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Bridge for Blankets betters Broadway Bridge

Parkrose native Tyler Mackie created an art installation made of yarn-with help from many crafty knitters -marking the centennial of the Broadway Bridge this month. In September, after the celebrations, the exhibit will be deconstructed and dozens of blankets will go to social service agencies for distribution.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
Ten and a half six-foot square afghans comprise each of the four banners on display this August. Passers by take notice of Tyler Mackie's creation. To commemorate the Broadway Bridge's 100th birthday, PDX Bridge Festival holds a block party Tuesday, Aug. 10 at Northwest 9th Avenue and Hoyt Street. Coinciding with National Night Out crime prevention week, the festival features music; children's activities; bridge tours by authors, vendors and educational bridge-related displays.
This month, the Broadway Bridge links more than just two banks of the Willamette River; a temporary art installation-Bridge for Blankets-displayed on the bridge's high trellis, is the predominant feature of the fourth annual PDX Bridge Festival. This year's festival celebrates the centennial of the Pearl-Rose Quarter connector. It inspired Portland's crafty knitters to create a visually appealing piece of art with a practical purpose: to help warm families in need.

Parkrose native Tyler Mackie, who created the art installation, represents a bridging of expressions as well.

With both parents silversmiths, one grandmother possessing a green thumb while the other was craft-based, art was omnipresent in her life. “I took an intro to art class and they brought up this point about the division between fine art and craft and it felt like that established my mission statement right there,” said Mackie. “They identified the division in the textbook as craft is function and fine art is a visual feast and I wanted to figure out how they could be both.”

In 1999, after graduating from Parkrose High School, Mackie earned a Ford Family Foundation scholarship to study costume design at Oregon State University. While creating costumes for the OSU Theater, she studied painting and drawing. After OSU, Mackie pursued a graduate degree at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, completing her graduate thesis on sculptural craft-based fiber work.

Mackie started bridging craft with fine art by integrating embroidery with painting, but has lately moved away from painting, forming her pieces entirely in fabric.

Currently quilting and crocheting, she has joined a trend of young women, or young in relation to the age most associated with knitting, crocheting, quilting and the like, who have revived the craft of fabric work by transcending its conventions.

While traditional fabric craft applications involve clothing articles or homewares, some contemporary fabric craft artists have endeavored to soften the public landscapes of urban areas with a practice known as yarn bombing. The unsanctioned public art pieces (think fabric graffiti) have grown into a worldwide phenomenon, annually celebrated on International Yarn Bombing Day, which first took place in June of 2011.

The yarn bombs themselves assume many forms, but most commonly feature knit sleeves of patterned yarn encircling poles of street signs, park trees, bike racks and the like. Knitted by local yarn bomber Commuknitca-tion, one such sleeve, caught Mackie's attention on the eastbound walkway of the Broadway Bridge. It brought to mind a piece she had seen by the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, who draped a 49 foot by 115 foot handmade cotton crochet bib over the high arching Dom Luis bridge in Porto, Portugal.

Mackie felt inspired to honor the Broadway Bridge with a similar piece made of brightly colored knit banners hanging down from the bottom portion of the bridge towards the water. Unlike murals, such fabric-based artwork would have a necessary expiration date, but, since it employs knitwork, Mackie wanted the art to serve a dual purpose as blankets donated to homeless shelters after the piece was retired from public view. Initially, she contacted the Regional Arts and Culture Council seeking a grant for the temporary installation, but then a fellow knitter mentioned that she should submit it to the PDX Bridge Festival.

Founded in 2010 in recognition of the Hawthorne Bridge's centennial, the PDX Bridge Festival celebrates and educates on the Willamette bridges by sponsoring a range of events which have varied each year in recognition of the different bridges it celebrates.

The first festival also featured a fabric-themed art piece. Reviews on the lights triggered by traffic illuminating white canvas panels on the Hawthorne Bridge were mixed. The 2011 festival repeated the popular 'brunch on the bridge' event from 2010 and added a block party to its features, but limited funding and a shortage of volunteers curtailed the 2012 and 2013 celebrations.

This year's festival to commemorate the centennial of the Broadway Bridge began with cake at the Rose Quarter on its birthday, April 21 and wraps up with a block party on Aug. 10 at Northwest 9th Avenue and Hoyt Street. Coinciding with National Night Out crime prevention week, the festival features music; children's activities; bridge tours by authors and bridge enthusiast Sharon Wood Wortman (not to mention David Douglas High School graduate), vendors and educational bridge-related displays.

However, the most noticeable talisman of the festival is the realization of Mackie's Bridge for Blankets artwork, erected on July 20 and present throughout August.

Though Mackie admitted that she encountered little competition to win the installation, she clearly impressed the PDX Bridge Festival organizers, who invited the artist to join their board. “We loved the artist's enthusiasm and can-do attitude,” said Nancy Chapin, director of the PDX Bridge Festival. She said the Bridge for Blankets concept impressed them by “its audacity, its size, the concept of using the Broadway Bridge, not only for an art installation, but also the opportunity to help create beautiful blankets for families who need them.”

