A River (of felt) Runs Through It

by Molly Gilmore

Janice Arnold’s Homage to Water transforms what looked like a dry riverbed into a river with traditionally handmade felt. Photo courtesy of Janice Arnold.

At the headquarters of the Washington State Department of Ecology in Lacey, there’s a river of handmade felt, swirling and eddying through the rock garden that extends along the building’s atrium. The blue-and-white river is artist Janice Arnold’s Homage to Water, on view through Sept. 30; it’s also an homage to felt, which the Olympia artist makes in the traditional way.

In the rock garden, rocks and boulders are arranged as if to make room for water to flow among them. The garden is also home to a huge salmon, created for Procession of the Species and later brought to the headquarters for storage.

But until Arnold brought in her felt, much of it originally made for an installation at the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Art Museum, what Arnold calls the riverbed was empty. “It felt like the riverbed had been thirsty for color and art and the reference to water,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is a river wanting to happen.’ … I learned later that the architect had hoped to have a water feature.”

The artist —  internationally known for her work, which has been featured in installations at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design and in sets for the LA Opera and Cirque du Soleil — had been envisioning a river for the department, whose responsibilities include protecting Washington’s water, since she first visited the headquarters in 2009. The project finally happened this year, with the installation beginning on Earth Day and continuing for several weeks, with the completed project opening in late June.

Arnold arranged the felt to run through a riverlike rock garden at the Department of Ecology”s Lacey headquarter. Photo by Barb McConkey.

“Everybody that I run into who works (at the department) or who’s seen it has been so excited about the life that it brings,” Arnold said. “At the beginning, the chairs in the atrium had their backs to the riverbed, and now they are facing it. People are using it as a place to meet.”

“The wool river is both energetic and comforting,” said Stacey Waterman-Hoey, a climate policy analyst and a member of the department’s art committee. “It brings movement and brightness to a stony, dry riverbed. The way wool mimics water is surprising. Like water, the wool adds a liveliness to the whole interior landscape of the building. And when viewed up close, there is endless depth to explore in the details of how it flows, ripples and contours.”

Homage was originally scheduled to be on view only through August but got some extra time thanks in part to the fact that Smithsonian Magazine published a feature (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/deep-cultural-significance-art-felt-180982334/) on it.

About two-thirds of the felt used in the Lacey project was repurposed from a 2010 installation Arnold created for the Michigan museum. That installation, Chroma Passage, included seven panels of felt, each 34 feet long, The wool shrinks to about half the size when it’s felted, Arnold said, so those panels started out a whopping 68 feet each.

The felt for the installation incorporates locally grown and dyed mohair, indigo dyed wool, cultivated silk fiber, recycled coffee bags and scrap from a project Arnold did for Cirque du Soleil. Photo courtesy of Janice Arnold.

Also featured in Chroma and now hanging in the Department of Ecology atrium is a 27-foot-long hanging banner quoting the Tao Te Ching on water, concluding with the sentence: “Nothing in the world is as soft or yielding as water, yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.”

Homage to Water

11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesdays through Sept. 30, with advance registration required. Call Ciara Aylsworth at 360-407-6000.

Washington State Department of Ecology headquarters, 300 Desmond Drive SE, Lacey



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