A selection of “welcome blankets” sent to the Smart Museum Credit: Michael Tropea

For a while last winter, Jayna Zweiman was the most famous artist in America, although almost no one could identify her by name. But everyone saw her work. It appeared in newspapers and magazines and all across the Internet. It was duplicated hundreds of thousands of times and displayed en masse at the various Women’s Marches around the world.

Yes, Zweiman was, along with fellow artist Krista Suh, one of the creators of the Pussyhat Project.

After the Women’s March, most people put their square pink hats away as mementos of what it was like to be alive and marching in January 2017. But Zweiman was inspired by how the project had gotten people to gather together to create something and, in the process, discuss issues that affected their lives and those of the people they knew. This isn’t a new concept—the term “craftivism” was coined in the early 2000s by the writer Betsy Greer to describe the practice of using domestic arts for activist purposes, the politicization of centuries of sewing circles and quilting bees. The inauguration of Donald Trump, though, seemed to have inspired a new wave of craftivism, from knitting to protest signs, and Zweiman decided to use that momentum to create something new.

“Welcome Blanket,” which concentrates on immigration, is what materialized. The idea is that Americans can welcome new immigrants and refugees by offering comfort and warmth, both metaphorically in the form of personal notes, and literally in the form of handmade blankets; Zweiman calculated that 3,000 blankets would use up 3,500,640 yards of yarn, equivalent to the length of the proposed wall along the Mexican border. (No one involved with the project mentions Donald Trump’s name.) In the process, she became interested in feminist art and visited the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center at the Brooklyn Museum, where she was particularly impressed by Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a banquet table with elaborate place settings for 39 female historical figures. She learned that Alison Gass, one of the curators who had worked on the installation, had just been appointed the director of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. As it happened, Gass and Zweiman had gone to high school together (though they were in different grades). So Zweiman called up Gass to talk more about feminist art.

Immediately Gass decided that “Welcome Blanket” was something she wanted to work on. It combined her own interest in feminist art with the Smart Museum’s practice of community engagement with current social issues, and before she even arrived in Chicago, she was on the phone with her staff making arrangements to turn Zweiman’s community art project into a crowdsourced gallery show. In order to make sure it would still be timely, they had to condense a year’s worth of work into a single month.

“Jayna Zweiman: Welcome Blanket” opened July 18, which only means that it was the first day that the public could come see the blankets. The exhibit is a constantly evolving entity: the museum will be accepting and adding blankets to the display until December, whereupon it will distribute them to immigrants. Throughout the fall, there will be a series of speakers and symposiums to discuss immigration, but the whole thing is, in the spirit of Zweiman’s original vision, very grassroots and improvisational. (So far, there’s only one event on the docket, a conversation, currently scheduled to take place on November 4, between Zweiman, Gass, and Judy Chicago.) The museum will reach out to the surrounding community, both at the university and in the city, and accept whatever comes in.

“It’s been a challenge and a pleasure,” says Michael Christiano, the interim senior director of museum programs. “Because it’s crowdsourced, we’ve been constantly surprised—and have to respond to the surprise. People take such creative liberties, and we have to think creatively how to show them.”

Although the official “Welcome Blanket” website has patterns and tutorials, many contributors have created their own designs. Gass and Christiano have resolved to display them all, whether this means hanging them from the walls, suspending them on clotheslines from the ceiling, or piling them up on tables. The submissions range from infant-size receiving blankets to enormous coverings that can envelop an entire family, plus the couch. Between 15 and 30 come in every day, mostly by mail from all across the country; the packages are stacked up several feet high in the museum’s basement until staffers can sort and catalog them at what Christiano calls “unpacking parties.”

Some blankets arrive by other means. Cassandra Dunn, the manager of strategic planning for UChicago Arts, brings hers to a meeting with Gass at the museum. The brown-and-green color scheme, she says, represents her ancestral Ireland. Gass is delighted. “There are so many secret knitters on campus!” she exclaims.

(And some not-so-secret: Aliyah Bixby-Driesen, a museum employee, spends her shift on guard duty crocheting a bright pink square that will become part of the museum’s staff blanket.)

Gass wants the curation process to be part of the exhibit as well. “When you go to a museum, you never get to see behind the scenes,” she explains. “We want to demystify the process.” Therefore, the “Welcome Blanket” installation includes two large freezer chests, where all incoming blankets must spend two days in order to kill art-devouring pests.

The exhibit will also contain a map to show where all the blankets come from, a chart that compares the amount of yarn used to the length of the proposed border wall, a corkboard for nonknitters to post their own immigration stories, and a library of resources for new immigrants and people who wish to help them.

Christiano hopes that the exhibit, and also the “Welcome Blanket” knitting circles that are organizing around the country, will provide a space for a serious discussion of immigration. “The news cycle is so fast,” he says, “there’s not a lot of time for complex, nuanced issues that require a deep dive, time, and focus. But a university art museum has the time and space to bring people together to work toward solutions. We invite people to use the space.”  v