has grown from its previous perception of graffiti, there will always be an opposing outlook to the subject of street art. Ironically, despite the origin of street art coming from this city streets, credit is still highly criticized by its people. Leaving me to wonder what is acceptable art?