The day was cold and icy, but it was normal for Ýr Jóhannsdóttir, also known as Ýrúrarí, an Icelandic artist who works with knits. Ýr learned how to hand knit as a child in Iceland, stopped as a teenager, (as teenagers tend to do) but picked it back up in 2012. She was participating in an artistic summer job program in Iceland for young people to explore their creative projects. This was where the first monster sweater was created. Ýr went on to finish a two year textile program in Iceland and then completed her B.A. at the Glasgow School of Art.
When she was younger she thought fashion design might be the right path, but quickly found that it was definitely not and she doesn't care for the industry’s ethos as a whole.The quick turn of the cycle did not sit well with Ýr, with the designer having to produce new items only for them to be out of fashion just a year later. Even now, as her work continues to grow in popularity, she does not have a desire to start her own brand. A machine or factory would not be able to replicate the 3D effects knitted in her sweaters, and they wouldn’t be knit on secondhand pieces. Each piece Ýr makes is individual, something that would be lost during the manufacturing process. Instead she is creating a pattern book with a friend who is a graphic designer so that people can create their own personalized versions. They’re basic stitches, opening up the ability for even those with limited or new to knitting to test it out.
The decorations Ýr knits into her pieces are an exploration in space and the body. By growing out of the knit the sweaters take up more unexpected physical space, breaking up the room. Other pieces hide and transform the body, like a piece when pulled up over the head and arms pull in form a cactus. “On the sweaters it always ends up being body parts, or how you can become invisible, like the cactus sweater. I’ve also made sweaters where you can turn into a rock or disappear into the environment. That’s one thing, and the other thing ideas of dimensions and portals. It is a similar theme with the machine knit, wanting to make a 3D shape with the knits and the way it breaks up the room.”
The mouths and tongues Ýr is becoming known for were created for an exhibition but she found herself continuing on with them after. They are not the main focus of her personal artistic practice, but have continued out of the practicality of being a working and living artist. A selfie with a sleeve in progress was reposted by a fiber page on Instagram, and from there her profile quickly grew from 3000 followers to 13,000. People immediately reached out trying to purchase her sweaters. Erykah Badu has purchased many and Miley Cyrus also owns one. The sweaters are giving Yr the needed funds to support her art, from renting a studio when she returns to Iceland to paying her father back for the new knitting machine she is still waiting for. Ýr plans to continue with the knitted sweaters, now that she is being fairly compensated for her time, and is planning an exhibition at the end of March for her machine knitted pieces.
The residencies Ýr has participated in recently all have been fairly remote- one in a small idyllic village in Germany, and two in Northern Iceland. During her Work in Progress residence at TAC, her studio is in the window of the Manhattan location, visible all day and night. Working in a community and in such an open space is a change from these other residencies, but not Ýr’s first time almost being a piece of art herself. Back home in Iceland she’s a part of a performance group, formed with three friends that she met back at that summer program years ago. The group is diverse, one is a sociologist, two theatre artists, one who does improv and Ýr, a textile artist. Their first show was a live knit radio performance drama piece, experimenting with textiles, sociology and theatre.“Because I am always knitting alone, it is very precious to me to have this interaction with all and brainstorming together. It gets kind of lonely sometimes. It is also why it’s fun to be in the window, and I mostly watch strange people walking by.”
Another way Ýr breaks the solitude is through listening to podcast and audio books. Current favorites include Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert, The Good Place: The Podcast as well as current issues within Iceland. Audiobooks take a more serious tone, with a focus on homo sapiens and the human experience. The Good Place is one of her favorite shows because of the risks and humor that it brings to the human existence. Humor and fun and play are all parts of Ýr’s practice but with a similar serious edge.
Humor and fun and play are all parts of Ýr’s practice but with a serious edge.
“I’m alone, in the cold in the summer and listening to how the world is dying or how we’re killing it and there’s nothing we can, or we can, but me as one person cannot do that much. So I’m also trying to find more fun. I really like play and fun and humor. And I am also very interested in serious things. I think art is there to soothe you in a way also, and I like that idea. I’m kind of doing it to soothe myself.”
The conversation grew from work to pop culture, growing out of a conversation about Abbi Jacobson, of Broad City fame. She is a dream client, and Ýr would love to give her the last of her monster sweaters that she has in Manhattan with her. Drag Queens and RuPaul’s Drag Race is another interest, which also represents another form of transition, creation and utilizing space. Sasha Velour is her favorite, but for All Stars 4, Naomi Smalls is queen (spoiler: she didn’t win the crown).
So what’s next for Ýr after the WIP residency? She's heading back home to Iceland to continue to work on her machine knit pieces. But first, she ran a workshop and lecture at TAC Manhattan on February 25th. This was a trial run for two more workshops that she has planned, one in Iceland in June and maybe in Seattle in October.
“I encourage people in the beginning if they are not good knitters, or not even know how to knit, they can take the book and hand knit with their grandma or someone who knows how to knit and they can have a nice time together, just try to make this sweater, I am also encouraging people to start a knitting circle, it is easier to have more people to figure it out. More brains to find the solution.”