Tempestry Project: Emily McNeil and Asy Connelly with Amy Brady

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Amy Brady published in her newsletter Burning World a conversation with Emily McNeil and Asy Connelly, a knitter and data scientist who founded the Tempestry Project, a fiber art collaboration that uses yarn and other fibers to create artful representations of climate data. This summer, they are partnering with Colossal Magazine and the Design Museum of Chicago in two different ways: first, their “Paleo New Normal Tempestry” will be exhibited in the museum’s group show, At the Precipice. And secondly, they’re collaborating with the museum to develop a Chicago Tempestry Collection that will be exhibited along with the Paleo piece. Amy Brady asked Emily and Asy about their work and what they hope viewers take away from their art. 

Amy Brady: Let’s start from the beginning. In your own words, what is the Tempestry Project, and how did it get started?
Emily McNeil and Asy Connelly: Honestly, it started with a joke. It was during those incredibly demoralizing weeks leading up to the presidential inauguration in 2017, and we’d been hearing about scientists and hackers partnering to save federal government environmental and climate research for fear that the incoming administration would “disappear” it. We were joking, in a laugh-or-cry sort of way, about needing more reliable forms of information storage —ancient cuneiform tablets or 1000-year-old tapestries, not something as ephemeral as online data storage. Emily was managing a local boutique yarn shop at the time, and Asy proposed the idea of wrangling local knitters into knitting scarf-sized panels of annual daily high temperatures, aka temperature tapestries, which soon became Tempestries, and over the course of that spring grew into the Tempestry Project. Thousands of crafters have now made Tempestries for their locations using knitting, weaving, crocheting, needle-punching, and even glasswork and beading.
Amy: You are a knitter and data specialist, respectively. What have you learned from each other’s work when it comes to the climate crisis? And what future work do you hope to do together?
Emily and Asy: It seems obvious that we’re all processing information in our own way all the time, but one of the things we’ve come to realize is that there’s a surprisingly deep need for overlap between art and data. Some people can look at a graph or chart and instantly absorb it, while other people’s eyes scroll right past. Our culture gravitates towards immediacy. When was the last time (non-work-related) you just sat with something to really grok it? Some tidbit of information, or a story, or a song? We’ve found that when information is rendered into textiles, even non-knitters understand the amount of time and effort required to create such pieces. It gives people pause. It forces them, consciously or not, to take a little time to absorb what they’re seeing. It’s easy to scroll right past an alarming chart that was generated by software in a millisecond, but everyone seems to take a beat when they see a Tempestry. The act of slowly handcrafting these data representations imbues them with importance, a gravitas, a sense of “someone spent hours making this thing, it only seems right to take a few minutes to appreciate it.” Using fiber art as a form of data representation connects people to information they might not otherwise pay much attention to.
As for future work, we’ve recently started developing a Tempestry color system depicting AQI (Air Quality Index) numbers to apply to different cities over the last few decades. We moved to Poughkeepsie, NY, from Washington State two summers ago and had hoped we’d left wildfire smoke behind us, only to be wearing KN95s outside here in the Hudson Valley this summer. These Canadian fires are yet another reminder that the climate crisis really is global, and that our concept of boundaries won’t protect us.

Amy: Let’s turn now to the exhibition opening at the Design Museum of Chicago this summer, entitled “At the Precipice: Responses to the Climate Crisis.” What are some of the organizing principles of this exhibition? And who are some of the artists participating?
Emily and Asy: It’s easy to get overwhelmed these days, between intensifying weather events, the pandemic, wage stagnation, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the anti-LGBT backlash, increasing censorship issues, and on and on. And then there’s the overarching global emotional crisis of realizing that we are destroying life as we knew it. There’s so much grief, and rage, and fear around this that it’s almost impossible to process. What art can do, sometimes, is break down the insurmountable into forms and bits that our minds can handle, both intellectually and emotionally. The curators of this exhibit have brought together a wide range of climate-focused artists to engage the public in conversation about this crisis (the museum has a free admissions policy, which we appreciate so much!), and how to move through it in collaborative action without getting permanently mired down in, as they say these days, a state of overwhelm.
To quote the museum, “At the Precipice explores how it feels to inhabit an irreversibly damaged planet facing a precarious future and considers the purpose of art and design in understanding how our collective trajectory must rapidly change direction.”

Cold Spring, NY, Tempestry Collection at the Putnam History Museum, photo by Asy Connelly

Amy: What do you hope viewers take away from this exhibition?
Emily and Asy: Precisely. We hope—and we want hope to be what viewers take away. The climate crisis is a unique catastrophe. It has been (until recently) slow, almost imperceptibly incremental to those who aren’t focused on it. It’s also happening on scales (geographic and chronologic) that are difficult to imagine. The words we use to describe it are usually reserved for hyperbole: “armageddon,” “apocalypse,” “existential,” “extinction-level”—describing the environs of the future as “inhospitable” at best or “uninhabitable” at worst. It’s overwhelming, and those are just the headlines. Dig in a little and you find “tipping points,” “feedback loops,” and “ocean acidification” and estimates of how much heating we’ve already “baked in.” It starts to sound like a “We Didn’t Start the Fire” remix—except we did. Even the name of this exhibit, “At the Precipice,” evokes a precarious position, teetering on calamity. 
Given all of this, it would be easy to fall prey to climate nihilism. We saw a video just this week of kite surfers playing on waves in the Columbia River Gorge while the northern (Washington State) shore of the river was consumed by flames and firefighting planes are doing strafing runs in the background. We can’t imagine a more perfect distillation of the “This is fine” meme. It’s devastating to watch this, but it’s important to remember, especially in these moments, that we have so much to fight for. 
The difference between material conditions on Earth at 2°C warming and 4°C is drastic, and even that pales in comparison to the difference between 4°C and 6°C. Every fraction of a degree of warming that we can prevent is a win—a concrete reduction in future suffering. These numbers get tossed around as climate “targets” or “goals” but we don’t think they should be viewed this way. These “targets” are simply handy milestones so that we have a common framework with which to model and talk about the future. These increments, like all of the incremental increases we’ve experienced so far, are vital. These spaces between fractions are where we find hope, and art is how we coax it out of hiding. 

