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Kat Thorsen and the Transformative Power of Sock Monkeys

by Betsy Greer
craft & maker

Crafting for change: http://blog.creativelive.com/kat-thorsen-and-the-surprising-power-of-sock-monkeys

Kat Thorsen is a therapeutic art facilitator and craftivist. She specializes in arts-based programming for at-risk youth and young offenders and her aim is to use art to heal and build connections.

Her interactive projects encourage participants to become part of the creative process. This post takes a closer look at three of those projects:

1) The No Censorship Quilt: Starting a Dialogue. Thorsen works with youth in custody and one afternoon she tried to kick-off a group piece by lying a large white sheet on a table, planning to quilt what they drew.

It didn’t work. No one drew anything.

However, the boys did ask her to “draw Tupac about three thousand times,” so she drew the rapper on the piece of paper. “And that’s when they started attacking it… they started tagging their own tags from their own communities and really testing each other out.”

Crafting for change: http://blog.creativelive.com/kat-thorsen-and-the-surprising-power-of-sock-monkeys

They tagged the paper, wrote words, and drew on it in felt pen; then the pen was stitched over by Thorsen and some of the boys. Eventually what was once a plain piece of paper became a quilt that was exhibited and then sold on Etsy; the money went for supplies she could use for further volunteer work.

Her initial goal of getting rival gang members to communicate was achieved. And while, “it didn’t solve anything when they [left] the room,” in the moment, they were to make something together as one – showing how creativity can help us connect with those that are different from us.

2) Sock Monkeys: Opening Up to Craft. The first sock monkey Kat ever saw was in 1998, where she and her brother’s then-girlfriend saw a 1930s sock monkey on a shelf at a fair. “I remember the slow motion dive towards it. And she got it. I’m glad that she did because I became so obsessed. If I had got it, I don’t think I’d maybe have felt the need to make one.”

Crafting for change: http://blog.creativelive.com/kat-thorsen-and-the-surprising-power-of-sock-monkeys

It is out of this obsession that she began to make sock monkeys for friends and family. So when she started working at an alternative school it was only natural she would return to the craft. She taught them to make sock monkeys, using their creation as a kind of art therapy.

“You could see the transformation, everyone was dialoging and having a good time.” It was then that she came across Operation Sock Monkey founded by Lindsay Hodgson, which makes sock monkeys for charitable organizations to pass out around the world after performances. She asked Hodges if she could make some sock monkeys to help. Hodges said she needed 30, but with the students’ help, Thorsen ended up sending them 200.

Crafting for change: http://blog.creativelive.com/kat-thorsen-and-the-surprising-power-of-sock-monkeys

While making the sock monkeys, “I started noticing that a lot of kids were really opening up while they were sewing, because they felt safe.” There was one girl being abused at home, who started to talk about it while making the sock monkeys. Eventually, she testified in court about her father, and the presiding judge “was kind enough and insightful enough to let her sit in the video room and sew while she testified… Another girl had testified and was allowed to hold her monkey.”

By keying into the fact that the kids were opening up to others as they made their monkeys, Thorsen was able to use crafting to create a sense of safety and offer the kids a non-threatening place to look (their hands) while talking about something rough.

3) Hummingbirds as Memorials: Remembrance through Stitches. Liz Elliott was the founder of the Centre for Restorative Justice in Vancouver, and died quite young from cancer.

“In the local aboriginal culture here, 4 years is a very significant moment, and it’s time to let her spirit go.” Four years after Liz’s death, the center held a potlatch, which is part of a First Nations tradition where everyone brings gifts.

Crafting for change: http://blog.creativelive.com/kat-thorsen-and-the-surprising-power-of-sock-monkeys

Just before the ceremony, the director of the center called Kat and requested she make hummingbirds. Hummingbirds were Liz’s favorite symbol and via her restorative justice work, had now become a symbol for it.

They made 40 of them, which were distributed at the potlatch. Kat now has people create hummingbirds in all of her workshops “because a) they’ll go away with something even if they don’t finish the monkey and b) it’s just a beautiful symbol.”

Crafting for change: http://blog.creativelive.com/kat-thorsen-and-the-surprising-power-of-sock-monkeys

The creation of these tiny birds are a perfect example of how crafts last and hold meaning. By coming away from a potlatch or a workshop, people end up with a tangible object infused with meaning that just doesn’t exist in anything mass manufactured.

Currently Kat is involved with a project making 200 sock monkeys for Nepal. The monkeys will be sold at Christmas craft fairs and the proceeds will go to the Kamala Yonzon Tahrayli Foundation, which is raising money to put in a water pipeline in a remote village in Nepal, saving villagers hours a day by allowing them to obtain water directly in their village.

She is also working on finishing her true-crime graphic novel about a long-standing mystery from 1953 in Vancouver that she’s been working on for 14 years, in which all the drawings are embroidered. To learn more about Kat and her work, go to katthorsen.com.

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Betsy Greer

Betsy Greer is a maker and writer from Durham, North Carolina. Her most recent project, You Are So Very Beautiful, is about stitching and sharing affirmations. Find out more: craftivism.com/youaresoverybeautiful/