CUNY J-School, Words
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A Different Kind of Street Art in El Barrio- No Politics Included

As Naomi Lawrence walked along 102nd Street in East Harlem carrying one of her twin 4-month-old girls on a harness, she passed a fence adorned with yarn in red, orange and yellow hues that formed a hibiscus flower. It was one of Lawrence’s yarn bombs, a street art technique that uses yarn instead of paint to adorn fences, lampposts and other city objects.

It’s not uncommon to see vivid colors around the neighborhood. The streets are notorious for politically charged art that display the multicultural roots of its residents. But Lawrence says her work has no politics.

“I’m decorating the urban jungle with color and texture,” said Lawrence. “I love that I can bring the flowers we see in the park to the streets.” She uses yarn bombing — a street art technique that substitutes paint for yarn — to adorn streets, fences and trees mostly with flowers, an initiative that she describes as “random acts of generosity.”

It’s no coincidence that Lawrence, 39, opted for a floral theme. She worked as a florist in London prior to moving to New York in 2014, when her husband Chris became a minister at the Church of the Living Hope on East 104th Street. But it was her love for Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist best-known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, that influenced Lawrence’s yarn bombing style.

She uses acrylic yarn and a 10-millimeter hook to create her flowers, which she knits at home and later sews onto her urban canvases. It’s not a one-woman effort, though. Lawrence has a network of helpers around the neighborhood.

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Lawrence said that before she found her calling as an artist, she struggled to choose a career path. Yet, she said, her creativity has always been at play.

Her mother had taught her how to knit when she was a kid but she said she learned how to crochet — the technique she uses for her flowers — in 2009. “I am an artist, and I suppose I always have been,” she said. “But it took time for me to find the thing that clicked.”

Her artistic endeavor has also become her way into the community. She runs a monthly craft group and maintains a free library at the husband’s church. And she has teamed up with the Harlem Arts Collective, a group that supports the art scene in East Harlem, and that has featured Lawrence’s work in their Guerrilla Gallery on 116th Street.

The art scene in El Barrio has a history of Latin American symbolism but Lawrence has been accepted with open arms. “This neighborhood has always been about people that come from elsewhere, no matter if they are Latin, European or any other part of the world,” said Marisa Staffers, 56, a member of the Harlem Arts Collective.

The hibiscus flower that Lawrence put on the 102nd Street gate has started to get dusty after six months. Still, the bright colors are intact enough to beautify an oxidized fence in a derelict corner of El Barrio. Lawrence smiled with pride as she was photographed in front of the artwork. “It took time,” she said. “But I feel a lot of peace about what I do now.”

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