Probably not too many folks from the South Sound made it to New York in 2009 to see Janice Arnold’s astonishing transformation of the Cooper-Hewitt Victorian conservatory into a Mongolian palace yurt made of soft, cascading, translucent fiber. So it’s a wonderful thing that Evergreen College – Arnold’s alma mater – has invited the Olympia felt artist to recreate that white felt yurt in deconstructed form in the campus’ library gallery for two months, allowing visitors to see just what went into the enormous installation and to experience a little of its presence.
It’s not that Northwesterners are lacking the chance to see Arnold’s mind-blowingly fantastical felt projects in person. Her “Nest” of felt cushions and rugs at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland is a permanent fixture. Her work covered the entire front window (and floor space) at Bellevue Arts Museum back in 2011. But the plain fact of it is that Arnold makes work that takes a lot of space, a lot of vision and a lot of money, and most of it happens elsewhere – the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt’s felt show, Los Angeles Opera’s “Grendel,” a Cirque du Soleil cruise ship, a tall corridor at Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan.
Until now. Now, in the dim recesses of Evergreen’s library gallery, Arnold has spent several months, on and off, installing a condensed version of the Palace Yurt that lined the inside of the Cooper-Hewitt 25-foor-high conservatory and deconstructing the process. In the center of the gallery hangs the yurt’s overhead fabric, once attached to the greenhouse dome and now suspended by white threads. Lit overhead, the diamond pattern of thick felt in the translucent silk backing shimmers like a constellation, and around the sides white threads are anchored by rocks to remind us of the fabric walls of the original. Inside the space Arnold has placed the thick, mottled gray-blue bench pads (a durable rug-like felt) in an oval, with more pads on an actual bench in the center, for seated contemplation.
Around the gallery walls hang the yurt’s walls, cascading down like a thin waterfall of softness in patterns like the medieval leaves used for the yurt’s door, or the pebbly cellular structure that looks like an ivory-colored stream of water. Even more watery are the edge pieces, created (like valances) to cover the gap between fabric wall and ceiling; crushed like a silk-wool fusion they shimmer in bluey-green (a dye inadvertently created by the metallic thread) and drip down in swathes.
Surrounding this luxuriant profusion of felt are the designs, photos and drawings Arnold used in her lengthy creative process. From images of traditional nomadic feltmakers in Kyrgyzstan (Arnold was inspired by Mongolian felt yurts, but actually traveled to the more southerly country to study the process) felting their wool layers on a cylinder drawn by a camel, to photos of Arnold pulling her own felt rolls with a station wagon; from her enormous flow-chart to her hand-drawn patterns; from an engineer-designed model of the conservatory to the actual metal rails used to support the yurt right under the historic structure; Arnold has omitted nothing in her explanatory area of the gallery. She’s even offered visitors a chance to touch that gorgeously soft fabric – unspun wool sections, of the kind she layers over silk before wetting and rolling, plus a spare section of “wall.” There are books and newspaper clippings.
And while the explanations take a bit of hunting to follow entirely, the atmosphere is refreshingly creative – hand-lettered wall texts on vellum, mini-installations of reeds and a bird’s nest to show the traditional structure and materials, even a video room that’s made into its own yurt space via a felted ceiling drape and bench pads. In a lovely touch, Arnold has even paid homage to the part water plays in making felt by inserting a brass faucet into one of the concrete columns and dripping a skein of blue-green felt down from it into a thick, fluffy puddle on the floor.
It’s not the same as walking into the surround-art installation that got the New York museum its highest attendance records ever. But walk inside the Evergreen library gallery and you do enter a separate, almost spiritual space, one that breathes organic softness and history, where the Mongolian blessing woven into one of the fabric walls makes complete sense.
It would be wonderful to have an entire Arnold installation commissioned for the towering spaces of somewhere like the Tacoma Art Museum lobby. Until then, Evergreen’s “Deconstructed Yurt” is a beautiful substitute.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday (special opening noon.-6 p.m. Sat. Oct. 19); closed for lunch 1-1:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; through Dec. 11. Artist talk 11:30 a.m. Nov. 20 at Lecture Hall 1. Free. Evergreen State College library gallery, 2700 Evergreen Pkwy NW, Olympia. 360-867-5125, evergreen.edu/gallery
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com