Felt artist Bridget Karn’s fine art pictures are painted, sculpted and moulded out of wool – they will open your eyes to the wonders of this ancient and natural artists’ material. She’s about to have have her first solo exhibition. JO HUGHES went to take a look.

WATCHING Bridget Karn blending and mixing colours to make her pictures is like watching a painter at work, except that Bridget doesn’t use paint. She uses wool, separating and blending different coloured strands and using them to add light or shade to her fine art felt pictures.

Bridget uses this ancient natural fibre like a painter would use paint, or a sculptor uses clay, mixing, blending and forming 3D textured pictures.

She has as many shades of light on colours as a painter and knows how to make different textures evoke the shapes and feel of landscapes around the homes she loves in Acaster Malbis, near York, and in Donegal in Ireland, where she grew up.

She is one of a growing number of artists who have brought the ancient art of felting into a contemporary setting and her evocative large-scale felt pictures are about to go on show at her first solo exhibition which is to be held at a gallery in York.

A former nurse who was brought up in a family of six children in an Irish family , she went to art college and became a ceramicist. She was a member of the Northern Potters Association, and sold her jewellery through York Art Gallery.

But one day just a few years ago she had a lesson in felting, and has been passionate about it ever since.

“As soon as I tried felting I loved it. It wasn’t a medium I had ever worked with before. I loved the wool, I loved the colours, loved the diversity of what you can do with felt fibres. I realised there are lots of different textures and effects you can make, and I just played around with making some pictures. Before I knew it I became obsessed with it,” she says.

She is campaigning for wool to be seen as medium in art to be as recognised as paint.

"I don’t see why wool shouldn’t be considered as every bit as important as paint or clay. I use wool as I would use paint, I mix it, roll it, or I use it as I would clay. It’s like working with paint with the ability of clay to be moulded for effect and texture.”

The process of felting basically involves dampening the wool and rolling it, the fibres of wool have tiny scales on them which mesh together if you add a bit of moisture and agitation.

Legend has it that felt was discovered by St Clement, who is the Patron Saint of Hatters, whilst on the run from persecutors.

He stuffed some wool into his sandals to keep is feet warm as he ran away, the sweat and running made the wool turn to felt and the first felt shoes were invented.

Early felt clothing is thought to have been discovered when men wore sheepskins with the wool inside to keep them warm. Over the parts of the body where there was constant movement and moisture from sweat the wool turned to felt.

Felt art has been around for thousands of years, but important pieces from very early dates may not have survived because they naturally rotted away. Archaeologists excavating Pazyryk Burial Chambers in Siberia, which had been frozen since 500 BC, found felt pictures surrounding a prince in his burial chamber, indicating they were highly esteemed, and considered extremely valuable. These pictures are now in The Hermitage in St Petersburg.

“Felt art has been round for thousands of years, and used in artistic form since 500 BC, it has been used for art for at least that length of time, I believe we need to champion the artistic qualities of felt and that’s what I believe my work is doing”, says Bridget. “Many people nowadays see it as a weekend craft. That to me shows a lack of understanding and knowledge of the medium.

“The skill and knowledge that you need to be able to use the fibres to create the effects and the images that you want for your picture, and knowing how the fibres are going to work once they have been through the process of felting to create the effects you want, is fine art. My work is fine art,” she says.

This is especially true of several beautiful large-scale landscapes which she has called her Heartland pictures which will be on show in the exhibition at Blossom Street Gallery in November and also at Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton in September.

They show scenes of her homeland in Donegal, where she still returns with her children every year. Details in these pictures show the impact of light on colours and textures, for example in water, and create a magical, emotionally evocative atmosphere.

“They are pictures of where I love being and spending time. I see something, grab the moment, and bring it to life in felt,” she says.