Walk past the Olympia Steam Plant building on Thurston Street and you’ll see clouds of white stuff through those mid-century gridded windows. But it’s not steam — it’s wool felt, made by Olympia artist Janice Arnold as she creates wafty hangings for a solo show for the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design next February.
Whatever you think about felt, you can think again. In Arnold’s show there’s 18-inch-thick felt benches, cow-hide felt rugs, a white felt projection screen and 20 pieces of 40-foot-long translucent cream felt hung like a royal Mongolian tent.
“It’s been my passion to help people understand this material,” says Arnold, who’s also preparing a room full of wall posters, illustrations, tablet videos and touchable felt pieces to explain the history, process and potential of felt. The exhibit “Felt Decoded” opens in San Francisco on Feb. 11.
Meanwhile, though, it helps to have a space like the steam plant. Arnold has a “wet” studio just outside Olympia in Grand Mound, where she makes thicker felt with age-old techniques of layering wool, wetting it down, pressing it by hand and rolling it along the ground. But in the renovated 1946 steam plant, in between regular tenants, Arnold has space to spread out. On a 40-foot table, so wide she has to lean over to reach the middle, she spreads out wafer-thin spirals and circles of cream Wensleydale fiber. After arranging accent fibers of indigo lyocell (a wood-based rayon sold as Tencel), she rolls it around a PVC pipe, wets it, then rolls it the other way.
“I can play in this space,” explains Arnold.
The finished products already hang in the back of the large studio, suspended by points and catching the morning light. Inspired by the traditional goat-hair tents of Central Asian nomads, these cream hangings will be the central, immersive installation of the San Francisco show — a “cave of memories,” Arnold calls it. Other rooms will feature an undulating felt curtain, thick benches made of hand-pressed felt with an almost geologic edge, and a large white felt hanging used to project images of historic felt-making in Asia.
Oh, and there’s the “Felt Pelt.” A vegetarian, Arnold was excited to discover a way to dapple rough-edged felt pieces to resemble cowhide rugs — a cheap and quick process she’s hoping to develop into a line of animal-print upholstery.
“Felt Decoded” also has a highly personal significance for Arnold. The artist has shown work nationally and been commissioned by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and Wieden and Kennedy. But after her last big show — a solo installation at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum, later at the Evergreen State College — she set down her tools to spend four years caring for her parents until they died at home. The San Francisco show represents those years, with the length in feet of felt edge equaling the 1,169 days she spent caregiving.
“It’s imbued with memory, a real labor of love,” says the artist.
But for viewers in San Francisco — and through the windows in Olympia — it’s all about felt itself.
“I’m so pleased to be able to create an environment where people can see the big picture,” says Arnold. “And the big picture of felt is that it’s amazing. It’s a metaphor for life.”
See Janice Arnold’s felt
Where: Steam Plant Building, 113 Thurston Ave. NE, Olympia (through windows).
Coming up: “Felt Decoded” at San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design, 2569 Third St., San Francisco.
When: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays Feb. 11-June. 4.
Admission: $8; $6 seniors, students; free 12 and younger and on first Tuesdays.