Janice Arnold '78 weaves the future in felt.
Janice Arnold believes in art you can feel. Not just in your gut, or your mind or heart, but with your hands. "We are starved for the quality and beauty of fabric, the texture of fiber," she says. Which is why she has taken the ancient tradition of feltmaking to create new environments in ways no one has done before.
This challenging work is exemplified in her latest major installation, "Palace Yurt," a contemporary translation of traditional Mongolian structures, at New York City’s Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The lavish large-scale piece included a fully felted ceiling, walls, ceremonial entrance and bench coverings, supported by a structural framework designed to mirror the existing glass support system of the museum’s historical conservatory. It was the centerpiece of the museum’s 2009 "Fashioning Felt" exhibition.
Felt excites Arnold because it is so organic in form and process, requiring only wool, soap and water, and pressure. She makes felt the same way that traditional artisans in Asia have made it for more than 9,000 years, but has added a number of her own innovations. Contemporary felt art, of which Arnold is a leader, increasingly includes combining other materials with wool—silk, linen, jute, even metal—to make richly textured, intricately structured pieces.
Fine fabrics have always been a passion for Arnold. She created large-scale textile works in her programs at Evergreen, including a "Batik Room" installed in the library for her senior project, and got a firsthand view of the fashion world during an internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine her senior year.
After graduation, she freelanced in fashion, produced fashion shows, and ended up at Seattle-based Nordstrom’s corporate advertising department, working in visual merchandising and photography. "I saw a need – they had designers with wonderful ideas but who didn’t know how to make them happen," she says. "So I started a business making these things come to life. It was tremendous training."
In 1999, Nordstrom’s designers conceived an idea to usher in fall with oversized industrial felt sculptures in windows across the country. Arnold suggested handmade felt, since industrial felt colors were so limited, even though she didn’t know how to make it at that time. "No one in the U.S. was really doing this scale of felting," she explains. She was introduced to the process through a local feltmaker who gave her a National Geographic article featuring wool and traditional felting in central Asia.
"At Evergreen," she says, "it's not ‘can I do it?’—it's ‘how can I do it?’ which is how I’ve approached almost all of my projects and installations." She visited New Hampshire to learn more about wool, and bought hundreds of pounds of dyed fleece. Where traditional Mongolians use horses or camels to "felt" the fleece into fabric, Arnold rolled the wool fleece behind her car. In the end, she hand made more than 1,200 square yards of felt for the project at her studio in Grand Mound, Washington.
Then she needed 40,000 felt "leaves" to complete the project. A friend at Olympia’s Traditions store connected her with a women’s co-op in Nepal, where she went and taught a core group of 10 women how to create the handmade felt she needed.
"I was teaching them during the day, then frantically researching at night to resolve the problems I encountered," she says. "In the end, it all worked flawlessly, but looking back, it was a huge risk." The co-op has expanded, and hundreds of women now continue to make felt and sell it all over the world. Arnold has returned to Nepal five times to work with them.
Her work for Nordstrom led to a commission for another store, and her professional felting career was on its way. Much of what she does starts out as experimental. "I take the basics and principles and apply them in unusual ways," she explains. "I look creatively at mistakes and learn from them. This work allows a new use of a material that is very versatile—much more than people understand when they think of felt."
Her connection to the Cooper-Hewitt museum started in 2005, when she saw the museum’s "Extreme Textiles" exhibition in New York. "I wrote a note to the curator, Matilda McQuaid, to tell her how much I was inspired by the exhibit," she says. "She emailed back to tell me how much they loved felt, and invited me to show them what I was working on."
At that time, she was collaborating with costume designer Constance Hoffman for the Los Angeles Opera's world premiere production of Grendel. Arnold made graceful, ethereal fabric based on images of glacial ice and snow for Wealtheow, Queen of the Danes, and combined brilliant red and green wool, silk and metal to create fabric for the opera’s Dragon and three women who make up its tail. While visiting the New York premiere of the opera, McQuaid invited Arnold to the Cooper-Hewitt, and ended up spending an entire afternoon looking at Arnold’s felt work. A year later, Arnold received another email from McQuaid. "We've got approval for a felt exhibition," she wrote. "We would like you to be a part of it."
In the meantime, Arnold collaborated with Cirque du Soleil and Montreal’s Hylo Design on two interactive performance spaces on Celebrity Cruise Lines ships, and wrapped Wolfgang Puck's CUT restaurant in The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas with a "Woven Wall"—a complex installation with industrial felt. Both projects relied heavily on the engineering and artistic skills and partnership of former Evergreen faculty member Stan Klyne, her husband of 24 years.
Her objectives for the Cooper-Hewitt project included "To pay homage to the yurt as a historic and contemporary dwelling and grand celebratory space, and to demonstrate the versatility of Felt as an art form and functional fabric." Arnold had noted that the museum’s historic conservatory was similar in shape to a yurt, and in spring 2008, she took her proposal to New York with sketches of the design.
It required a specially engineered structure to act as the framework, especially since the building is a national historic site and has very restrictive codes and rules. New York engineering firm KPFF offered to design the structure and fabrication specifications in return for artwork created by Arnold for their offices. Ziegler’s Welding in Olympia built the framework, and local artisan Steve Carras designed and built an intricate shipping crate.
On the day the Palace Yurt shipped to Manhattan, Arnold received a call from The Martha Stewart Show. Stewart’s crew filmed all 15 days of the installation, catching Arnold at one of the most stressful and rewarding times of her life. They captured the moment when the frame got stuck in the conservatory roof, when the felt was hung, and when the Palace Yurt first opened to visitors. Arnold and curator Susan Brown appeared on Martha Stewart’s show in March 2009.
The exhibition broke all attendance records at the museum, with people returning four and five times to experience its warmth and quality, and The New York Times featured the Palace Yurt on the front page of its weekly Arts section.
In 2009, Arnold was chosen from nearly 400 applicants for an Artist Trust Fellowship. She is currently working on a permanent installation for KPFF’s New York offices. In June she will install a site-specific piece at the Bellevue Arts Museum using the forum of the museum as her "dry studio," creating the wool lay-up in full view of visitors. Beginning in October, the Palace Yurt will travel with the "Fashioning Felt" exhibition to the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design.
Arnold believes her work's popularity stems from people's need for texture, natural fibers, and handmade, quality surroundings. "We have so much visual pollution in our environment," she says. "Felt and other organic textiles offer a respite from the manufactured spaces where we spend so much time."