The white Palace
In 2009 felt artist Janice Arnold suspended a monumental yurt in the conservatory of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum as part of the institution’s Fashioning Felt exhibition. Diaphanous and richly embellished and standing at twenty four feet, “Palace Yurt” was a soaring homage to the fabric itself as well as a tribute to the ancient Mongolian celebratory spaces. Enamored with the magical alchemy that occurs when wool, water and friction come together, the Centralia, Washington-based Arnold has made both an intellectual and artistic study of the fabric, the history of which goes back 8,000 to 10,000 years. For her, this proto fabric links past and present, connecting her and the people who experience her work to a more natural, primal state.
An artist explores the origins and possibilities
of humanity’s first fabric.
Arnold has studied feltmaking with Mongolian nomads and has created pieces for organizations as diverse as Cirque du Soleil/Celebrity Cruises, the Gates Foundation, the Wolfgang Puck restaurant Cut, the Key Arena Seattle Center, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Los Angeles and New York City Operas.
Today, in addition to developing “a river of wool” for the Washington State Department of Ecology, she is working to finish both a catalog and documentary about the Palace Yurt project, which she hopes someday to display in Mongolia.
“One of my dreams is to take it to Mongolia and show it in a museum there. That part is the missing link for me,” she says. “I want to give back to the country where I’ve learned so much.”
In your artist statement you write that wool felt connects us with our natural history in a way no other fabric can? How so?
Felt is believed to be the oldest textile tradition known to humans. It makes sense to me that we have a genetic memory for it. It’s the only explanation I have for why people are so drawn to the material and instinctively want to touch it.
Now that we are in this era of out-ofcontrol technology and environments that are so clean lined—the opposite esthetic of organic—people are more and more drawn to this world that speaks to a part of themselves that is missing. It [felt] calls in us something that is very wild and very primal that we don’t really have an intellectual memory for, our connection is earlier than that.
Why were you drawn to felt?
I have always loved wool, and I had known about handmade felt, but I hadn’t actually made it until 1999 when I had an opportunity to work with Nordstrom on a visual merchandising sculpture project. I contacted a friend who makes handmade felt and asked her to consult with me in the very early stages of that project. In then end, that led me to making over 1,500 square yards of handmade felt.
When I couldn’t find anyone who knew how to make large felted sheets, I thought, OK, go back to the history—go back to the roots of this material and I started researching.
I found a phenomenal article on wool in a National Geographic magazine from May 1988. I saw images of nomads making felt on the tundra, pulling their wool behind a horse and I thought, “I don’t have a camel or a horse, but I have a car!” So I embarked on
this journey to make felt in the way that it had been made for thousands of years.
When I went to Kyrgyzstan a year later, I saw these traditional cultures making felt in the way I had been guided through in the magazine pictures. I felt this immediate bond. This recognition that we hold a knowledge of this material in our cellular structure. From that moment I was determined to not only honor the animal, but honor this ancient tradition.
In Central Asia, people are born in felt. They live in felt. They die in felt. And they are buried in felt. I’m of the belief that it’s what allowed us as human beings to leave the caves and take off the animal skins and start moving and migrating and, of course, conquering other lands because we had this portability that prior to that discovery we didn’t have.
This is very sacred material and a miracle fiber, really.
What was the impetus behind the Palace Yurt installation at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Museum?
I first had contact with the curators at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt during a show of extreme textiles. I was very inspired by the show and wrote Matilda McQuaid, who heads up the museum’s textile collection. I expressed my appreciation for the museum and the extreme textile show, and told her I was a feltmaker. She invited me to come and show them my fabric.
It was 2006 and I had quite a few felt projects under my belt at that point. I was doing a commission for the Los Angeles Opera, making felt for Grendel (directed by Julie Taymor), and that was going to be shown in New York as well. There was this great coincidence where I was in New York for the opera and two people from the museum’s textile department were going to see it as well. I spent the afternoon showing them my fabric when they said, “If we ever have a felt show, we want you to be a part of it.”
The following year they contacted me and asked if I wanted to be part of their felt exhibition and I said, “Absolutely!”
I went to New York to see the exhibition space, because I wanted to design something for this commission that was site specific, and I really wanted to understand more about what the philosophy of the show was going to be. In going into the museum, I walked into the conservatory and was struck by how beautiful it was to have a glass house, especially one in the middle of a city surrounded by this spectacular mansion.
