Don’t let the mind-numbing and homogeneous procession of white stucco and red roofs fool you — Santa Barbara has a semi-secret love affair with artistic whimsy. We celebrate Summer Solstice like few others in the country, we champion the Dr. Seuss–appropriate designs of architects like Jeff Shelton, we have an unflinching fidelity to bright and ridiculous tile work, we proudly wave the art flag of the Funk Zone even as it slips and slides toward drunken gentrification, and, for the past two years, our foothills and backcountry have served as ground zero for the coming of age of the Yarn Bomber, Santa Barbara’s very own, if not somewhat elusive, wonder-inducing three-dimensional textile artist. His name is Stephen Duneier, and what he is doing is big, bold, beautiful, brilliant, and all but certain to piss a few people off.
My first experience with the Yarn Bomber’s handiwork came back in early June 2012. I had no idea who or what a “yarn bomb” was and was certainly not on the lookout for public installation art when I made my way up the Cold Springs Trail under a cool cover of gloom that Thursday morning. I was a few twists and turns past the bench that serves as a turnaround point for most on the popular Montecito front-country trail when my eyes picked up an explosion of color in the otherwise washed-out hues of a foggy early summer morning. There, just above my spot on the trail, rose a mighty 40-foot eucalyptus tree, its trunk and limbs sporting an eye-blinkingly bright sweater of patchwork yarn. I giggled out loud and quickened my pace toward it. I was alone, camera-less, and completely thrilled. That accidental discovery of joyful and ridiculous and anonymous art in a place I never expected to find it creates a heady sort of magic that I, for one, cannot get enough of. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had just stumbled across Duneier’s very first work of art.
“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but yeah, it certainly seems to be working out,” cracked Duneier late last month with a disbelieving laugh. We were sitting on his back porch on the backside of the Riviera, the setting more than appropriate for a career financier and family man with two teenage children, but not necessarily for the fastest-rising star in the Santa Barbara visual-art universe. This man, with his tightly cropped hair, clear blue eyes, sincere conversation, and utter lack of pretension or ego, seemed sent straight from central casting for the role of “Happy Middle-aged American Dad,” as opposed to the guy that was just successfully courted by the internationally esteemed Sullivan Goss gallery. As if sensing the disconnect I was experiencing, Duneier offered, “Pretty much everyone who knows me from my real life has no idea what is going on. My family still shakes their head — even I still shake my head sometimes in disbelief. It still feels foreign when someone refers to me as ‘the artist.’”
But make no mistake; this man is an artist, albeit a seemingly accidental one. The origin story of his first installation, and thus his career, begins on New Year’s Day 2012, when Duneier, who moved with his family to Santa Barbara from London in 2006, laid out his plans to learn 12 new skills in the newly minted year. It is a tradition he has had for a while and one that has seen him do things like pledge to hike all of Santa Barbara’s trails (that was 2007) or read 50 books (in 2009). So, two years ago, the tradition saw him take on 12 new skills (knitting making the list at his wife’s suggestion). With hopes of “finding the Zen” in needles and yarn, Duneier got to work, while also pursuing things like riding a unicycle, or walking a slackline, or mastering jumping stilts. “It was miserable and incredibly frustrating,” says the Yarn Bomber of his first knitting efforts. “There was nothing Zen about it for me.”
Despite his struggles, and just a few days removed from the “successful” completion of his first scarf, Duneier was struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration while hiking Cold Springs Trail one late winter afternoon. He had recently come across an image on the Internet of a bus in Mexico City covered with yarn and had long been a fan of Christo’s large-scale installations in nature — two things which he now knows were working behind the scenes in his brain during his fateful hike. “I was just staring at that eucalyptus tree, and the idea popped into my head from nowhere: ‘I should wrap that with yarn,’ I said to myself, and so later that night, I just started knitting.”
