Kathleen Hill - Journeys
I went to Kootenay School of the Arts to paint. But that is not what happened. In the first week there, I was introduced to the ancient fibre technique of felting and my evolutionary course as an artist changed forever.
This really shouldn't have been such a surprise I already had a relationship with fibre through a textile fascination that found outlet in doing traditional sewing projects as a youth. In retrospect I realize that it was not the fashion aspect of sewing clothes that held my attention, but the sculptural aspect; taking flat 'two-dimensional' cloth and shaping it. My enchantment with the juxtaposition of colour and pattern at the local fabric store should have made me a quilter, but somehow it never gelled into that. Truly it was the 'landscape' of fabric; veritable mountain ranges of cloth; that entranced me. It was cloth made dimensional.
Drawing was my true artistic outlet in my youth and the natural world was my preferred subject. The graphite pencil, the ultimate in pared down simplicity in drawing tools, was my medium of choice. It seemed only natural, therefore, that when the season was right to go to art school, painting would be my intended goal
But I hadn't accounted for felt. Felt-making offered a tactility and dimensionality that resonated with me immediately. And it led me straight into the full mixed-media potential of the Fibre Studio
Felting became my main passion and focus in the Fibre Studio at KSA. As my skill with felting developed, the scale in which I worked grew accordingly. This was supported by the fortunate acquisition of two large barrels of ideal felting wool from a retiring spinner. During the summer between first and second year I launched on a systematic exploration of the colour wheel through the dye pot. The shade tree outside my kitchen grew rainbow tufts of drying wool as well as leaves that summer. Hence, in my second year in the Fibre studio, I arrived armed with an exuberant amount of wool, in every colour, ready to be felted.
A rug-making assignment, which involved vast amounts of dyed and carded wool, introduced me to the realm of large scale felt pieces. It was fascinating to me to create a palette in the dye pot and then take these colours and blend them on the carder to achieve the precise gradation of shade desired. It took the summer-of-dyeing and infused it with purpose.
The challenge in working with any sort of distinct pattern or imagery in felting is controlling the wool fibres, as they are laid down, until the felting process has progressed enough to "set" or matte the fibres in their place. The physics of felting actually requires the fibres to creep and inter-tangle, and then shrink together into the strong matted fabric that defines felt. Consequently, delineation between colours or pattern edges in felt is famously soft and fuzzy.
In was in the process of trying to counteract this tendency in a particular element of my rug design that I developed my signature technique for controlling the wool fibres until the felting process begins. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that I robbed the technique wholesale from another fibre medium and applied it to felting. This is the intrinsic beauty of the alchemy that is art school, and especially the broad scoped Fibre Studio. The simultaneous and overlapping exposure to a variety of diverse, and often related, techniques is fertile ground for discoveries such as this. In my own quiet "eureka" moment, as I problem-solved my rug project toward its swiftly approaching deadline, I stumbled upon a technique that would give me the freedom to be "painterly" with felt.
It looked as though I was going to "paint" at KSA after all.
Thus followed a series of large scale felt wall pieces that explored detailed imagery. A camel image began the series and camels continue to make appearances in these large felts. The camel form is one I have an affinity to. Giant moths and tree giants and other creatures of the wild, have manifested themselves in felt as well. A perennial response to the magic forms of the natural world is often my inspirational starting point.
Another fibre form that emerged in my body of work in the Fibre Studio was wearable art, or, as I like to think of it, cloth sculptures with a human armature. Over the course of my final year at KSA a large cloak - the Moth Cloak - took form. This was formed from hundreds of smaller "moth pieces" created to look intentionally old and worn. This effect was achieved by combining poorly felting wool with felting wool as well as a miscellany of scrap fibres and threads. The result was an ancient, thread-bare, and not to be too literal, an almost moth-eaten effect. I created these, throughout the year, in the little time interstices that appeared amidst other projects and assignments and then combined them, like overlapping shingles into a large winged cloak form. It was a very satisfying way in which to work; that gradual accumulation of all the elements needed to materialize a vision. It was a vision that acknowledged both the raggedness that can result from some of life's passages and the strength and warmth and protection that comes with the wisdom that one gathers while traveling through them.
The Fibre Studio at KSA was a truly marvellous outlet for me to explore a variety of mediums. The exposure to many traditional textile skills, along with a teaching environment that encouraged students to push the definitions of fibre resulted in a profound shift in my creative focus. It jumbled up my perceptions of myself as an artist and I am still happily sorting, discarding and shifting these perceptions to this day
There is an echo of collage and sculpture in the Moth Cloak piece that haunts the direction that my work is taking today. Many elements made one; Using found materials gathered from the creating environment; Seasons of gathering and seasons of creating;
Today I take this tapestry of materials and techniques that has woven itself into my art practice and apply it more directly to the world outside the studio. Mixed-media, sculpture, costume, temporary earth installations; all of these infuse my on-going response to the world around me.
I believe that a large felt wall panel will always be in the works in my studio, however, for they are the felt foundation to all my creative journeys.
Kathleen Hill - graduated from KSA in 1998