Gladys Paulus: The tactile nature of felt
Originally from the Netherlands, Gladys Paulus studied Fine Art in painting before moving to the UK in 1995.
In 2005 she first tried her hand at feltmaking after a chance encounter with a sheep farmer and some freshly shorn sheep. She instantly fell in love with the rich and ancient history of this practice, the humble materials, the shear physicality of the feltmaking process, and the alchemic malleability of wool to take on new shape and has been exploring the material ever since.
Gladys combines her studio practice with a busy international teaching schedule. She is known for her series of animal masks that have featured in theatre, fashion features including Harrods, commercials, music videos and an album cover for Lou Rhodes. 2017 will see her masks appear in a feature length film Lucid by independent filmmaker Adam Morse.
She is currently developing a very personal body of work for her first solo show, scheduled for 2017, and is raising funds for this project through crowdfunding.
In this interview, Gladys takes us on her artistic journey and we discover the inspiration behind her wet felted masks. She talks openly about how her background and family have influenced her choices. We also learn about the techniques and processes she uses to create these bold and dramatic pieces.
Absorbing through exposure
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Gladys Paulus: In some ways, I fell into textiles by accident. I studied painting at Art College, which was followed immediately by motherhood and some years of dabbling in a range of crafts including basketry and bush crafts to satisfy my creative drive.
I noticed that a lot of my craft choices had fibres in common; from plant fibres it was a pretty logical progression into a protein fibre like wool. It was, and still is, important to me that felting has a low environmental impact, utilizing a product that is essentially seen as a low-value waste product from the farming industry.
I would never have guessed I’d end up working with wool or textiles in general really. But I grew up with a grandmother who was a ferocious knitter, and a mother who is a talented self-taught seamstress.
For the first sixteen or seventeen years of my life, I was dressed from head to toe in home-made clothes, and even though I never took much of a formal interest in textiles, I guess I must have absorbed some of the affinity for it just through exposure.
I do recall a fascination and love for the batik fabrics that hung in our family home, I used to stare at the colours and those little spidery marks on the fabric for hours at a time.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by felt?
In 2005, purely by chance, I had the opportunity to purchase a fleece direct from the farmer, and a period of exploration into its properties followed, dyeing, spinning, knitting etc.
When I finally stumbled across felt making through a library book, it caught my imagination straight away. It only took one attempt at my kitchen table, and I was captivated. I was just astounded by the transformation of loose fibres into a dense fabric.
It was so exciting to me to be face to face with a medium about which I knew nothing, but whose enormous amount of potential just shouted at me in that one moment. It provoked an intense curiosity in me, and it provided a blank canvas too.
Painting by then was too loaded with expectations, negative associations and insecurity, so it was great to have before me a medium with none of those associations.
I also came to love the tactile nature of felt, the fact that it has such a long history, and the physical nature of the feltmaking process itself. You have to get very intimately involved with the material, and there are nights I go to bed with my arms throbbing, back hurting and body aching, but it makes me feel that I have achieved something tangible that day.
A certain alchemic magic
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
In some ways, it seems that everything in my life so far has directed me towards felt. It wasn’t on my radar before, but as soon as I found it, or it found me, it felt instantly right and I knew I would continue to explore it in more depth.
Once I understood there was a certain alchemic magic involved in the felt making process, I was hooked and ideas starting forming. I knew I wanted to make masks straight away but had no notion of how to go about that so I spent a lot of time teaching myself and figuring out the material and developing the techniques.
I cannot stress enough how important it was for me to have the opportunity to start completely afresh with a new material and re-engage with my creative self. I will be forever grateful to wool for giving me that opportunity.
I think the initial drive to make masks came out of being exposed to a certain kind of imagery throughout my childhood in a mixed race household, my father hailed from Indonesia, my mother is Dutch, and a fascination with magic.
My grandfather told me stories of ancestral spirits, objects that could protect the family, and other unexplained phenomena from his former life in Indonesia, and they made a big impression on me. He was Catholic but managed to integrate quite a few animistic beliefs into his faith.
I consider myself quite practical and pragmatic, yet there is another side to me that is curious and open to all possibilities. We still know so little about life really, so who’s to say a keris, short Indonesian dagger, couldn’t really protect a family of its own accord?
I am currently in the process of creating a body of work for my first solo exhibition that builds on this world view and notion of ancestry and magic. For the show, I am making a series of ancestral healing costumes, rooted in the shamanistic idea that to heal oneself, one has to heal one’s ancestors first.
I have carried the seed for this idea ever since I started making felt, but it was triggered again by the recent death of my father and last remaining grandparent.
Seeking creative pursuits
What was your route to becoming an artist?
