In the hills outside Philomath, Oregon, in her light-filled studio, Laura G. Berman is taking fiber art to new heights. By seeking answers to complex design questions she confounds, perfects and celebrates her medium-of-choice: felted wool.
Laura has worked in fiber arts for many years. She began by studying clothing and textile design at Oregon State University where she learned the art of clothing construction, pattern-making, tailoring and finishing. She has enjoyed success in garment design and has a portfolio of beautifully designed and executed garments, made mostly of natural fibers. Today, although fine art rather than clothing design is her focus, she often employs these early skills in her work. Her attention to detail is flawless.
The term “fiber art” evokes images of quilting, knitting, weaving and spinning- and the many types of fibers: linen, cotton, silk and wool. These techniques and materials are comfortably familiar and associated specifically with what has traditionally been women’s purview- the design and creation of clothing and goods for use in a home. However, several years ago I was introduced to fiber arts through another artist, Carol Moore, of Toronto. From her I first learned about the art of felting, beading and embroidery and I began to be introduced to wool in its many forms beginning with a fleece: carded, combed, spun, dyed, naturally light and dark- as varied as the sheep who wore them. So when I met Laura last year, I was familiar enough with the art form to be prepared to appreciate her mastery of the medium.
Within the fiber art medium there are hundreds of different wools and fibers to choose from, each with its own unique properties and handling abilities. Manipulated in different ways, these fibers create unique textures, ruching and drapery. Laura’s natural curiosity drives her to learn just how far each material can go toward creating the look and feel that she loves while still retaining its inherent properties.
Her goal is to create beauty that can be seen and appreciated from any angle- either worn on the body or as sculpture- with the purest of fibers and techniques. She achieves this through concentration on depth and design- with the delicate and controlled painterly aspect of her treatment of wool, in particular. This desire for purity within her medium requires discipline and planning- if not engineering. Wool fibers are laid down with extreme care and with an eye to how they will appear when felted- recognizing that the last layer may obscure those that lie beneath and yet requiring enough depth to create the structure or fabric that she intends. This discipline, in concert with her challenging subject matter and well-schooled sense of design, distinguishes Laura’s work and elevates it to “art” from what has often been seen as “craft”.
Laura and her husband, Lee Kitzman, a celebrated ceramic artist, have studios side-by-side in the meadow beside their home. Surrounded by the beauty of nature and wildlife, Laura has spent years creating amazing and colorful works of art, all made from various fibers- mostly of natural origin. Her workspace is warm and inviting and literally bursting with beautiful things, abundant textures and colors.
There are felted images of dancing women in frames on the wall that she has created with felted wool, handmade silk paper and ribbon and then embroidered with threads of various hue and texture. Across the room, exotic floral designs made from brightly dyed hand-felted wool seem to lean out in welcome. One wall of her studio is lined with a rack filled with raw materials: boxes of fabric in silk, linen, gauze, wool and cotton plus assorted ribbons, roving, dyed “top” wool and yarns. Nearby are boxes of nuno-felted scarves in a delicious array of designs.
Nuno-felting is a fabric felting technique revived and championed by Polly Stirling, a fiber artist from New South Wales, Australia, whom Laura took workshops from several years ago when Ms. Stirling visited Oregon. It was Ms. Stirlings’ belief that wool and a fabric (such as silk) could be felted together to create a new fabric that is both light and sheer- unusual qualities in traditionally felted wool.
This process completely fascinated Laura who then studied nuno and other felting techniques to create amazing fabrics. This study has culminated in what have become her signature pieces: beautiful felted vessels and scarves. A quick look around Laura’s studio reveals a wealth of these exquisite designs that are as expressive and vibrant as Laura herself.
“I ask myself, how can I make something that looks real? How can I create something organic without sewing or painting or going back in to add embellishments with a fiber needle? How can I represent a flower or a piece of fruit or an idea using wool alone or wool and silk, or wool and cotton or…”
“ In this medium you can call on so many historical traditions to find different techniques that have been created over the generations. “I have been attracted to the textile art of many cultures, especially Ikat, and yet find that my most important influences are much more contemporary and immediate. I love the designer Issey Miyake for his innovative lines, Georgia O’Keefe for her simplicity and her palette and of course, Jori Johnson, an internationally renowned felt artist guru, whom I met in Kyoto.”
Fiber art is a contact sport, so to speak, and Laura is a diminutive person so to see her in action in her studio is quite impressive. Extremely hands-on and deliberate, she has pushed the boundaries of her medium tirelessly. Laura’s spirit of hard work and curiosity is in evidence everywhere. She has spent years developing fabric-making techniques and has employed that fabric in many ways but it was predominantly two dimensional in the form of wall art, rugs, scarves and fabric-making. The advent of vessel-making answered a different challenge.
“About 6 years ago I had abdominal surgery and found that I was unable to work in the ways that I had done previously. Nuno-felting, in particular, requires a lot of standing and rolling and smacking fibers together to get them to connect. Sitting, and working smaller by making vessels was the answer to my continuing to make art. I began by felting around bases and seeing what was possible. I added embellishments and tweaked final pieces but then decided that the true test of this art form would be to felt the entire vessel, along with its top and base and decorative work all at the same time. That is the way that I still work now and it pleases me not to add anything to the final piece. When the felting is done, I am done too.”
If we were to apply the technique above to a simple design with a few different colors it would already be remarkable but Laura’s detailed and whimsical vessels are exquisite works of art and micro-engineering as well. As you look at the photos, imagine the planning and the delicacy of the technique that allowed each vessel not only to survive the felting process, but to bloom because of it! The intricacy of her design and the attention paid to each aspect of the pieces is truly remarkable.
Laura is expanding her repertoire daily. She has begun to work much larger and to work with “found objects” that are now incorporated into her pieces. She is a force to reckon with in the fiber world and who knows what amazing creations she will challenge herself with next?
Laura G. Berman teaches classes occasionally and shows frequently.
Her most immediate venues are:
Philomath Open Studios
Oct.26th, 27th, Nov. 2nd, 3rd