“Standing Tall: A Heart-FELT Reflection” by Martien van Zuilen
March 25, 2019
I am a felt artist currently living in Perth, Western Australia. I was born in The Netherlands in a region well below sea-level and, for better or worse, I learned at an early age to keep my head above water and stand tall. In 1985, at the age of 23 I moved to Australia and made my first piece of felt. It was a fortuitous confluence; teaching myself to make felt in a country where sheep outnumbered people 5:1 at the time. The hands-on process of transforming wool fibers into a durable textile was tremendously exciting and, 34 years later, I remain smitten with the creative possibilities of the felt medium and the tactile nature of making.
My current art practice (and indeed my life) is intrinsically informed by my travels to Mongolia in 1997. I spent time among nomadic people who lived in felt-covered gers (yurts) and I experienced first-hand the cultural significance of handmade felt in a physical, material, symbolic, and spiritual sense. The seasonal and communal nature of living environments in which people survived and thrived with so little, and the importance of handmade felt to people’s sustained well being struck a heartfelt chord and touched me deeply. After I returned home, I began to reflect on what is truly required to survive as a human being, to be content, to feel nourished and thrive, and be part of a community. Gradually and over time, I pared down my belongings and focus on what is essential, to go deep rather than wide. My creative work became an aesthetic expression of that very same essence.
In making my art, I endeavor to honor felt’s traditions. I use minimal equipment in the creation of works I hope are precious to behold. It is the interplay between the functional and the aesthetic qualities of felt that lies at the heart of my love for this fascinating medium. There is a balance between what wool fibers do in a practical sense—they connect, come together and interlock to form a whole—and the various ways in which felt can convey a narrative in visual and material form, providing a surface for self-referential and cultural storylines.
Of particular interest is the creation of surface and textural effects unique to the felt medium, not achievable by other means. Creating my own textile from ‘the ground up’ means I get to decide what ‘ingredients’ to use. Before the actual felting process commences, I mix and blend wool fibers with a multitude of other natural fibers including flax, cotton, silk, yarns, tapa, raffia, and much more. Each of these ingredients will ‘do their own thing’ in the felt I create, and hand-stitching applied in the pre-felt stages adds another valuable surface dimension and textural effects.
Making art and felt is an endeavor that continues to offer a sense of wonder. What matters to me is the engagement with an ever-evolving process, a gradual and creative becoming, never finite. The process requires trust, a sense of adventure and some courage too. It involves risk-taking; a leaping into the sometimes unknown in a manner that is perhaps only matched by a resolve to keep at it. The poet and visual artist William Blake used the term ‘firm persuasion’ to define the crux of bringing creative ideas and works to fruition: a steady conviction and a faith (in one’s materials and skills) coupled with a quiet determination about one’s vision and endeavors.
I firmly believe that time does not dilute an idea; it distills it. Over time, my work has changed tremendously, gaining what I hope is an underlying strength, authentic voice and thoughtfulness. I take great joy in the intricacies of crafting and the potential that resides in the unexpected. I continue to relish the time for contemplation; laying out fibers and gently rolling the felt, over and over (and over) again. And there is something intrinsically compelling about this very act of repetition; by doing something again and again in similar fashion, new understandings about my chosen medium have emerged. My creative practice continues to evolve, and each work is unique, standing tall.
Martien’s work is featured in SDJ’s Winter 2018 edition: Family Matters: SDA International Exhibition in Print. To learn more or buy a copy, go to our Journal Page.
Martien van Zuilen (PhD) is a felt artist and teacher living in Perth, Australia. She exhibits her high-quality and distinctive felt art nationally and internationally and since the late 1980s has delivered felt-making workshops at all levels of experience throughout Australia, as well as in Europe and throughout the USA. In 2013, Martien completed her PhD (Anthropology) with an ethnographic study on the significance of women’s textile art practices within the context of Australia’s cultural landscape. Alongside a busy teaching schedule and editing Australia’s national felting magazine (FELT), Martien works as a freelance writer and curator. She is also the Convenor of the not-for-profit association Fibres West Inc. Her artwork and essays are published in numerous international publications. martienvanzuilen.com