The Mall of America just got yarnbombed.

For the next three months, the atrium at the north entrance will be filled with hanging threads of 60-foot yarn, installed by Minneapolis-based artist HoTTea, aka Eric Rieger. This is his biggest piece to date, stretching nearly 25 yards across, with a total of 103 colors of yarn.

Observing the immense multicolored column from a distance, you might expect the artist to have named it something abstract or related to color theory. Actually, it’s called “Hot Lunch,” and it was inspired by one of his hardworking assistants, a woman named Lin who works in a lunchroom by day. She has devoted 16-hour days to the project for most of the past week.

Her occupation brought up memories of Rieger’s awkward adolescence. By coincidence, the MOA piece is next to a food court.

“Her work ethic inspired me, and then I started thinking about her occupation and the kids that were getting their lunch from her,” he said. “They see this lady, and sometimes that’s all they see. But there’s a lot more to her than what they are seeing.”

Rieger didn’t know he was gay during his high school years in the conservative southern Minnesota community of New Ulm. He remembers not fitting in, especially in the cafeteria, that site of so many embarrassing teenage moments.

“I wasn’t out to myself yet in high school, so I was just really uncomfortable with myself,” he said. “I am not very good at hiding my feelings and pretending like things are OK. I just came off as a really awkward, weird person.”

Rieger says that experience came back to him while working on “Hot Lunch.” He sees in it a broader, universal message, something that can transcend his adolescence or any single lunch lady’s daily experience.

“This piece is about the people who, their whole lives, are kind, genuine, just good people,” he said. “It’s just me thanking them for being who they are, for them just saying a few words to someone who may be feeling like they don’t fit in, or going through something in their life. And being friendly to people no matter who they are, what they do, what political side they are on — just understanding people and accepting them.”

Shoppers at the Mall of America paused this week to take in the massive installation-in-progress.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Heather Copps of Minnetonka. “I love the way the sun shines through it, and you can see all the colors. They sort of glow. You almost can’t focus on it — you have to stand back a little bit and look at the rainbow of colors.”

University of Minnesota Duluth students Emily Eder and Blair Goehring sat and stared for awhile.

“It’s kind of hard to look at — it makes you a little dizzy if you look at it too long,” said Eder.

'Nonconfrontational' material

HoTTea has installed his yarn all over the world, but he got his start weaving threads through chain-link fences in the Twin Cities.

A 2007 graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, he studied graphic design. In his other life, he was a graffiti artist until getting busted.

What he loved most was the publicness of making street art, so he switched from tagging with paint to threading with yarn, a material he once described as “pretty nonconfrontational.” It’s like a non-permanent graffiti. The elements eventually wear down the yarn designs, adding a softness and sensitivity to the act of outdoor artmaking.

Rieger started doing these commissions on a full-time basis only four years ago. Before this, his largest installation was last year in Australia, for a Bon Iver concert at the Sydney Opera House. The piece hung above the stage, lit by spotlights as the band played.

The Mall of America installation is double that size. Last year, he also did installations in Taiwan and at the Barrington Area Library outside of Chicago. Earlier this year he installed work at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Okla., the San Diego Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

Rieger takes on anywhere from one to three commissioned pieces per month, but he’s careful to balance projects like the MOA piece with free work that might be more experimental in nature, involving different materials such as wood or balloons.

It’s the dream of many artists to be able to live off their work, but Rieger said that was not his goal.

“I think anyone who goes into this thinking ‘I gotta do this full time and I gotta work to make all this money’ ... you can always tell. For me, this has all been organically built and made since Day One. It all started just doing fences.”

@AliciaEler • 612-673-4438