The space felt very much like a palace yurt, which I
had read about in Felt Art of the Mongols, one of my felting bibles. It was written by a felt scholar in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and he talked about palace yurts being this grand celebratory space: an environment for artistic activities during the era when there were yurt villages and military campaigns. The royalty would have their very fancy royal yurts, but then the palace yurt was more a place where everyone came together to sing, dance, write poetry and tell stories. I turned to the curator Susan Brown and said, “This could be a yurt, this could be a palace yurt.”
I’ve always had a philosophy of, it’s not can I do it, but how can I do it? I looked upon this as an opportunity to not only elevate feltmaking to a new level, but to really create a sensory interaction where people could have a unique experience walking into a space surrounded entirely by handmade material — much like it was thousands of years ago.
How did you research this project?
The stars were certainly aligned for me to do it properly. A very good friend of mine, Christine Martin, was a Fulbright scholar in Central Asia that year studying women and textiles. She had been asked by the Smithsonian to do a video about traditional feltmaking and emailed me to say she had lined up a meeting with Dr. Batchuluun, author of my felting bible.
‘Would you join me in Ulan Bator and help me film for the Fashioning Felt exhibition?’
How can you say no? She had just lined up a meeting with this man who I held in high esteem. I had just two weeks to prepare before leaving on the trip.
I took my sketches with me and showed them to Dr. Batchuluun; he planned to spend three hours with us and ended up spending three days. He didn’t speak English, but he was so appreciative and very emotional when he saw what I was doing. He understood that I would be honoring the tradition and building something in a contemporary way that referenced the historical palace yurt that was inspired by his book.
Thanks to meeting with the Asian Cultural Council and the things Christine Martin had lined up for us to do, plus filming feltmaking using traditional techniques and visiting every place we could that related to historic felt; I increased the inspiration and creative foundation I needed to give this installation what it clearly deserved.
Did you have an opportunity to experience how nomads live?
As a traveler from the other side of the globe, you
never really get the sense that people are exactly the same as when you’re not there. During my trip to the first International Felt Symposium (in 2001), we did go out to a nomadic yurt village and spent three days with the people. We got to know their kids and I taught them some songs and games. Their running water was a river. They had only their horses and lived very simply as nomads. Unfortunately, that lifestyle is becoming rare because it’s not economically viable. It’s because of the draw of Western culture and the draw to move to cities to get work is why the lifestyle is becoming more scarce.
In speaking with Dr. Batchuluun, he said ‘My dream is to have a felt museum here so I can reeducate people who haven’t grown up with felt as their tradition because this is our history.
It needs to be documented.’
Where did the wool come from to create the Palace Yurt?
I used a lot of sources, primarily I used U.S. wool. My goal is to do everything I can to support local industry in the United States. I did buy some wool from an organization called Peace Fleece and I purchased Norwegian wool for the bench covers, but primarily the wool was from East Coast/Midwest sources.
In later projects, I’ve been working more with local farms.
Was there a type of sheep wool that you were particularly interested in using for this installation?
Yes, because 75 percent of the felt that I made for the Palace Yurt was decorative, I primarily used merino wool because it really quickly felts. It’s great, too, if you want to put in non-felting fibers, which I did quite a bit. I infused the felt with metal, raw silk, lyocell and rayon silk velvet. I needed a fine wool that would easily grab those different fibers.
I also wanted a tactile experience. It’s hard to completely appreciate a material unless you can touch it and in a museum environment you typically can’t touch anything.
In the conservatory there was a wrap-around bench and in order to allow people to experience it in a personal way, I made bench covers. I used Norwegian wool along with merino. I think I used some churro wool; there’s a local farm in the Northwest that raises heritage breeds. I also used local mohair as well.
The bench had more of the really wild, harder felting material that allowed people to sit on it and feel it. I put a lot of texture on the edge of the window, so
The White Palace. Image courtesy of the New York Times, photo by Fred Conrad 2009
Feltmaker Janice Arnold inside her palace. Photo by Shauna Bittle, The Evergreen State College.
Janice Arnold and Anand Maliakal fulling a section of the massive felt yurt amidst a snow shower. Photo by Stan Klyne
Left: Janice Arnold working on the Palace Yurt. Right: Janice Arnold collecting Icelandic fleece from Bone Dry Ridge, Rochester WA.
Chroma Passage. Photo by Janice Arnold.