The route was long, slow, and with lots of twists and turns. I put most of this down to managing to lose touch with my creative core in my early twenties, but I have found it again and have learned lots in the process, all of which I am now bringing to my work. Life still throws its challenges of course, but I feel more resilient and able to remember my calling through the hard times, and determined never to lose it again.
There is quite a strong lineage of artists and crafts persons in my family, particularly on my maternal grandfather’s side. I took to drawing and painting from a young age and was always encouraged in this passion. I knew I wanted to be an artist aged 5. I remember being asked at primary school what I wanted to be, and the absolute conviction and certainty in my answer. It always seemed pretty clear cut to me that I would apply to Art College and follow that route.
But I wasn’t prepared for the pressures, the focus on conceptual thinking and amount of internal angst that came with the territory, and I totally lost my ground. In hindsight, I think I was too young, inarticulate and inexperienced to understand what was required of me or to stand my ground, and I came away feeling like I had lost all my enjoyment of drawing and painting. Something that had once come so natural, now felt completely forced and contrived to me, and this crushed me for a while and I became depressed.
I moved to England straight out of Art College and became a mother soon after that. All my focus was on cultural acclimatization, coping as a young mother and making ends meet, but all the while a big art shaped hole was eating away at me. After ten years of this I decided enough was enough, and slowly I started seeking out creative pursuits. Any creative pursuit! This started with gardening, then progressed into natural crafts and finally felt.
After ten years of this I decided enough was enough, and slowly I started seeking out creative pursuits. Any creative pursuit! This started with gardening, then progressed into natural crafts and finally felt.
I spent a good many years experimenting with feltmaking at home before I felt confident enough to go out there and show my work. But once I made the leap I felt unstoppable. I guess I was lucky that my animal masks seemed to capture people’s imagination, and the internet has been an invaluable tool in getting my work seen.
The journey is far from over though, and I am now at a stage where I am moving away from mask making into creating work with much more personal content and meaning. To me, the masks were always part of a developmental journey, and I now feel ready to start utilising the techniques and ideas I have developed.
I have also learned how important it is to me to remain fully in charge of my output and keep my work sacred to me, and this is difficult to achieve when you’re producing work for sale or to commission all the time.
Where it will all take me I can’t say, all I know is that this feels the right thing to do.
The art of wet felting
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
There are two types of felting: wet felting, the traditional method involving water and soap and needle-felting or dry felting, a method adapted from industrial-scale felting, incorporating barbed needles. I am a wet felter.
Wet felting is an ancient practice, and is thought to date back to Neolithic times. At its most basic, wet felting involves laying out layers of wool fibres, wetting them out with water, nowadays we add soap too, and then rubbing, rolling and kneading the wet wool until the fibres start locking together. The more rubbing and rolling is done, the stronger and denser the felt becomes and the more shrinkage will take place.
To felt a three-dimensional hollow item like a mask, you have to create a ‘resist’ first. This resist is cut out from a thin sheet of impermeable membrane, I use foam underlay for wood flooring, which is then wrapped in wool layers, wetted out and felted with the resist inside.
The resist acts as a barrier and stops the two sides of wool felting together, creating a pocket in essence. When the felt is cut open and the resist is removed you have a hollow object, which can then be stretched, shaped and shrunk into a specific form.
For my mask making I have adapted this resist technique, in order to be able to create all the facial features in one seamless piece of hollow felt. It means I spend a lot of time calculating, planning and designing the resist before I even reach for any wool! These techniques I now teach regularly to other feltmakers all over the world.
More and more I am trying to find different ways in which to shape or distort the felt. This can involve stitching at different stages, combining solid and hollow felt in one design, or playing with a contrast between thick or thin layers to see how it distorts the shape.
I feel I have really only just scratched the surface of what is possible with the medium, and I am excited about exploring beyond the boundaries of what is traditional feltmaking.
Secretly conveying subversive thoughts
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
That is a question I ask myself all the time. Although I have been making felt for more than 10 years, I would describe my work as ‘early career’. Those first years were about understanding the medium, now it is becoming much more about using it to say things. I am more interested in working with personal content and have a desire to show my work in gallery settings. That Art College training is coming back to me!
When I first started felting I was a real purist; I wanted to focus only on the wool. Now I am more relaxed about that and I’m beginning to incorporate other materials into my work, which opens up new avenues and keeps things exciting for me. It’s become more about choosing the material that expresses what I want to say, rather than being doggedly attached to felt just for the sake of it.
I am aware that in my head I am very much ahead of the work I have actually produced so far. I am ambitious, but my youngest child is still relatively young and I am very much juggling my career with the demands of parenting.
It can be incredibly frustrating at times that people can only see the body of work that’s out there, not the one I’m working towards, but it gives me drive. I suppose I didn’t really help myself by choosing felt as a medium because it is such a labour intensive and slow process, but I’m a grafter, determined and patient.
