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Meet the Covington artist who brought yarn bombing to BLINK Cincinnati

Apr 28, 2023

If you visited BLINK Cincinnati last year and went to Washington Park, you probably saw people under a chaos of yarn.

Covington Artist Dan Shields was the brains behind the "String Theory for Dummies" installation, an interactive yarn display at the lights and art festival. The display was an art technique that Shields specializes in called yarn bombing.

Before Shields was a self-employed artist, he was a creative director for a public relations firm but said he always saw himself doing more creatively. The idea to start yarn bombing came from spending time at a music festival with friends and a trash bag full of yarn.

"We went to the music festival, and we brought a big trash bag full of it, weaving in between the canopies and trees, but then it started raining, and we had to maintain it and work on it the whole weekend," Shields said. "It's something you sort of gain an understanding of; yarn is a very simple thing, but from a creative aspect, you’re pulling it through a 3D space. It's a line. A line can separate and divide; it has a lot of artistic power."

The first BLINK event in 2017 further inspired Shields. He said he was fascinated by the idea but thought it was exclusively for projections. As he walked through the festival and saw light-based projections, he felt he could do that but with yarn. He applied when the event returned to the area in 2019 and was accepted.

His first BLINK installation was in Covington in an alley behind Hotel Covington, which he called "Mycelia Hyphae Shiro," inspired by mushroom biology. The display used a rainbow of yarn that was ultraviolet (UV) reactive. Shields had black lights shining on the yarn, which caused the installation's color to change from the light projected on it.

"Just the reaction from people walking into it, people that I knew, people I didn't know," Shields said. "Watching people's faces. I remember having this thought like, ‘I might be onto something here. Maybe I could do this as a career.'"

In 2020, Shields said he separated from his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ran with the opportunity to do art full-time.

After success in the 2019 BLINK festival, Shields knew he wanted to apply again in 2022.

He said one of the first installations he ever did was at a music festival and was one where everyone could participate. For that project, he took yarn and balled it up, which made it easy to throw, and anytime someone approached him and asked what he was doing, he would hand them the yarn and run away.

Shields said he would sit back and watch six or seven people throw the yarn back and forth in a 40 to 50-foot space.

"I thought it was so cool to see how much fun everybody was having," he said.

He said he wanted to take that same interactive idea and use it in another event to see if it would have the same effect on people. For BLINK in 2022, he coined the name "String Theory for Dummies" for his installation because it was an introductory way for everyone to make their own art.

"Watching everybody pulling on it, kids going crazy, people getting stuck in it, people literally climbing into it. It was really fun watching everybody," Shields said.

When the next BLINK festival rolls around, Shields said he hopes to do two installations.

He said an idea he has had for a while that he would like to test is running yarn across a road and sidewalks and connecting it to an adjacent park, almost creating a ceiling effect. Shields said the idea would be to make the area not feel like two separate areas.

"One of the cool things about this is how it transforms how people see spaces," Shields said.

His other idea is to span yarn up a building to the fourth or fifth floor with different light effects projected onto it. Most of the yarn Shields said he works with is fluorescent and reacts to black light. Like his first BLINK installation, this one utilizes a UV laser.

"It's very surprising how interesting the effect is when you put this UV laser on it because everywhere it hits, it lights up, but since it's a UV laser, you don't see the laser beam, so it's almost like the thing is spontaneously lighting itself up," Shields said.

Shields said he had a custom laser built and has been experimenting at a family farm with the idea. He recently applied for an installation at the Cincinnati Nature Center Light in the Forest event in December and plans to use the same technology should he be accepted.

He said his summers consist of art installations, and he tends to do more city festivals in the winter. He was recently named the Art Installation Director for Resonance Music and Arts Festival, which takes place in Ohio this summer.

Aside from temporary installations, Shields also does permanent ones. He has a piece at the Busken Bakery in Hyde Park, about to hit its first anniversary.

When an installation is over, Shields said he takes it down, rolls the yarn into a basketball size wad, and keeps them in his guest room.