“Radical Knitter” Featured on The Colbert Report

FCLC Artist-in-Residence Jerilea Zempel Speaks about her Experience with Border Patrol, Colbert


Jerilea Zempel’s “Homeland Security Blanket” is a crocheted cozy for an SUV; it was installed and on view in Canada this past summer. (Photo and Sketch Courtesy of Jerilea Zempel)

Published: December 11, 2008

If you’re a member of the Colbert Nation, you might now be inclined to “totally agree that knitting can be used as a form of protest.”

On Dec. 3, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) artist-in-residence Jerilea Zempel was featured on the Colbert Report as part of the segment, “Nailed ’Em: Radical Knitting.” The clip satirically recounted Zempel’s experience of being held at the border between the United States and Canada after returning from creating an art installation she has since named “Homeland Security Blanket”—a crocheted cozy designed to completely ensconce a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV).

As she was returning home, border patrol officials searched Zempel’s car after noting from her passport that she had traveled all over the world, including five out of the seven continents, within the past nine years. When the officials found what they thought to be a suspicious drawing in Zempel’s sketchbook, Zempel was interrogated and accused of “copyright infringement.” After some discussion and investigation, Zempel was ultimately let off the hook, primarily, she believes, because she is an art professor—after showing officials her college identification, the officials looked Zempel up on the Fordham University Web site.

“Somehow, being a college professor made it all OK,” Zempel remarked in an interview with the Press Republican, a newspaper serving the “Clinton, Essex and Franklin Counties of northeastern New York.”

Reflecting on the absurdity and possible civil rights infringement of the experience made Zempel decide to go public with her story, using it as her artist’s statement for “Homeland Security Blanket.” A few months later, the Colbert Report contacted Zempel in order to film “Nailed ’Em: Radical Knitting.”

A few days after the clip was aired, Zempel spoke to The Observer about the experience of being on the Report—an experience she referred to as “a dream come true.”

Observer: What was it like filming the clip for the Colbert Report?

Jerilea Zempel: I was really disappointed that I didn’t get to meet Stephen! I think he’s on the cutting edge of TV humor. There’s a certain kind of humor and social critique in his work. There’s a certain amount of [those qualities] in my work as well.

They called me up because they saw my work somewhere else. It was sort of like being discovered, like I’d won the lottery or something.

I was surprised to find out that 60 people work on filming the show. It’s an incredible staff of writers, producers, editors—whatever. They have the time and resources to really craft their work. They actually spent an entire day filming that clip, about 12 hours. A lot of stuff was filmed and then discarded. A lot of R&D [research and development] went on, there was a lot of unused footage, which I don’t think is a bad thing—it’s not wasting time, just investing time, which is something I think is important for art students to hear!

I was impressed with how well they craft their message. It involved some theatre games with me, little improv games. I sent a lot of images of my work to them to use in the clip. I didn’t know what take they’d do with it…they chose me and asked me [to come on the show]…and asked me if I wanted to be comic material for Stephen. They would ask me to refilm some things, but to just add a smile or a smirk into the scene. I was the raw material…as an artist it was hard to give that [control] up. I know they had certain questions because they wanted certain answers. It was like a “fake news” interrogation. But Stephen was not there, although they make it look like he is addressing me in that one spot, with the TV [when Colbert tells Zempel “Don’t give me that look, Zempel!”].

Observer: So I wanted to ask, how did this all come about? Did you contact them, or vice versa?

JS: Well, I did this project in Canada, and I got searched when I came over the border. That really bothered me. So I decided after driving away from border patrol [that] I would make that [experience] part of the artist’s statement. My work is not about elegance or formalism; I want my work to talk about the issues in the artwork. I want to get people talking.

I realized how Canada is a much gentler version of the New World—people aren’t stressed about paying their health care or paying their tuition or day care bills. I thought it’d be really good because that’d be one place they’d understand [how I felt about the incident with border patrol].

So I did some e-mailing to various media outlets, and I got in touch with the Press Republican in Plattsburgh, an upstate NY paper near where I work in the summer. The editor managed to put me on the front page…I thought it was pretty funny, being surrounded by all sorts of serious stories. But it was relevant because Plattsburgh is right near the border so the people there cross [more frequently]. It’s also interesting because of [how] the process [of crossing the border] has changed over the past few years—people have to have a passport to cross the border now…but there, people don’t usually need their passports on a daily basis.

Then, lots of other media outlets like AP [Associated Press] and other wire services and blogs picked up the story because of the constitutional rights issue [involved]. But I didn’t realize [this] until I got a call from a paper in Finland asking for photos!

In a way, this is more exciting than having a show in a gallery. This is a lot of fun for me and also kind of rewarding because people are talking about the issue…“Is it art? Is it politics? Can you believe this?” It was also oddly timed with the election—hopefully that kind of national paranoia will be over with the new administration. But maybe it’s important to remind [President-elect Barack Obama] of [events like this].

Observer: When was the clip actually filmed?

JZ: It was filmed in October, a week before Halloween.

Observer: So it was really relevant in terms of the election at the time.

JZ: Yes. They [usually] do those little field clips and put them aside and stick them in the show as needed.

I was behind the scenes of the producing end, but I didn’t get to see how they put them all together. I know they had meetings…when they put together questions for me, but I was only in touch with three or four people. But it was a great experience, and it was like a dream come true because Colbert is doing some of the best TV around. You can use humor to address some serious issues; if you can get people to laugh at something, even if they don’t really agree with it or haven’t even thought about it before, it’s like a little window into their mind[s], like changing their consciousnesses .

Observer: What do you think of the final product?

JZ: Well, as an artist I would’ve done it differently. There were a lot of things that we talked about that didn’t get included. I was surprised it was so focused on my work rather than my experience, but as an artist, that’s a good thing! I’ve been overwhelmed with e-mails and blog posts and people contacting me; I’ve heard from a few galleries…I’m going to be on North Country Public Radio, an upstate NPR next Monday [Dec. 8].

“Nailed ’Em: Radical Knitting” is available on the official Colbert Report Web site (www.colbertreport.com) as a clip or part of the full episode that was aired on Dec. 3.