by BETSY MOWRY
“Anyone who loved making mud pies or sloshing through puddles as a child will enjoy felting.” —Susan J Sperl, felt artist
It’s not uncommon for artists to excel at more than one discipline, and Susan J Sperl is certainly no exception. A former dancer trained in ballet, jazz and contemporary dance, she performed for years with her partner, Milo Fine, in an improvisational duo called the Gutter Cleaners.
This Saturday, the next phase of Susan’s artistic career is officially launched as Contemporary Felt: the lotus root collection, the first public exhibit of her beautiful work, opens at Homewood Studios in North Minneapolis. Sperl is no “emerging” artist in the textile industry. She grew up sewing and knitting under the guidance of her mother. By chance, in 1981, Sperl was referred to the late Roberta Myers—the Guthrie Theater’s first milliner. Over the next seven years, an informal apprenticeship under Myers taught Sperl the art of fine hatmaking using felt forms as a base.
realized there wasn't a market for fine hats, but continued to enjoy the textile
aspect of the work. She traveled to Paris in 1994 and conducted extensive research
on hat making, it's history and traditions. Upon her return to Minnesota, she
took a class in felting at a local fiber shop, and the pursuit of her own art
Like many fine crafts, felting requires knowledge of the fundamentals of the
art form paired with the drive to expand the materials to meet the vision of
the individual artist. It’s an improvisational process, and Sperl’s
creative background was a likely contributor.
One look at her gorgeous creations will push aside any ideas of the "simple
craftmaker" and allow a clear understanding of the talent and ability required.
For those who harbor images of 8 ½ by 11 bright orange and royal blue
felt pieces used for school projects, think again. Felt is the oldest known
fabric to humankind, and felt-making spans countries, cultures and genders.
Sheep’s wool is purchased in skeins called “roving”—thick,
airy cords of colored felt. The felt is combined with water and soap, then agitated
to entangle the fibers, creating a strong and resilient material. The process
is repeated until the creator reaches the desired effect. The artist plans ahead
for shrinkage, which can be anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.
Most striking are Sperl’s scarf wraps, referred to as the “Lotus
Root” collection, each of which requires well over 50 hours of labor.
These flowing pieces vary in color, from pastel blue to bold, rich red. Each
is up to 24 inches wide and as long as 8 feet—amazing when you consider
the massive shrinkage involved in the process. What really makes the felt scarves
dramatic is the craftsmanship—each has dozens of organic holes, which
cover the length of the scarf. The holes aren’t created as an afterthought
or even with a scissors, but are painstakingly shaped and stretched by hand
into each piece during its creation (incidentally, a technique that Sperl was
unwilling to share!). Hand-sewed seed bead accents along the edges or throughout
the scarf, as well as linear stitching, add to their beauty.
In addition to scarves, Sperl will be showing two collections of purses and
bags. Her small “Palmlines” are pouches designed to fit into the
palm of the hand. The pouches are bell shaped with felt handles that reflect
Native American spirit bags. Deep and resonant earth tones incorporate Sperl's
random beading throughout, accentuating the composition and surface design of
the pieces. Her larger bags (especially the “Teahouse Collection”)
are equally dramatic. Sperl went to great lengths to locate the perfect handles
for each, and used silk string and cords to cover them and to incorporate fine
details into the bag. The results are vibrant and compelling. ||
Contemporary Felt: the lotus root collection is on display
at Homewood Studios through Oct. 4. An opening reception will be held Sat. Sept.
30 from 6 to 9 p.m., and a gallery talk is scheduled for Tue. Oct. 3 at 7 p.m.
Homewood is located at 2400 Plymouth Ave. N., Mpls., 612-587-0230 or homewoodstudios.com.
For a private showing, call 612-377-6684.