Shortly thereafter, Duneier discovered the yarn bombing subculture, a worldwide eclectic crew of fiber graffiti artists who cover things big and small and unexpected with purposely knit or crocheted sections of yarn. He also learned that the 2nd Annual International Yarn Bombing Day was slated for early June, less than three months away. Naively, the rookie knitter publicly pledged on his blog to have his massive tree sweater ready and wearable by the date. After weeks on end of knitting almost nonstop — Duneier found himself with needles in hand at everything from cocktail parties and his daughter’s college campus visits to airports and hospitals and board meetings — and with a little bit of help from the Internet (his blog got picked up by the administrators at WordPress and, as a result, knitting enthusiasts from around the world mailed in sections of yarn to help with his assemblage), Duneier successfully installed some 400 square feet of yarn on the tree during that second weekend of June. When he took the installation down the following weekend, he was certain that he was “done with yarn forever.” In fact, he boxed up the piece and shipped it off to the nonprofit Warm Up America.
“I was so sick of yarn and knitting, and I was completely exhausted,” he recalled of the afterglow of his first installation. “I honestly never thought I would do something like that again.”
But the muses have had different plans. In the two years since his first project, he has taken up the yarn four more times, with installations that have gotten progressively bigger and more impressive. His disdain for knitting has given way to a heartfelt love of crocheting. He has tackled installations on the gigantic boulder at the top of Saddlerock Trail; a huge multicolored spider web at the entrance to the Sasquatch Cave in the Playground area below Lizard’s Mouth; a humongous 20-foot-wide starfish made out of reflective yarn suspended some 40 feet above the pools at Seven Falls (its installation timed to coincide with a full moon); and then, most recently, was his controversial installation at Lizard’s Mouth this past summer, which saw some 388 artists from 36 countries and all 50 states collaborate to cover 18 boulders in cosmic-colored, custom-fitted blankets. All of the installations went up for only nine days so as to cause minimal impact on the environment (they’re also installed in such a way to leave zero trace of their presence once removed), while also allowing the public two weekends to get out and enjoy them. “My goal in all of this is to get people outside,” explains Duneier. “I want people to get past their comfort zone and see things they have never seen before.”
But the art isn’t for everyone. More than half of Duneier’s installations have been prematurely removed by disapproving members of the public, who consider the whimsy and magic of this temporary art to be some sort of blight or pollution. Or, in the case of his Lizard’s Mouth project, a safety hazard. Easily the most public of his undertakings, the Lizard’s Mouth installation was nearly killed before it started thanks to a late-hour complaint filed with the Los Padres National Forest from a watchdog organization. A brutal bureaucratic finger trap ensued, but Duneier — thanks in no small part to his business-world acumen and world-class work ethic — successfully navigated a mostly unknown permitting process under extreme duress, and the show eventually went on.
“It was just insane to see all these people out there. It was like an outdoor museum in the middle of nowhere,” sums up the Yarn Bomber with a smile of true satisfaction. Even forest officials were singing his praises by the end of the project’s run.
So what’s next for the Bomber, you ask? Well, first off, he recently passed the halfway point in his efforts to make the biggest granny square in the history of the world. With the blessings of the folks from the Guinness World Records, Duneier has slowly been chipping away at his larger-than-life crochet square and, at last measurement, was right around 21 feet by 21 feet. He figures he will be done when he hits the 31½-foot mark. Then there are his secret plans for his next installation, a project that is forming fast in his garage with a small army of mannequins. After kicking around potential project ideas for places like Knapp’s Castle, the Tea Gardens, and the Funk Zone, he decided on once again returning to the hills of Santa Barbara and creating a wild alien camp scene at an undisclosed location sometime this fall, likely in October or early November, according to the man himself. Hoping to keep some of the surprise and magic intact, Duneier is tight-lipped when pressed for more details about his newest undertaking, offering only, “It’s going to be a bunch of creatures from some other place, like maybe outer space, who have yarn skin and who have arrived here in Santa Barbara to enjoy the outdoors. They will probably have a couple dozen giant yarn tents with them, as well.” At this, I just smile and marvel at the bizarro collection of “yarn aliens” currently being born in his garage and driveway. “To be honest, it’s the same with all of these projects — when I start, I don’t really know where I am going or how I am going to get there. But that’s the fun part of it — it’s one giant problem to solve.”
The Yarn Bomber is excepting knit and crocheted donations for his next installation up until September 30. For more information, visit. yarnbomber.com.