Most felt occupies the twilight zone between home crafts and applied art. There are very, very few artists working in felt who have managed to enter the sphere of contemporary art. If textile art is still struggling for recognition in the contemporary art world, then felt sits way below that. Handcrafted felt is simply not seen as a credible medium.
Like most textile art, it is also regarded as a predominantly female domain, and for that reason perhaps not taken too seriously. But there is a long historical textile tradition associated with women, and I think there is much to celebrate about that. Women have used their embroidery and sewing skills as a means to comment on society and secretly convey their subversive thoughts throughout the centuries, and I think we should continue to do that but push to show that work in a gallery setting.
For me personally, I don’t know if I’ll always make felt. I want to keep an open mind about that because I don’ know what I’ll be like in 10, 20 years time. Sometimes I wonder if feltmaking for me isn’t just a roundabout way of getting back into painting.
A certain theme emerging
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I use both a sketchbook and I create 3-dimensional sketches or samples. I always have various open sketchbooks lying around with a pencil inside, so that when I am working in my studio and a thought or image occurs that strikes a chord, I can immediately dry my hands, take a note or do a quick drawing. I learned the hard way that this is the only way to ensure I don’t forget.
There is not much of an organized system to this, I have various sketchbooks on the go at any one time and it’s all pretty haphazard but it works for me. These notes and little sketches become the basis for a piece I want to make, and once I have decided the rough form of it, I start making small 3-d felt samples.
This is to help me determine which breeds of wool to use, visualize the colour combinations, textures, thickness or thinness of the felt, and to help calculate how much the particular combination of wool will shrink.
This is necessary in order to know how much to up-size the project so it shrinks to the desired size. I make notes during this samples stage too. Often the piece will change and adapt as a result of this three-dimensional sketching, and it continues to evolve still when I’m laying out the wool.
After I have done my planning and I have started work on an actual piece, the radio comes on to accompany the rhythms of the feltmaking process. I think of this as my dream time. The body does what it knows and the mind is free to associate freely and wander, or not do anything at all.
During this stage, I go back to making my notes and drawings and I often write down quotes or song lyrics I hear on the radio that strike a chord too. Frequently, when I go through my sketchbooks I find a certain theme emerging, which becomes the foundation for a new piece.
Once a piece is finished, I tend to find I am ready to move on from it pretty much straight away. The attachment was in the thinking and dreaming it up, the letting go was in the creation of it.
What environment do you like to work in?
An organized environment works best for me. Whilst I am working on a piece there is stuff everywhere, but in between pieces I put everything back in its place and have a tidy up, otherwise it feels too chaotic and my poor head can’t cope. I’ve always been like that.
Up until 3 or 4 years ago I worked from home at our kitchen table, but now I have my own external studio space. My first studio was in a very central and social location with people dropping in unexpectedly all the time. Now I’m in a little space that’s tucked away on the edge of town and countryside and not many people know I’m there, so generally I am left alone to just get on with it, which suits me much better.
The space is very personal to me, it’s where I do all my processing of events, thinking, dreaming, dancing, making and I don’t generally invite many people in there. I have noticed I have become quite protective of it. If there is one thing I would change about the space is that I would quadruple it in size.
What currently inspires you?
My current inspiration is my family tree and the stories of my ancestors. For the past year and a half, since the death of my father and my grandmother, I have been delving into our family history and collective knowledge to obtain stories, anecdotes and a better understanding of the people that shaped me, as well as the circumstances and people that helped shape them.
It can take losing someone to realize how little you really knew a person. When they die you find out things about them that completely change your view or understanding of them, things that had you known in their lifetime might have made a difference in the kind of relationship you had. I say might because there are no guarantees of course.
In our family, a lot of suffering came to light that, for a whole host of reasons, was never talked about and so I had been completely unaware of until now. Finding out about what happened to my ancestors helped explain to me a lot of the dynamic and patterns of behavior in the family, which was healing for me in a way, and the idea arose to create a body of work around that.
Now that I have no grandparents and no father left, there are not that many people I can turn to anymore to ask for stories, so I am gathering what information I can for my project through interviews with my remaining family members, historical background research and the creation of a family tree. I even managed to find some new family members. This body of work will result in my first solo show scheduled for Sept 2017 at Black Swan Arts, Frome in Somerset.
I have taken the perhaps somewhat unusual step to ask for financial help for this project through an artist crowdfunding site. This was quite a scary and vulnerable thing to do, but I am finding the support and belief I am receiving from my patrons to be a major source of inspiration.
We all suffer from periods of self-doubt and insecurity, but knowing there are folk out there who believe in me enough to put some of their hard-earned money my way, is enough to make me snap out it pretty quickly and just get on with it!
