Plarn sleeping mat next to Miller Park signage. Photo credit: Natalie Church

Art isn’t just for show, it also helps those in need.

Natalie Church, a sophomore in the Honors College who’s majoring in art from Cleveland, Tenn., created a sleeping mat made from recycled grocery bags. It was meant to be a sculpture, but she thought it could be used for something more.

“I thought it was really important for it to actually end up in someone’s hands because that was the intent for me,” she says.

So she gave it to a homeless person.

Students in the “Space and Sequence” class at the Department of Art at UTC were sent to scour downtown Chattanooga and campus to get inspiration for their sculptures.  Church says she chose the sleeping mat idea after seeing the homeless living downtown.

“Just seeing all these people without having a place to go in the city… it kind of made me sad.”

The mat is three feet wide and close to six feet long with a pillow and is made of plastic yarn known as “plarn.” The mat has a strap and bundles up nice and tight so it can be transported easily. But the “plarning” process is tedious, she says.

“You have to smooth them out, cut them into little strips tie then into string and ball that string up and then crochet,” she explains.

She credits her friend Molly with teaching her the technique for creating the plarn and her grandmother for teaching her how to crochet.

Natalie Church handing sleeping mat to Mitch Redfern. Photo Credit: Natalie Church

“Molly worked with plarn before and she showed me the technique,” Church says, “but my grandmother taught me how to crochet when I was younger.”

She  estimates it took over 100 hours with the help of friends and classmates to complete the sculpture for her two-week project. “I never would have gotten it done without them,” she says.

Once the mat was completed and before she gave it to a homeless person, Church wanted to know what it would be like to sleep on it.

“I slept on it in my study room instead of on my bed just because I wanted to experience that for myself and make sure that it was like actually comfortable.”

The next day, she set out to find someone who could use it, and that’s when Church met Mitch Redfern.

“He was super-nice” says Church. “He talked to me a little bit. I gave him a bag with some food and a toothbrush, some socks along with the mat.”

Church says she came to UTC intending to be a photography major but quickly learned her true passion is in sculpture, crediting the experience with teaching her a lot about herself and her art.

“I think it’s just been really great for me to learn so much about sculpture as an art and about myself as an artist,” she explains. “My professors, my friends, have all been so supportive and it’s just been really amazing to me how much I’ve been able to grow so far.”

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