It takes pressure, moisture and heat to turn wool into felt.
Janice Arnold knows how that process feels.
The artist came through the pressure of deadlines, the sweat of 20-hour days and the hot glare of a TV crew looking over her shoulder as the project was going so very wrong.
The Vancouver native wound up with a display of felt art that continues to earn acclaim.
Arnold recently received one of Washington’s 2009 Artist Trust Fellowship awards. She was one of three artists honored in the craft category, and one of 16 chosen overall from a field of 382 applicants.
Her work was showcased in a New York City museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution.
Her 20-foot-tall representation of a Mongolian palace yurt was the centerpiece of the “Fashioning Felt” exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.
“I had a good body of work before, but I hadn’t been in a museum venue before. That is a plus,” Arnold said.
Arnold’s version of felt is not the textile version of construction paper used by kids for school craft projects. Her felt is the starting point for lace-like fabrics that are blended with silk and metallic threads.
Arnold, a 1971 graduate of Fort Vancouver High School and a Clark College alum, now is a resident of Olympia. She hand-crafted 42 individual felt panels for the yurt at her studio in Grand Mound, just off Interstate 5 between Olympia and Centralia.
“It was months of sometimes 20-hour days,” she said. Two days before she shipped the panels to New York, staffers from Martha Stewart’s television show called last spring to say they had seen preliminary sketches of Arnold’s project, and were interested.
“The day we were supposed to start putting things up, I got a call from the curator: ‘The Martha Stewart people are here now and want to start filming.’ We were unpacking the framework, not even sure what direction was up, and people were filming us,” Arnold recalled.
“They came every day, and the most bizarre part was a live feed: Everything you say for an entire day is being monitored. The pressure of that is pretty intense. The day they chose to live-feed me was the most intense.”
The museum is housed in a former mansion of Andrew Carnegie, and her yurt was to be shown in a glass-encased greenhouse. Since they couldn’t suspend any pieces of the art work from the interior of the historic building, an engineer designed a metal frame to support the yurt.
“It’s an old building, not one symmetrical part,” and nobody knew for sure if the frame would fit, Arnold said.
“It was very stressful. There was some high tension for everybody on the installation team,” Arnold said. “We pushed, and we tried to lift the whole thing straight up from underneath with a telescoping pole. It was such a tight fit, it got stuck on a lip in the building’s interiors. All of it was being filmed, and they’ve got a live feed going. ‘How are you feeling? Tell us what you’re thinking about.’
“At one point, I said it was pretty exciting.”
And the response from the woman overseeing the TV crew?
“But Martha Stewart is not a drama show.’’
“At the end of the day, the framework was still stuck. Nobody could figure out why. The engineer had left; the head of the museum installation staff said, ‘I hope you have a Plan B. If you can’t resolve this, in the morning we’ll have to take it down with a hacksaw.’”
“Luckily, in the morning, we got a fresh perspective and discovered it had gotten hung up on a metal piece, hidden on an edge 20 feet up. When they removed it, it just slipped right into place and everything fit beautifully.”
And, yes, her segment appeared on a Martha Stewart episode.
That wasn’t the only time when Arnold felt the pressure.
Running up against a deadline, she decided to cross one element of the yurt from her to-do list: an overhead canopy that led to the front entrance of the 26-foot-long structure.
When she arrived in New York, a curator told Arnold how excited they were to see that canopy.
“I decided to fly home and make it. Unbeknownst to the museum, I left Friday night on a red eye flight, worked Saturday and Sunday, and was back at the museum on Monday. I did that two different weekends to make the entrance canopy. With the help of assistants, it was completed and shipped wet.”
Arnold went back to New York City for the final week of the exhibition.
“One of my favorite things being at installation is sitting anonymously and enjoying people’s reactions when they walk in, how they respond; that’s always a delightful experience.”
However, she wouldn’t stay anonymous for long. Arnold was featured in a video that accompanied the exhibit, so people often recognized her. Museum guards also tipped off visitors that Arnold was the artist, so “I’d get lots of inquiries and questions” about her creation.
“Some people were crying,” Arnold said. “More than once, people said it was like a sanctuary, and that it was a very moving experience.”