Who have been your major influences and why?
In terms of other feltmakers, Judit Pócs (Hungary) for the meticulous precision and high quality finish of her work and Gudrun Geyer (Austria) for the minimalism and modern feel of her more recent work. I also greatly admire Anita Larkin, an Australian sculptor who frequently incorporates felt in her work, for her innovative and art-centric approach to feltmaking and inventing new techniques.
In terms of non-textile based art, I love video artist Pipilotti Rist; her work has the ability to deeply move me. It is beautiful to the eye yet seems to offer a profound truth about the human experience, and she has this ability to show colour in a way that really appeals to me. Her show at Hauscher & Wirth Somerset in 2014-5 made me cry for days.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
That’s a tricky question…Whilst I’m working on a piece I build up a pretty intense relationship with it, a bit like falling passionately in and out of love.
Then when the piece is finished, I am sort of finished with it too and ready to move on from it if that makes sense. I always get to a stage where I’m still finishing the piece in my hands but I have already moved on in my head to planning the next work. I guess that comes out of a sense of excitement of the possibilities, or seeing how I can improve or resolve some technical issue.
Thinking about it in that sense, the pieces that hold particularly fond memories for me are Sande & Mende, a private commission I completed in 2014.
I was very excited to take on the project as the visual references linked well to my ideas for ancestral costumes. They were the first pieces of work I made on the scale I am currently working in and presented me with a lot of technical issues I had to solve as I went along. They were also the first pieces of felt to break my spin dryer!
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
When I began feltmaking, I was mostly concerned with learning the techniques. I had plenty of ideas and vision but no experience with the medium whatsoever, so I set out to learn. The past 9-10 years or so, and all the animal masks I have made, were part of that learning for me.
Right now I feel I’m at a transition stage where I am ready to start using that knowledge and experience to translate my more personal ideas. How it will develop in the future, only time will tell, but I can imagine working with a wide range of materials or going back to 2-dimensional work.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Do it! I mean that in the literal sense. You have to make the work, you have to put in the hours, you have to keep turning up even when, or especially when, you don’t feel like it. You have to be disciplined with yourself.
Also, be prepared to work all hours of the day, because after the studio comes the business side; hours of promoting your work, following opportunities, dealing with your admin, tax return, etc. etc….You can only keep this up if you love what you do in the studio and can stay excited about it.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
I am subscribed to various magazines including the Crafts Council Journal entitled Crafts, Selvedge Magazine, and a felt magazine or two. For my Hinterland project, I am currently also receiving a magazine from the Netherlands, which is aimed at Dutch-Indonesians (‘Indos’) and keeping first generation knowledge alive. Aside from that, I like books!
I am not very good at reading blogs and information on-line, and I don’t spend a lot of time browsing the internet. There is so much information out there, I find it too overwhelming if I’m honest.
Perhaps this is a bit hypocritical of me as I add to this onslaught of information myself, by having a website and being on social media. But those who follow me will know I’m not the most prolific poster! I have to remind myself to do it, otherwise I will simply forget, I’m just not naturally in that kind of mindset.
I think the reason I’m attracted to being an artist is that I need time to digest life and ground myself and the only way I do that is by working with my hands, processing through a bodily rhythm of making. Spending too much time on the internet completely undoes all that grounding for me. For that reason, nature is my biggest resource: there is nothing a good long walk, a spell of gardening or a wild swim can’t solve.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Two pieces: a felting tool developed by Lisa Klakulak from the USA, which I’ve had for years, I call it my Klakulak-stick, and a felting tool that was developed and given to me on a visit to the US by last year by feltmaker Pamela McGregor. This has quickly become an invaluable item in my studio. Both are in essence wooden sticks with a series of ridges on them.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
Yes, I teach masterclasses and workshops nationally and internationally, although I’m only offering a severely reduced workshop programme this coming year in order to concentrate on my solo show.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I usually go by my gut response, and depending on if I think the audience is right. I want my work to be taken seriously, so to some extent that has to be reflected by the choice of venue.
I first started showing my work publicly at local arts and crafts markets and similar events. After being invited to a local artist collective with its own gallery shop in the centre of town, I stopped doing markets.
Through the collective, I gained steady exposure, and the opportunity to curate my own little shows in the window. I learned a lot from this group and starting receiving invites for other events and shows in the region. Slowly but steadily, the invitations have started covering a wider geographical region and better-known galleries.
Where can readers see your work this year?
I currently have some work on show in Zoomorphic, a curated group exhibition exploring the half world between human and animal through ceramics, textiles and print. This is on until January 28th at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, Cwmbran, Wales.
Things will go quiet for a while and then my solo show Hinterland will be on next year, from 15 September – 15 October 2017, at Black Swan Arts, Frome, Somerset.
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