Article and photos by Yadira Gonzalez | June 6, 2023
Carmen Paulino walked into her local cafe in East Harlem carrying her hot-pink crochet purse and a ladder. After meeting with a couple of students and teaching some basic stitches, Paulino went down the street to Cherry Tree Park where she hung her latest creation: a pink crochet symbol of feminism.
For years, Paulino, a community artist and yarn bomber, has been working with crocheters of all levels to create large-scale crochet art installations to beautify her neighborhood. She represents a number of fiber artists throughout New York City that are initiating a network of craft-based activism–or “craftivism,” as they call it–among their communities.
Paulino learned to crochet as a young girl, a time when she said she felt embarrassed to be a fiber artist. As she grew older, Paulino, 38, started to find a community of crocheters like herself, but felt that wasn’t enough.
“I wanted to do something more than just crochet. I wanted more people to be involved. And so I started to create these crochet groups, but also crochet projects with the groups,” Paulino said.
One of Paulino’s own students, jewelry maker Patricia Blount, has worked alongside her to create several crochet pieces since they first met in 2022. Although she herself is still a beginner, Blount said she takes joy in spreading her knowledge of crochet with her granddaughter. “I like to make and teach other people the gift that God gave me,” Blount said.
This proclivity for generosity is a common theme among many fiber artists throughout the city, evinced by the success of Bryant Park’s “Found But Not Lost” event held on Feb. 21. During the event, chairs, lampposts and statues throughout the park were covered in over 400 donated, hand-made scarves. Anyone who was cold and in need of a warm garment was welcome to take a scarf. By the afternoon, only a single scarf remained.
Familiar with the benevolence of fiber artists, Austin Rivers got the whole country involved with providing garments for the homeless community. Rivers founded Knit the Rainbow, a nonprofit which distributes donated, hand-made garments to homeless LGBTQ+ youths in shelters in New York City. During its most recent collection cycle, Knit the Rainbow collected over 12,000 garments that were then distributed to various homeless shelters throughout the city
“I know that crafters are so giving and so loving and most crafters make so much that they have extra,” Rivers said. “And there are so many, so so many great people out there who are doing lots of different things with crafting and tying it to different forms of activism.”
Paulino is among many of these fiber artists who has fused her passion for crochet with her love for activating her community. Throughout the years she has assembled several large-scale crochet artworks, including a 20-by-24 foot Sonia Sotomayor mural that sits inside Cherry Tree Park in East Harlem. It took her and her team of crocheters two months–a time during which she contracted Covid-19–to construct the piece.
Depending on the occasion or time of year, Paulino creates crochet pieces to keep the park festive all year long. For the month of March, Paulino decided to crochet the symbol of feminism in honor of Women’s History Month.
Paulino has faced several challenges during the process of exhibiting her crochet pieces throughout the years. From run-ins with the police who forbade her from defacing city property to having several pieces stolen and vandalized, Paulino has learned to take precautions. When installing a piece she uses zip ties to secure them, while also remembering to not grow too attached to any piece that she makes once it is out in the world.
But after confrontations like this and years of yarn bombing, Paulino has learned how to circumvent these obstacles and cooperate with the city and its parks department to ensure her pieces are proudly displayed.