By Mary Pleshette Willis
There’s not much to smile about these days, but the John Lennon Tree on 79th Street between Amsterdam and Broadway brings smiles to anyone who passes it by.
A crocheted artwork with gaudy pink and yellow flowers, a purple peace sign and a portrait of Lennon in shades against a background of brightly colored stripes, it is the creation of CarmenCommunityArtist, aka Carmen Paulino, a community artist who reached out to friends isolated by the pandemic to help her. The yarn and initial invitation to create a “yarn bomb” — a piece of crocheted or knitted art made specifically to be wrapped around a tree, lamppost or gate — came from Knitty City, a retail store and gathering place for knitters and crocheters, directly in front of the tree.
“I’ve always volunteered and been involved in the community,” Carmen says. “When the pandemic came, I thought the Lennon Tree Project would be good for people who were stuck at home and wanted to do something, people who were lonely and had lost their jobs.”
Born in Harlem, Carmen watched her mother and grandmother crochet and knit. “They made beautiful things,” she says. “Scarves and hats, baby stuff and colorful throws for couches. I wanted to do that too and started to make things when I was about ten.”
After she had her own children, Carmen wanted to do more and began focusing on bigger projects. “I started to teach classes at community centers in the city, working with people of all ages,” she says. “I didn’t have enough yarn for them to make their own blankets, so I had them make individual ‘granny squares.’ I put them together in the shape of a heart and thought, wow, this would look beautiful on the gate at 105th and Second Avenue.”
The same instinct for beautifying the neighborhood and inspiring the community guided her through the Lennon Tree Project. Nancy Perkins, a senior who met Carmen at the Union Settlement Center, helped her assemble the project. “I knitted some stripes,” Nancy says, “and helped her arrange the elements, but the piece is totally her vision.”
Carmen is quick to credit her friends and collaborators who helped her create all the elements that went into the work. She made the face of Lennon, the lettering and the whole backboard, but asked her friends to help contribute granny squares and flowers. “I never understood when people said that knitting and crocheting was relaxing and calming,” says Viviana Rambay, who made the large striking flowers. “When Carmen asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating on the project I said yes and for the first time I realized what everyone had been talking about. It took my mind off the pandemic and really helped me relax.”
When the tree was wrapped in its crocheted dreamcoat, Carmen’s conviction that art and community enhance each other was proven true. “I loved it so much that when it went up I thought this was a full circle moment. A cozy piece of art that people can relate to.”
And relate to it, they do. Carmen has received calls, texts and Instagram messages from people she’s never met standing in front of the John Lennon Tree.
“I began my artistic journey watching my mother and grandmother,” she says. “But I’ve been able to marry my creativity to working with the community. When seniors and young people come together to make things of beauty it’s like a domino effect.”
Viviana and Nancy agree. “Carmen is completely community minded,” Nancy says. “She has tremendous energy, but most important her projects are joyous and fun.”
Joyous and fun are not words that describe these fractious times, but the John Lennon Tree proves you can bring people together with art and a smile.