No matter the medium, art connects us. It provokes and evokes us. It can move us to tears, and to action. Exhibits like this, bringing together very different art and artists from around the world, make us feel connected. Connected to the Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica, to Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, to the sea ice around Greenland, to the last 2,020 years of global climate history, and also to where we live. These works prove that we are not alone in our concern—we do not need to face this catastrophe by ourselves. We exist within communities on every scale, from personal to global, and these communities are how we will create the best future we can from where we are now.

Amy: In addition to this exhibition, the museum is sponsoring a project called the Chicago Tempestry Collection. Please tell us more about this!

Emily and Asy: The Tempestry Project is all about communication and collaboration. One-off Tempestries such as our Paleo New Normal Tempestry (which will be in the exhibit) are an excellent way to get data across, but helping communities to develop their own Tempestry Collections is really the core and joy of our work. There’s something magical about people coming together to create such a beautifully visual and tactile representation of an often ambiguous problem. The stories about climate change often talk about what’s happening far away—melting polar ice caps, plummeting polar bear populations, deoxygenating oceans, and coral bleaching. Local Tempestry Collections show us what’s happening right where we are, where we might be raising our children or caring for aging parents, or where we grew up or visited and loved (as was especially the case with the National Parks Tempestry Collection). We’ve worked with crafting groups all over the country, sometimes connected to public libraries, yarn shops, churches, and schools, to create their own collections. We’re thrilled to be working with the Design Museum of Chicago and knitters both in the Chicago metro area and across the country to create the Chicago Tempestry Collection. The museum will keep this collection going forward, for display in future shows and other venues.

Though the exhibit opens July 14th, the museum will be gathering additional Tempestries throughout the run of the show, with the goal of eventually having a Tempestry for every year from 1900 – 2022. What a sight that would be!

One final note about Tempestry Collections: knitting is often seen as “women’s work,” and is overlooked in the grander scheme of what “art” is. Many Tempestry participants have reached out to us with such pleasure about their knitting (their knitting, of all things!) being in a museum. That our individual labor becomes part of something bigger in an effort to enrich our understanding of the world around us—there’s a real sense of camaraderie and purpose in that, even in the face of depicting disaster.

Amy: Finally, a big picture question: What do you think art can show us about the climate crisis that, perhaps, other means of communication can’t?

Emily and Asy: When we started the Tempestry Project six years ago, the climate crisis still felt largely abstract to many of us—far away in the future, and far away geographically. We needed art to propel us through the friction between what scientists were telling us was happening and what was so incremental that many of us failed to notice it was happening.  Our art connects people with that crisis, and Tempestry Collections highlight the way global warming affects our own backyards. Back in April of 2018, we had an older woman come to our first Tempestry exhibit who had been something of a climate skeptic up until that point. This was in our hometown of Anacortes, WA, where the weather is pretty temperate, typically ranging from barely freezing up into the occasional high 80s. As she walked up and down the years in that Deception Pass, WA, Tempestry Collection, she stopped at a particular year from the 1950s, ran her hands up and down the piece, paused over the darker blues that comprised January. Those darker blues didn’t appear in the more recent years, and she explained that she remembered going ice skating with the other neighborhood kids on the local lakes that winter. Those lakes don’t freeze over enough for ice skating anymore, and her grandkids may not have that experience. It was an odd and touching moment to watch someone in real time process our new reality. Seeing and touching these colorful knitted stripes brought this forgotten childhood memory to the surface and centered it in the context of global warming.

But now, five years later, even temperate Anacortes hits the high 90s, air conditioner sales are on the rise, and residents have learned how to turn box fans into air filters to combat seasonal wildfire smoke. Climate change isn’t abstract anymore. While art is still a powerful way to engage with the data, we find that for many Tempestry participants the focus is shifting from primarily sharing information to sharing emotional catharsis within the larger community.

About Emily McNeil and Asy Connelly: Emily learned to knit in her late 20s from a grandmother who stubbornly insisted. She spent fifteen years working in Columbia University’s social science library, meticulously processing course readings and trying to convince people to return their books on time. Then she spent five years managing a tiny boutique yarn shop in a small town on the western edge of Washington State. Now she works in the Vassar College library by day, and by night uses yarn to convince people that human-caused climate change is a thing, and that collectively we can still tackle the problem.

Asy grew up in rural southwest Washington State, in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens. She learned to knit from Emily and in the years since has finished exactly one and a half hats. Knitting failings aside, she has never met a problem she couldn’t solve with a spreadsheet. In fact, it could be argued that the Tempestry Project is the direct result of that impulse.

About Amy Brady: Amy Brady conducted this interview and it was originally published in the Burning Worlds Newsletter, which she founded and serves as its editor. The newsletter focuses on climate change in art and literature. Amy Brady’s book Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks–a Cool History of a Hot Commodity is now in bookstores. She is also the co-editor of The World As We Knew It, an anthology of personal essays about climate change out now on Catapult. Amy’s writing on culture and climate can be found in O, the Oprah magazineThe Village VoiceThe New RepublicSlateThe Los Angeles TimesPacific StandardThe Dallas Morning NewsMcSweeney’sLiterary Hub, and elsewhere. To learn more about Amy’s work, visit her website: AmyBradyWrites.com.