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The Wild and Woolly Felt Sculptures of Stephanie Metz

By Charles Purdy

For more than a dozen years, sculptor Stephanie Metz has been pushing the limits of an unusual medium: felted wool. In that time, she has become a master of a centuries-old craft while discovering her own techniques and creating art that is provocative, beautiful, and sometimes a little “ooky.”

And that word is the artist’s own. Talking about her work, Stephanie Metz says with a smile, “Often, what I do sort of rides the line between ‘ooky’ and ‘appealing,’ I think. And I love that place.”

She’s sitting in her sunny studio on the second floor of the School of Visual Philosophy—a cheery community workshop space in San Jose, California. The large ground floor holds table saws, letterpresses, screen printing machines, and other communal tools. At the top of a flight of stairs, this small room contains Stephanie’s worktable and tools, as well as a crowd of in-progress and finished pieces that represent the evolution of her work: human figures, animal studies, bizarre “overbred” animal shapes, teddy bear “skulls,” and abstract but seemingly organic forms both small and large—all made of wool that she has felted into solid shapes.

Pictured, from left to right: Stephanie Metz; Large Flesh & Bone #2 (Serrated Soft Skull), 2013

Meditation, 2003

WOOL GATHERING

Stephanie began working with wool not long after graduating from the University of Oregon, where she had studied traditional figurative sculpture. And she enjoyed working with clay, metal, and stone. But after she’d completed her studies, she “couldn’t think of anything to say to the world.”

“I knew how to do things and make things,” she says, “but I didn’t really think that making work and selling it felt right at the time.”

She did production work for a company that created themed environments—“carving boulders out of huge blocks of Styrofoam, for instance, which was pretty fun,” she explains—but she didn’t enjoy having her creative process micromanaged. She also worked in a frame shop. And she was doing some painting but didn’t really have a space to sculpt in.

Then a friend showed Stephanie a Sunset magazine article about wet felting—a technique that involves using soap, water, friction, and pressure to mold wool into a solid shape—and she decided she wanted to try it.

“It just sounded like some weird alchemy to me. Fiber being solid was strange,” she says about her initial interest. “I had no concept that I would do anything fine art–related with it, but I finally went to the yarn store and said, ‘I want to try this wet felting thing.’ And the woman there said, ‘You don’t want to do wet felting; it’s messy, it’s imprecise. Here’s a book on needle felting.’”

And with that, Stephanie had found her medium—and her muse.

MOVING THE NEEDLE

Felt sculpting has been around for a long time—elegant felt swans found in Siberian tombs (specifically, tombs in the Pazyryk region of the Altai Mountains) that date back to the third century BCE are some of the earliest known examples. But the intricacy of these swans indicates that these felting techniques had already been around for a while, even then.

As Stephanie explains it, anyone who has shrunk a wool sweater in a washing machine probably understands the general principle of wet felting. But needle felting, or dry felting, works a bit differently: When you poke at a tangle of wool with a notched felting needle, the needle catches the fibers, making them rub against each other. Then the fibers (which are covered in scales—imagine a close-up shot of dry hair in a conditioner commercial) catch and lock together. Repeated poking compresses and compacts the fibers. The more you compact the fibers, the denser and firmer the felt becomes. And the denser the felt becomes, the finer detail you can create.

For many decades, factory machines—with hundreds of needles moving at once—have created sheets of felt for industrial use (as a soundproofing or flame-retardant material, for instance). Stephanie credits a book called The Felting Needle: From Factory to Fantasy, by Ayala Talpai, published in 2000, with popularizing needle felting as a modern art form.

“That’s what started it all,” says Stephanie. “It’s not my aesthetic, but the way to make forms is there.” It’s an additive process, and felt is a forgiving material—Stephanie creates complex shapes by felting simpler shapes together.

On her own, she began exploring felt’s possibilities: “I was just sort of playing with it and trying to see what I could do. I was also doing printmaking at the time, and my printmaking mentor kept urging me to show him this work, so I brought in the first piece I’d made (see “Meditation, 2003”), and he just about exploded with enthusiasm.”

Watch Stephanie Metz demonstrate her needle felting technique as she creates one of her teddy bear skulls.

