Sayraphim Lothian is a craftivist and guerrilla artist, making her mark in the world (and more specifically Melbourne) with random acts of kindness left for strangers to discover. She tells us the key to change is in your hands.
How did you get into craftivism?
Oddly enough, by accident. A few years ago I participated in a workshop run here by the UK’s Tassos Stevens, who is a co-director of the playful company The Agency of Coney, and one of the tasks he gave us was to think of things we could covertly do for strangers, to life their spirits and make their day nicer. I was really inspired by that idea, and decided to merge it with my interest in street art to make beautiful little works to leave out in the streets for people to find and take home with them. My practice was largely craft based at the time so I started by making fake cupcakes with a tag that reads “For you, stranger, <3 Sayraphim”. I put some out in various places around the CBD and before I’d even got on the train home some people on twitter told me they’d found them. One finder said it was such a lovely experience that they had been inspired to do something similar themselves. That was a pivotal moment for me. I’d read about craftivism, and it had been one of the inspirations to take my work to the streets, but I didn’t feel like I was protesting anything, so I didn’t think of my work in that way. On reflection however, I realised that craftivism is about changing the world for the better in one way or another. In that sense, attempting to brighten someone’s day by leaving a handmade ‘something’ somewhere is absolutely craftivism. I’m working to make the world a nicer place, one hand crafted experience at a time.
How does it inform your work as an artist?
I find it very inspiring that people all around the world are using skills and materials similar to mine to achieve similar goals. I feel solidarity and a connection with them. I like the historical precedence of craftivism too, connecting me with makers all through history who have used craft to change their world – craftivism as a word is still pretty new, but the idea behind it has been used through history. It’s fascinating to delve into the why’s and where’s of how people have used craft for subversive purposes in the past. It also helped me expand my practise to other forms of craft in the streets. Last year I sewed pigeons and rat soft sculptures from material found in the streets to install around a car park in Street Pests, examining the preconceived notions of wastefulness and garbage. Just yesterday I installed five 40cm sewn and painted soft sculpture dragons on the front of abandoned buildings for Here Be Dragons, new work that refocuses community awareness on these forgotten sites to remind people that each of these sites is part of their community and not an unknown place to be wary of. These are all temporary works of public art which were directly inspired by the work of other craftivists around the world.
What is the Guerrilla Kindness project?
Guerrilla Kindness grew out of the merging of the ideas behind Keri Smith’s book How To Be A Guerrilla Artist (a beautiful and simple how-to book that if you don’t yet own, you should!) and the concept of random acts of kindness. I wanted to make sneaky, beautiful and joyful little works of art to leave out as gifts for people who spot them. It’s about creating a magical moment outside of the every day where someone sees and recognises that there on the windowsill is a fake cupcake, just for them. Or they discover a little hand sewn house with a green paper lawn on which is written “Mi Casa Es Su Casa (my house is your house)”, or they find a Rogue Design – a tiny white taxidermied dinosaur head attached via a magnet to something metal in the street. Guerrilla Kindness is a hand-crafted, joyous experience both for the maker and the finder. My work is aimed at creating tiny bubbles of joy in the lives of passers by, tiny surreal moments which might make people do a double take to check to make sure the thing they’ve spotted is actually there. It’s the equivalent of finding fairies at the bottom of your garden and the thrill and the magic that’s associated with that.
Why do you think craft and activism go so well together?
I think because so much of the political protest work is grassroots action, it’s people in their homes working on placards, organising protests or writing to their local politician. It’s people buying a more ethical brand of whatever while shopping, and choosing to go to local stores rather than give their money to giant multinational corporations. Political protest is so often a DIY activity and that’s just what crafting is all about. The two are perfect for each other, really. The revolution will be handmade.
What advice do you have for anyone trying to make a difference through craft?
Go out and do it. Don’t wait for permission or to find someone else or a group to do it with. If you have the urge, go out and create, go out and make, go out and do! Change so often starts at a grassroots level, which is people in their houses and people on the street. It’s often been said, but it’s worth saying again, if you want to start but you’re not sure where, find a cause that moves you. Are you concerned about taxes or mining? You might start making protest banners to attach to buildings or fences. Is it that you love animals? In which case you might consider knitting blankets for an animal shelter. Maybe you’d like to protest something that’s going on, but are unkeen on the shouting and scuffles, so instead you might organise a peaceful knit-in, where you gather people together to sit and knit and chat about the problem. Craftivism can speak directly to the observer, so who do you want to talk to about the issue you’re highlighting? Do you want to directly target the company you disagree with, are you wanting to raise awareness in your community or to speak directly to those affected? Where are the people you want to communicate with going to actually be? Once you start figuring out what you want to say and who you want to say it too, you’re well on your way.
Of all the projects you've undertaken, which is your favourite and why?
Oh, that’s the hardest question of all! I like all the projects I do, otherwise I wouldn’t do them, and each has something different to offer. Having said that, I’m a little in love with the newness of things, so whichever are the latest projects are always pretty high on the scale. At the moment, I’m pretty keen on Here Be Dragons as that was only installed yesterday. The dragons were sewn from canvas and firmly stuffed, which somehow made them oddly satisfying to paint. The installation itself was a fun one, madly dashing around with a photographer friend of mine, Ilona Nelson, and her two young sons, attempting to cable tie these 5 dragons on various abandoned sites. It was chaotic, mad fun and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Or as long as it takes me to make more dragons and find more sites. I’m also really looking forward to the next project, which is called Sharing Ink. I’m sewing 30 books from handmade paper and covering them with hand printed material from a beloved indy printing business here in Melbourne, Ink and Spindle. I’m giving each book to a different local artist or writer to inscribe a lovely message in the front cover, then I’m going to drop them in various places around the CBD over 10 days for people to find and take. It’s a new level of project for me, involving so many people in the creation process and I’m doing publicity for it too, a website, Facebook page and Twitter account, so that if the people who find the books want to report back, they can. It’s not about the responses, but it’s nice to have that avenue if the finder feels the impulse to reply. Really, Sharing Ink is about that magic moment of discovery, and under that it’s about strengthening bonds within the community and reminding people that most strangers are just people you don’t know, rather than terrible monsters.
Have you ever got into any trouble while yarnbombing or doing other forms of street art?
No. Melbourne prides itself on it’s street art, so the inner city authorities are pretty tolerant about it. Plus, none of my work is permanent, some of them are just placed out for people to find, sometimes they’re attached via hooks or magnets, occasionally cable tied to things, but I’m pretty careful to use non-invasive methods of attaching things to buildings or fences. Recently Australia introduced tough new anti-graffiti laws, if convicted artists face a $26,000 fine or 2 years jail, which is pretty full on, but I’ve never heard of a craftivist anywhere being convicted. I was at a talk by Magda Sayeg from Knitta Please a few years ago and she said even she’s only had one incident where a police officer came up to her while she was up a ladder yarn bombing a street light, asking her what she thought she was doing. She argued her way out of trouble, comparing her yarn bomb to the temporary Christmas decorations in the street. The police officer was apparently happy with that and left her to her installation. So I’m not too worried about it. The thing to remember if there is ever a confrontation with a police officer/ council worker/ building owner or occupier is to be polite and friendly and, if requested, just remove the offending piece. Don’t get into a verbal clash, just state what you’re doing and why, and if they see that as a problem, remove it.
That way, you’re free to fight another day. There’s always more opportunities for craftivism.