Felt Decoded by Janice Arnold

by Nora Kovacs for OLY ARTS

Felt Decoded, the latest exhibition by Olympia-based textile artist Janice Arnold, has been over two years in the making. From working on 75-foot tables to alternating between a dry and wet studio, Arnold’s medium of choice is by no means a simple one. Not only does she navigate her way through mass amounts of wool, but Arnold creates her own felt material from scratch. Her process is both complex and strenuous, but this difficulty is part and parcel to the conceptual depth of her work. After years of planning, mapping and creating, Janice Arnold will showcase her work at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design. Arnold took a short break from the hustle and bustle of installation week to chat with OLY ARTS about her practice.

OLY ARTS: Let’s begin with your choice of medium. Why wool? Why felt?

Arnold: I like to call felt our first fabric, as it is a material that draws a link between when we wore animal skins to when we moved into a more textile tradition. The process of making felt is very basic, mostly relating to the naturally occurring processes of wool. Sheep have evolved over time to have this amazing heating and cooling system to survive all types of weather and climate, to stay warm in winter and cool in summer. The texture of their wool allows for that system and also enables felting today. Put simply, felting is the process of matting fibers. With enough moisture, agitation and pressure, the wool binds together to become felt. It is incredibly laborious and involves a lot of rolling and re-rolling, again and again. The thickness of the felt is directly related to how much time and energy you put into it.

OLY ARTS: You have definitely pushed that process to the extreme in terms of size. Why do you gravitate toward large-scale works and conceptually, what impact do you hope for it to have on the audience?

Arnold: It wasn’t like I strove to make big things, but it comes from my upbringing. My dad was a cartographer, so I learned a sense of scale early on. I would hold the surveyor’s tape while he measured roads and then drew and transferred his measurements onto maps. When I was little, I just assumed that everyone saw textiles in landscapes. Also, felt began as a community-based material, so I thought, why not recreate that? Community is a hugely important part of life, but you don’t always think of community when it comes to making something like this. Bringing people together on such a large project can be magical, which is also why I don’t raise my own sheep. I go to local organizations and communities to get other people involved and to work from the grassroots, quite literally. “Cave of Memories,” one of the larger pieces in the upcoming exhibition, has always been a vision of mine. When people imagine felt, they are usually misunderstanding the material. They think of the rough, little squares of felt you can get from the craft store or the felt in a poodle skirt, but when you go back to its origin, felt is so much greater than that. I started having a vision for a canopy, something wispy, ethereal and light-responsive. A lot of my work has been light-responsive, changing throughout day as the light and shadows fluctuate within a space. The structure was mapped out as if it were all laid out flat, but it can all be taken apart and reconfigured in a different way. Again, this goes back to nomadic tradition, where you would put up your house and when it was time to move on, you could roll it up and go. I started with one 20-foot piece because I wanted it to be something you could walk under, and then it became meditative. As I started thinking about my family, my life, my dreams and my wishes and incorporating those emotions into the piece, these spiral-like forms began to appear. The more that I researched the spiral and its relation to birth, life, death and rebirth, I realized that honoring those ideas was a part of my process. “Cave of Memories” is about taking difficult experiences and turning them into something beautiful. It was a subconscious process, but it’s exciting when your art kind of leads you. It can be quite scary, too.

OLY ARTS: In the context of the Museum of Craft and Design, why is craft important to you? What can you achieve with wool that you cannot achieve with another medium?

Arnold: (Nomads have) been making felt for thousands of years. In order to survive, they had to work in harmony with the natural environment, and their survival was contingent on their access to wool. The Central Asian plains are known as the “birthplace of felt,” where people are born, live and die in this material. Many people do not realize this history when they think of wool or felt, so I wanted to highlight its importance in my work. It is about respecting the environment, respecting where this material comes from and how it fits into our civilization. The principles of felting have not changed for 7,000 to 8,000 years; and yet you look at our current technology and how it is constantly changing, and there is still no synthetic material that can fully embody the intricacies of wool and felt. It’s like a miracle fabric. I was always intrigued by its almost alchemic nature. You start out with this wispy, lightweight material and work it with your hands and water and through that physical labor it transforms. It is truly a limitless palate and I’m still just learning. It’s really amazing.

OLY ARTS: Drawing from the exhibition’s title, Wool: Nature’s Technology, what makes felt the “fabric of the future?”

Arnold: I call felt “Nature’s Technology” because I strongly believe that the Earth already holds all of the answers to our environmental problems. Bio-mimicry, reaching out to preexisting sources like wool, is so vital at this moment. If modern technology were to fail, wool would still be here, and there is so much that it is capable of doing. The fibers of wool bond with and filter out toxins in the air. They are insulators of heat and sound. They absorb moisture and release it back into the air like a natural form of air conditioning, and they can bond with formaldehyde. Wool is also becoming increasingly popular in high-performance clothing, as a more efficient base layer than polypropylene. When we talk about sustainable products, wool is the definition of sustainability: no negative footprint, completely natural, biodegradable and (it) even puts carbon back into soil.

OLY ARTS: Where do you see your work going in the future with this fabric?

Arnold: I would like to explore felt from a more architectural standpoint. I am experimenting with different ways of taking this ancient technology and making it fit into our modern aesthetic, and I love to contrast the tension that creates. I have become aware of so many forms and uses for felt that I’m finding myself as a consultant, helping people figure out solutions with natural materials. At the same time, my art does not have to have a purpose, it can be impractical, yet heavy and laden with symbolism and potent meaning. That’s the beauty of felt; It is going to be what it wants to be. I really try to listen to the material. I might imagine it one way and discover that it looks better another way. It just depends on the environment and how it ebbs and flows.

Felt Decoded at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design is sponsored by Woolmark Company.

What: Felt Decoded

Where: Museum of Craft and Design,
2569 Third Street, San Francisco, Calif.

When: Feb. 11 – June 4

How much: free – $8

Learn more: SFMCD | Janice Arnold

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