With the advice of fellow Bridge Festival board member and former Multnomah County maintenance supervisor Tony Lester, Mackie redesigned her project to hang higher on the bridge's upper trellis than originally planned, allaying Coast Guard concerns about the blankets dangling towards the water. After winning approval from the county, which owns the bridge, Mackie faced the tough task of making her dream come to fruition.

She embarked on a walk of faith to rally Portland's knitting community to her cause, launching a crowd-funding campaign through, and soliciting volunteer assistance. Over 150 knitters came to her aid. Mackie facilitated the quality control process through modern media, employing Facebook to disperse knitting advice and troubleshoot issues encountered by the volunteer knitters. “She is amazing with her ability to bring art and community together under such a very tight time schedule,” commented her mother, Sharon Mackie.

To construct the knit banners, Mackie purchased 840 skeins of Cascade Yarn Company's 220 super-wash wool yarn with the assistance of Seattle-area based Abundant Yarn Company who negotiated a 40 percent discount from Cascade Yarn for her project. The initial cost of the yarn and installation materials was $5,600.

Though acrylic fibers have a lower price tag, Mackie was concerned about the potential instability of the fibers after seeing synthetic yarn melt when burnt. She chose the Cascade super-wash because the natural fiber maintains its color and texture when machine-washed. The colors she selected compliment the bridge's rusty red hue and adheres to the Chakra color system, the Hindu metaphysical principle assigning bodily energy to the colors red, orange, green, yellow, blue, indigo, and violet. Displayed in order, the colors represent the push and pull of life.

To construct the four 18-foot by 21-foot knit banners, Mackie asked volunteers to knit 12-inch squares, 36 of which comprised one afghan. Ten-and-a-half such afghans make-up each bridge display panel. Mackie then hand-sewed four vertical and four horizontal four inch wide canvas reinforcement strips to help keep the shape of the knit work when on display. The four horizontal canvas strips were zip-tied to galvanized cables affixed to the latticework of the bridge to hold the banners in place.

Mackie credited her family not only with helping inspire her artistic ambitions, but also for serving as instrumental partners in the Bridge for Blankets project. “My mom's been gathering most stuff out of my parent's home in Maywood Park or at their business,” she said. Her parents own Art Craft Silversmiths at Southeast 12th Avenue and Powell Boulevard. Sharon Mackie helped distribute the yarn, recording volunteer's names and how much yarn they committed to knit, asking volunteers to sign a contract defining their responsibility to return their knitting by July 10 and obligating volunteers to return the yarn if they couldn't fulfill their commitment. The Mackies also hosted sewing parties at their home towards the end of the project, inviting volunteers to help stitch the individual afghans together.

“It is a very huge project and I have been by her side doing a lot of product organizing, charts, and gathering my team of knitters,” said Sharon Mackie. “Since I wound up distributing for three of the four panels, since we did it from our shop and we had the space, it means that I have had to keep track of 126 packets of yarn. Each packet has five skeins (approximately a $50 value) and knits nine one-foot squares. After all this I only have one knitter that left planet Earth with her yarn unknit. I think that is a pretty good percentage.”

Though organizing an all-volunteer effort had its stressful moments - some knitters overestimated the amount they could finish, returning pieces half-knit or in some cases not at all knit - Mackie had optimism in the ultimate effort. “We are really lucky that there are other volunteers who are so willing to make sure that this happens and they are really aware of the deadline so they are just knitting through,” she said a week before the first panel went up. As for the missing knitter she thought, “When they see it on the bridge maybe they would feel bad and they would give it back because that would be great.”

At the end of August, the banners will detach back into afghans and receive a good washing and repairs if needed before donation. Volunteers and donors can have their name sewed into the blankets as a personal signature at this point. Mackie predicts the second phase of the project will take about a month. She has yet to line up the recipients, but listed Human Solutions and SnowCap as likely beneficiaries.

If there is a surplus, she hopes to donate some to Doernbecher Children's Hospital.

How the afghans will weather the elements is anybody's guess.

Mackie predicted they will billow a bit in the wind, but the nature of the loose knit-work, fixed to the cables at multiple points and reinforced by the canvas should allow the banners to breathe.

“They might fade,” said Mackie. “I haven't spoken with Cascade about the light fastness of the colors but I imagine that they probably will.

Understanding her installation is outdoor, temporary art, Mackie expects wear and tear, but said it is difficult to predict how much. The legacy of the blankets surviving to warm the indigent excites her.

“It is a nice story to have with the blanket, not just the story of who made it, the story of the other place where it has been, up on a bridge in the summer sun.”

Mackie's mom added, “It's such a wonderful gift of love by all our knitters to the city, and for those that will receive these blankets.”

By definition, public art is subject to a multitude of critics, however, the blanket banners have already served the community-building intentions espoused by the PDX Bridge Festival.

They embody a cooperative effort, from their construction to their public display, in yarn bombing fashion adorning a hard, purely functional structure, with a soft ornamental piece for the eye, and finally, in their eventual fate, becoming purposeful themselves for use as donated blankets. They also realized Mackie's objective, bridging art and craft for public benefit.

Note: Bridge for Blankets has yet to reach its fundraising goal. To donate, visit

For more information on the PDX Bridge Festival go to
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