Bridget Karn is on a mission to get felting recognised as an art form. She hopes a moving exhibition for Armistice Day will help spread the word. Catherine Scott meets her.
When you see Bridget Karn’s artwork, you have to look really hard to realise that her intricate pictures are all in fact made of felt.
So impressive is her work that she became the first felter to have a piece of work accepted into the Royal Academy of Art’s prestigious summer exhibition in 2016. But even then, says the mum-of-two from York, some still look down on textile art as inferior.
“I have even been asked to remove my work from a gallery because it was felt and therefore seen as a hobby rather than a serious art form. It makes me very frustrated and now I want to change the perception of felting.”
The first stage of her felting revolution is the creation of the York Textile Artists, a group of textile artists determined to get the art form they love recognised for what it is.
The group’s launch exhibition takes place today and tomorrow with a display of poppies at York Cemetery. Each of the eight textile artists in the group has created 12 poppies, joined together to make up the final piece. Each poppy will then be sold for the Royal British Legion and SSAFA.
“Arts and Crafts have always been a significant part of my life. As a young child, they were my escape from a world I struggled with,” explains Karn, who lives in Acaster Malbis with her architect husband.
But life got in the way of her artistic dream.
“I really wanted to go to art college,” says Karn who went to school in Leeds. “But when I was 17 my dad’s business went bankrupt and my mum said I needed to get a proper job and keep my arts and crafts as a hobby.
“I had four younger brothers and sisters and so I went into the careers office at Notre Dame College and picked up the first job application I came across.”
Two weeks later, she found herself working for the Bank of Ireland, but she soon realised banking wasn’t the job for her and after 18 months she decided to following her mum’s footsteps and become a nurse.
In whatever spare time she had, she would follow her passion for arts and crafts, which at that time mainly involved ceramics, but she feared it might never become more than a hobby.
However, she met another nurse who was travelling the world, all funded for overtime as a “bank nurse”.
It gave Karn the idea that she could use her nursing to pursue her artistic ambition.
She enrolled on an art foundation course in Liverpool which she had to work around her nursing shifts. For a year she would work Monday evening to Friday morning doing 12 hour shifts, went to art college Monday to Friday and then back to work Friday night.
“I was 23 and following my heart’s desire which gave me enough energy to do both,” recalls Karn who then received a grant to pursue her studies further, although she still worked part-time.
She then decided to combine her two loves and went into art therapy and moved to Canada.
However, she returned to the UK when her mum was diagnosed with cancer, intending to go back to Canada. But while she was in the UK, one of her friends was getting married and she spent some time in London helping her – and that was when she met her husband and her plans changed.
“We met in the October, got engaged in the December and were married the following May.”
The couple had two children – Fingael, now 19 and Evi, 21 – and when her elderly aunt needed looking after the family decided to relocate back up to Yorkshire and moved in with her in Acaster Malbis. Juggling being a mother and carer and having a part-time job didn’t leave much time for her beloved art but she squeezed it in whenever she could, including one night a week at York College studying ceramics.
In 2006, she began an Arts and Crafts Club in Acaster Malbis. The club created a space for like-minded people to meet, with a view to exploring the many Arts and Crafts they hadn’t tried before or done for years.
“In 2010, we were taught by a member of the Arts and Crafts Club the basics of felting and I knew straight away that this medium had the potential for making a picture and found myself experimenting and making my first felt picture,” recalls Karn.
But it was while convalescing from an illness that Karn got time to fully immerse herself in her new passion.
“Felting very quickly started to fill any spare time I had, exploring the many different things you can do with it, hats, scarves, bags, brooches, slippers, lampshades and of course pictures. The Arts and Crafts Club members were keen to learn more too, so I began teaching them my techniques and running felt making workshops for people outside the club as well.
“Felt pictures became my passion, working from my photographs, I was creating pictures using wool.”
Felting involves damping the different dyed wools and rolling them, the fibres of the wool have tiny scales on them which lock together with the damp and movement. No glue or other adhesive is used; the technique is totally natural.
And watching Karn at work, it is almost hypnotic as she blends the different coloured wools by hand to get the desired colour and shade.
In 2012, a friend encouraged her to take part in a local art festival.
“The public’s response was fantastic and helped me realise I was creating pictures people really enjoyed. So began my aspiration to make this passion into my business.”
Being able to make pictures and dreaming of exhibiting and selling them is one thing, running a business is quite another.
“I had little knowledge of how to run a business and how to sell my felt pictures and my workshops. So, I found a local business mentor to get me started. I approached galleries, created my own website, started to learn about marketing, found networking groups, began building an email list, talked to art curators and planned the launch of my business.”
Karn is inspired by the world around her, and that is clear from her pictures, particularly how light and shadow work together and affect colour and she continued to challenge herself to make more complex pictures to capture the drama of the photographs she took and to develop her techniques and her knowledge of what wool could do.
Despite battling Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, in the autumn of 2014 she decided to launch her new business and did so in style with not one launch but three – a solo exhibition at a local gourmet pub, The Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace and a week long Meet the Artist exhibition at Blossom Street Gallery and Framing, in York.
“The response was overwhelming, I sold originals, limited edition prints and lots of workshops, not to mention all the amazing support and feedback I received.”
Two years ago, Karn received the recognition she felt her art form deserves.
One of her pieces, Frosted Woodland, was chosen from 12,000 other works of art to appear in the Royal Academy of Art Summer Exhibition 2016 – the only ‘‘painting’’ made entirely from wool.
But she still feels that felting and other textile art is seen as inferior and is now reducing her business and workshops, to concentrate on promoting the art form she loves.
“People still see it as a craft or a hobby rather than art. I am determined to change people’s perception of textile art.”
Following this weekend’s exhibition, Karn and the other textile artists are aiming to have other exhibitions across the country.
“We want to put textile art on the map.”
York Textile Artists is made up of Bridget Karn, Fran Brammer, Rosanna Johnson, Justine Warner, Carol Coleman, Jill Shepherd, Alison Spaven and Andela Anning. Their launch exhibition is at York Cemetery today and tomorrow.