A San Francisco artist gets high by helping others
This story most recently aired in the April 18, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.
San Francisco’s Noe Valley has long been known for having an eclectic mix of shops and eateries along 24th street. A few blocks away, a small stretch of the neighborhood is becoming known for something else – creatures in their not so natural habitats. Fairies are nestled in bushes, bunnies hang from tree branches and ants wearing strawberries for hats march up the tree trunks.
“So I put the ants in this tree, I had a total of eleven ants and I’ve split them in two so there are five ants in this tree and further up in front of the blue and yellow house there are another four.”, says San Francisco Artist Huib Petersen.
For the last six years or so, Huib (Pronounced HOWB) Petersen has been dotting the trees on his block with colorful yarn creatures he makes by hand like the koalas eight year old Sienna says are her favorites. “I call this one Pumpkin and I call that one Chompy", said Sienna. "Chompy is Pumpkin’s older sister.”
Huib is well-known around here. The tall Dutchman with kind eyes, a goatee and quirky glasses can often be seen in front of his cheerful yellow house sporting one of his many colorful, hand knit scarves. On the sidewalk in front of his house, there is usually chalk art drawn by neighborhood kids. They know he is the go-to-guy for hand knit creatures, and for rescuing the occasional school project. “We were making a school project me and my friends did a secret garden and we wanted an animal for our secret garden and all of us love koalas so we picked the koala, my friend made a koala but it was not so good", Sienna says with a giggle, "so then I was like, mom can we ask Huib if I can have a Koala for my school project?”
Huib’s neighbor, Gail Cornwall, says his creations have become an attraction on their block. "I came across it just walking with my kids. We live a few blocks down and he's on our route down to the restaurants and shops and so, gosh, I think what happened is some kids complimented them and so Huib being Huib, he made some for outside their house and then it just spread and delighted all the children in the neighborhood and they kept popping up in trees everywhere.”
“I have always liked making stuffed animals I've always liked making puppets and dolls", says Peterson. I found some patterns on the Internet that I really liked that spoke to me so I started to make some. Now I'm a little bit too big to play with toys so I started to just give them away to children here on this street, there are always a lot of children walking by here.”
Huib embraced the art of crocheting, macramé, and embroidery as a young boy growing up in the Netherlands in the '60s. Huib says, “I've done needle crafts my whole life. From the moment that I could hold a needle I have been doing needlecrafts. My mom was a knitter, my grandma was a crocheter, and I have three sisters, they were also into crafts and that's how I learned.”
Huib’s family encouraged him to pursue his passion. Even the local craft store owner was enthusiastic about his creations. But His peers were anything but supportive.
"You're not supposed to be doing that as a little boy in a farmer's town in Holland, Huib says, playfully, then in a more somber tone he goes on to share "and especially when I grew up a little bit, I was often made fun of, so I started hiding my work."
Petersen longed to express on the outside, how he felt on the inside. But he didn’t feel free to do it. Years later, he met his future husband, someone he could be himself with and he also moved to a place where he felt he belonged. Huib says, "I moved here to be with my husband, the love of my life. I love this city, I love the quirkiness of this city. So, I fell as well in love with my husband as with this city."
"I moved here to be with my husband, the love of my life. I love this city, I love the quirkiness of this city. So, I fell as well in love with my husband as with this city."Huib
Petersen says, he found other men in San Francisco that shared his hobby too. "I am in a knitting group for men where a whole group of us guys sit and knit, very macho!" he says with a smile. "It was really fun to see these big burly men with big beards doing little crocheted and knitted stuff, pretty, lacy shawls and things like that."
Petersen started sharing his craft after he felt a rise in tensions that began dividing the country around the 2016 elections. he says, "At a certain moment I thought you know there were a whole bundle of things coming together I had seen some yarn bombs here and there in the city, he says. “There were a couple of things coming together in politics that kind of made me feel sad and a little bit locked up. Like, again I'm not allowed to be who I am. So I thought maybe I should put those animals and my creations in trees so that the whole world can see them. I started very carefully with two little birds in my neighbors tree. And people were reacting on that very nicely. So, I started to do a little bit more and more and more. two children a little bit further up the street asked me if I would do some animals for their tree too.”
We hear from sisters Margaret and Beatrize, who are eleven and nine.
Margaret says. “We had seen at first that he hung some spiders over by that tree, so we asked for some spiders or monkeys and he gave us monkeys”. Beatrize says, “Sometimes when we have play dates at our house our friends come over and they're like ooh, monkeys in the tree. We're like, oh yeah, those are monkeys, our neighbor knitted them.” Margaret adds,“Sometimes I look outside and people are just looking at them and taking pictures and it makes us feel really good because it just makes everyone feel really happy.”
So it seems happiness breeds more happiness. In fact, researchers say, what Petersen experiences is real: Psychologists have identified a state of euphoria reported by people doing good. They call it “helper’s high,” and it’s based on the theory that giving produces endorphins in the brain that provide a mild version of a morphine high.
Petersen says, “Before we lived here, we lived on the street Roosevelt way. We lived there four or five years and I never got to know my neighbors never ever anyone and here that's a little bit the same everybody's got their own house and it keeps to themselves and what I love is because of all those animals that have been putting out I've known our whole bundle of my neighbors and I talk with my neighbors.”
Neighbor Gail Cornwall agrees. “I think it really did bring people together because as you can see at the house, you know, new things are popping up all the time and so we don't just walk by like we stop and we look to see what's new and then other neighbors stop and look to see what's new so we actually met a lot of neighbors with kids just on the sidewalk out front checking things out.”
Petersen says, “So this has become a neighborhood where you know each other. That was not what I set out to do but it is what happened over time, and that's what I really, really love.”
Margaret says, “I've really felt that he just makes everyone feel way happier with yarn bombing and everything, and it just it makes everything more brighter”
If this story made you feel a little brighter and you are inspired to go out in the world and pay it forward, You are experiencing what scientists call positive conformity. It's the theory that people not only imitate positive actions but also the spirit of those actions. In other words, kindness itself is contagious.
You see more of Huib Petersen's art on his website: https://www.petersenarts.com/