This interview began with an uncomfortable question.
"Are you afraid of heights?" Twin Cities artist Eric Rieger asked while ascending 75 feet in a cherry picker. "It shakes when it gets high. Or it bounces. That's the scariest part."
Rieger, known widely as HOTTEA, was heading toward a skylight inside the Mall of America to continue work on a 5,000 square foot yarn piece called "Hot Lunch."
The 60-foot-tall installation is Rieger's largest so far, a milestone in his art career that started with graffiti and has led him into what some call "yarn-bombing."
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As a graffiti artist, Rieger's tag was HOTTEA. But he fell afoul of the law. The next time he got caught, someone warned, he'd be looking at some consequences.
He stopped, but found himself missing the creative part of tagging.
So, Rieger turned to yarn-bombing. He began creating increasingly complicated designs by weaving wool into words on chain-link fences. The words last for a while and then succumb to the elements.
In time, he began making bigger pieces, weaving a brilliantly colored yarn roof on the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, and huge free flowing curtains of color at outdoor concerts. They are hard to describe, but invariably they cause people to pause and stare in wonder.
"I try to create memories with my installations," he said. "I've always tried to do that from day one with my street work."
For the Mall of America piece, Reiger started with 900 pounds of yarn, which came as skeins — the large twists of wool favored by knitters.
"It took roughly two months of preparing the artwork," he said.
Reiger needed 60-foot lengths of yarn, and a lot of them — enough to fill a 5,000 square foot atrium three stories tall.
However, Reiger's studio is only 40 feet long. So, he set up pegs 30 feet apart and had assistants walking, back and forth, unraveling, clipping and then tying one end to specially cut mesh squares.
"I had like five [people] for like for two weeks just unraveling yarn," he said. "I think we calculated around 14,000 strands of yarn."
Once measured, clipped and attached the yarn was carefully folded into bags. The mesh now hangs from a lattice of cables near the skylight.
Rieger and his assistant spent five days preparing the piece. As they dropped each yarn piece one by one, the work expanded. Each new bag delivers a new batch of color to the growing wall of wool. He calls it a color field.
Mall of America Senior Vice President Jill Renslow helped commission the piece. She loves watching mall visitors stop and stare.
"It's a different view and experience from different perspectives, whether you are on level three and you are right there," she said. "As you move, the color sequences change."
"Hot Lunch" is now on view in the atrium of the mall's northern entrance.