Alison Heryer’s Picnic Project sewed together art’s social fabric

No picnic is complete without arthropodal visitors, and the Big Blanket event last weekend, on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, was no exception. Three human-sized ants (puppeteers sweating under their all-black costumes) scurried around in the midday heat as museum visitors staked 400 canvas squares, each 5 feet by 5 feet, into the lush sod.

Sunday afternoon’s Big Blanket served as the culmination of the Picnic Project, the brainchild of local artist Alison Heryer. Over the past two months, Heryer held a series of workshops in locations throughout Kansas City — 31st Street and Troost, Mill Creek Park, the City Market, elsewhere — at which passers-by decorated white canvas squares. Heryer provided red house paint, brushes and an odd assortment of thrift-store and yard-sale acquisitions, including pool triangles, irons and a spatula, to use as stamping implements. A similarly ad hoc group — the artist, interns, volunteers, museum employees, people who had decorated the squares, new passers-by — assembled those pieces into a giant, irregularly shaped blanket in the Kansas City Sculpture Park, a few feet from Claes Oldenburg’s iconic “Shuttlecocks.” Members of the public (and ants, for that matter) then ate on the checkered canvas squares.

Heryer intended for the Picnic Project to appeal to a broad audience.

“A huge aspect of the project is about bringing people together and finding common ground,” she tells The Pitch by e-mail. “I think that is the great thing about picnics — their simplicity is something that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of who you are or what you believe.”

Although her blanket involved aesthetic considerations (making marks and patterns on the canvas squares, for example), the project was more about constructing a welcoming space for sharing food and conversation. “For me, it comes down to the fundamentals of the picnic experience,” Heryer writes. “Picnic = food + blanket + public space, the blanket serving as a link between the food and public space.”

Sunday’s heat pushed most of the picnickers into the shade of the trees on the lawn’s east and west sides. But the blanket proved a popular backdrop for photos. Parents posed toddlers on the paint-spattered red and white squares. Among the finished piece’s swirling brush strokes and repeating stamped patterns, one standout blanket reflected civic pride with a charming representation of spurting water above the words “City of Fountains.” A few older folks braved UV rays to find their grandchild’s square among the 399 other blanket pieces. At 3:45 p.m., blanket artists could remove the stakes from their squares and take them home.

Heryer, who teaches fiber at the Kansas City Art Institute, grew up a few blocks from the Nelson and remembers eating picnics on the lawn as a child. When she started scouting locations for the big blanket, the museum seemed like the natural choice. “The blanket is playing with scale, and the context of the Claes Oldenburg ‘Shuttlecocks’ seemed too perfect,” she says.

The lawn still serves as a gathering place for Kansas Citians. Her blanket spurred new interactions among visitors: strangers helping one another look for their squares, people swapping stories about their creative inspirations, couples snapping photos for one another.

And she hopes it keeps happening. “I really wanted the blankets to be durable so that people could use them for picnicking over and over again,” she says. The 400 pieces of Heryer’s Picnic Project might turn out to have even more power separately. Each is its own little town square, for use anywhere.

Categories: A&E