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Janice Arnold’s Chroma Passage (2010) at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

The new “Felt DeCoded:Wool: Nature’s Technology” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Craft & Design pays tribute to wool as a raw fiber and its many uses for making art, household items, and clothes (The Woolmark Company is an exhibition sponsor). The versatility of this material is on display in the work of visual artist Janice Arnold’s many new works including an installation called Cave of Memories, acoustic wall panels to a multi-layered felted coffee table and wool-and-mohair stool created in collaboration with TESC Furniture Studio. “I consider wool a miracle fiber,” says Arnold. “It embodies incredible characteristics and qualities in one natural material. I think if wool were ‘discovered’ today, it would be considered a space age material!” Working with pure wool and harnessing the felting process can be a laborious but rewarding process for Arnold. “I discovered, upon making samples, that I could accomplish a thick reversible material with organic edges simply starting with raw fiber. This resulted in amazing color combinations with textures and qualities that I had never seen before,” the artist explains of both her thick, dense slabs and featherweight pieces.

We spoke with the artist, who’s traveled extensively to learn traditional felt making techniques since she started working with the material (to create a large-scale sculpture commission for Nordstrom’s fall windows in 1999).

Arnold’s Caves of Memories (2017) at the Museum of Craft and Design

What type of wool do you use in your pieces?

“As an artist, I have learned to listen to the voice of the wool fiber, and collaborate with those qualities. There are thousands of breeds of sheep. Each breed has unique characteristics that make it suitable for certain uses. For example, merino wool is a breed that produces an ultra fine wool fiber. Through experimentation and research, I have learned about the characteristics of the many wool breeds, allowing me to choose the right wool for the right end use. This way I can work with nature rather than against it.”

What’s special about wool?

“Wool is the result of millions of years of evolution allowing sheep to stay warm in extremely cold climates and cool in extremely hot climates. (This is the reason I call wool ‘nature’s technology.’) Wool and felt are connections to our natural history, our connection to making things by hand, and help us recognize the importance and wisdom of nature’s gifts.”

Arnold’s Folded Time (2016) at the Museum of Craft and Design

How is wool easy to manipulate?

“It is a medium that behaves in remarkable ways, based on how you manipulate it. It is almost protoplastic, which makes is incredibly exciting to work with. Wool allows me to invent new types of felt with textures and combinations that have never been seen before.”

One 40-foot piece from Arnold’s immersive installation Cave of Memories

From where do you source the wool you use?

“I source wool from all around the world. I don’t raise my own sheep for the specific reason that I want to be able to support wool producers globally and locally in my region. In some pieces, I know the names and faces of the animals wool that I use and the people who raise them.”

Arnold in her studio working on a 40-foot panel for the immersive installation, Cave of Memories, in 2016. She was inspired by her experiences as a caregiver for her elderly parents.

What made you travel to Asia to understand the tribal world of felt making?

“When I learned that nomads have been making wool felt in the same way theyhave been for over 8,000 years, I knew I had to visit. My trips to Central Asiaand Mongolia have been invaluable. They have profoundly influenced my artpractice, giving me the opportunity to learn and experience the process offeltmaking in the original cultural context.”

An installation view at the Museum of Craft and Design featuring Caves of Memories (2017), FELT Pelt Bench Cover (2015), and Folded Time (2016).

Do you prefer to to create projects for installations or for more practical uses?

“In a museum setting, I like to engage the visitor by creating an altered experience of space, both physical and personal. And at the same time changing their perceptions of wool and felt. On the other hand, I love practicality. I like making art that also has a function, using materials that enhance and enrich our environment. I create everything from wall coverings, floor pieces to furniture pieces.”