If you think "delicate" and "felt" don't go together in the same sentence, think again – and head up to Bellevue Arts Museum to do it.
This month, Centralia felt artist Janice Arnold – creator of installations from Nordstrom windows to the Smithsonian Museum – is working hard on the floor of the BAM Forum laying up her delicate fiber textures in a public process that’s every bit as fascinating as the final, translucent installation in the BAM street window.
“Felt-making is such a mysterious art form,” Arnold said. “You start with just wisps of fiber and end up with something that can be sculptural or even structural. I thought it would be interesting for people to see the dry lay-up part of it, a kind of performance felting.”
Mysterious is a good word to describe the whole felt-making process. Strands of fiber such as wool, mohair, flax or silk are laid down onto a flat surface in a certain design, sprayed with warm water, then rolled up into a tube that is fed through a giant wringing machine. (Or, if you’re a traditional Mongolian felter, pulled behind your camels over the tundra.) As the fibers are squeezed and agitated, they shrink up to 40 percent and tangle together, creating the single fabric we know as felt. It’s an ancient method that Arnold has been playing with for more than 10 years.
“It all began when I was working as a vendor for Nordstrom visual merchandising, and they asked me to do some enormous window sculptures out of industrial felt,” said Arnold, who studied textiles in college but who’d never made felt. “I realized that if you hand made felt, you could get a bigger variety of colors and textures, make it into art.”
First, though, Arnold had to learn how. She asked a small-scale felt-making friend to demonstrate, then traveled to Nepal to head up a fair-trade women’s cooperative on the advice of Dick Meyer, owner of Olympia’s Traditions Café & World Folk Art. Learning as she taught, Arnold completed the Nordstrom sculpture and never looked back.
Experimenting every time with different fibers and ways of combining them, the artist has received commissions from the L.A. Opera, Cirque du Soleil, Wieden+Kennedy and many others. Last year, her installation “Palace Yurt,” inspired by Mongolian felt traditions she had studied in Kyrgyzstan, went on show at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York and is now traveling nationwide.
The Bellevue piece, however, is something new for both the artist and the museum.
It came about when Arnold met BAM’s chief curator Stefano Catalani at the Tacoma Art Museum in March. Catalani was looking for artists to fill the museum’s street window space overlooking the Bellevue mall, and Arnold began imagining how she could do it.
The result gives museum visitors a chance to watch Arnold as she works. Over a pre-calculated design, the artist will lay up her fiber pattern on the floor of the Forum (the museum’s entry foyer). As each swathe is complete, she’ll carefully roll it in bubble wrap to take home for the wet process. The final installation Tuesday and Wednesday will be a series of layered arches covering the window with ethereal, translucent felt.
“Janice’s felt installations have the power to transform space. Her newest installation frames the view from both sides of the glass, smoothing out the light as it filters through and changing its hue depending on the time of the day. ... Arnold’s piece [invites] us to fully experience the beauty and intricacy of the felt’s texture and architecture,” Catalani said.
As she makes the work, Arnold is experimenting, as she does every piece with different weights and textures. Encouraged by spectators who flocked to her Centralia studio to watch her at work on the Smithsonian piece, she is documenting the process on her Facebook page.
Arnold points out, “It’s risky for the museum, letting me take over the Forum, but education helps people appreciate the final art better.”
And even though laying out endless strands of fiber on the floor is back-breaking work, Arnold loves what she does.
“Making felt is magic. You have tiny fibers, like merino fibers which fit five into a single human hair, and you can make half-inch-dense felt, thick sculptural material, or ethereal fabric. I go with my mistakes, collaborate with the material. It’s remarkable – a universe of its own.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, email@example.com
'WINDOW INTO PROCESS'
What: Work by felt artist Janice Arnold
Where: Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., Bellevue
When: Felt lay-up 11 a.m.-5 p.m. today; installation 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Exhibition on view through summer: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Admission: $10, $7, free for younger than 6 and on first Fridays