JUXTAPOSING HARD AND SOFT

Several themes are apparent in Stephanie’s art—and she’s always exploring new ideas. A common thread is the way the material itself defines her work. She’s fascinated by the interplay of hardness and softness. When she started out, she explains, she was trying to make the wool behave like the sculpting materials she was more familiar with—clay, for instance. “As I started accepting the wool for what it is and not trying to make it act like other things, it really started to kind of inform what I was doing with it,” she says.

She’s also fascinated by the natural world and by humanity’s effects on it, and she thinks of the way she changes soft, fuzzy wool into a dense, hard material as something of a metaphor for that. Her Overbred series speaks to the idea of domestication and selective breeding taken to a shocking extreme.

“For me, [my pieces] often start from actual biology,” Stephanie says. An exhibit of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences got her thinking about skulls, about the stories that animals leave behind—and that got her thinking about teddy bear skulls.

“I have kind of become known for the teddy bear skulls in certain circles…. Again, I love the way people steer nature. Think about a bear: A real bear could eat you, and yet we made it like an infant, made it cute and emphasized all the qualities that make it look like a human infant—a huge forehead, huge eyes, a little muzzle—and we dress them in clothes, and we give them little bowties and things. It’s a way to manipulate the natural world around us.”

Some people find the teddy bear skulls charming; some, creepy. Stephanie enjoys working in this gray area—the line between fragile and strong, soft and hard, cute and macabre.

Stephanie calls the pieces she’s currently working on “flesh and bone” pieces—large abstract pieces that look somehow organic. They’re provocative and mysterious. They beg to be touched, and Stephanie says that’s intentional. (And she does sometimes encourage people to touch her sculptures if she’s there to supervise.) She continues to push the boundaries of what she can do with wool, and she enjoys the contradiction of creating art completely by hand in the heart of Silicon Valley.

‘WOMEN’S WORK’

A lot of people draw a line between “art” and “craft”—elevating the first and dismissing the second. In terms of sculpture, art means “metal,” “marble,” or “clay”—not felt. But why? Stephanie acknowledges that, in the beginning, she had to overcome some prejudices of her own about her newfound medium. Nowadays, she enjoys challenging assumptions about felting.

“There are layers of meaning with working with wool,” she says. “It has a background in the domestic realm, and it’s been seen as this ‘women’s work’ thing. Which is kind of a pejorative term, but I like the idea of reclaiming that.”

And she doesn’t agree with the notion that a sculpture has to be made of a hard material. She explains, “There’s a value system assigned to materials—the nobility of them. It’s fun to play with that and turn it on its head…. Just because this isn’t made of bronze, that doesn’t mean that it’s intrinsically less a piece of sculpture. It’s fun to push that.”

Stephanie is currently exhibiting work in two shows—Black Sheep: The Darker Side of Felt, curated by the National Centre for Craft & Design in the UK, and Sculptural Felt International, at the Museum de Kantfabriek in the Netherlands.

Pictured, from left to right: Saber Tooth, 2007; Stephanie Metz working with porcupine quills and felt; Calamus serpens, 2014

She also leads numerous classes and workshops throughout the year—upcoming venues include Cabrillo College (in California) and Arrowmont (in Tennessee). And she’s happy to be spreading the word about her little-known art form: “I like the idea of a spirit of generosity more than hiding away what you’re doing. It’s not a matter of giving away ‘secrets.’ It’s what you do with these techniques that’s creative.”

The energy in Stephanie’s studio is palpable and contagious. She’s busy creating, and these days she’s also busy with “the business of art,” which she says she has learned along the way—things they don’t often teach in fine arts programs but should, like writing grant proposals, dealing with the public, self-promotion, and hanging shows. When it comes to the business side of things, Stephanie’s primary advice for young artists is simple: Be easy to work with.

Some of Stephanie’s newer work involves “drawing” with wool; newer sculptural pieces incorporate elements such as porcupine quills and silver mesh. She says, “I sometimes have people say, ‘Are you still, you know, working with the wool?’ I say, ‘Well, would you ask a painter if they were still working with paint?’ There’s so much to do!”

See more of Stephanie Metz’s work, get information about upcoming shows and workshops, and learn more about needle felting on her portfolio site.

Super Suckler, 2008, from Stephanie Metz’s Overbred series.