GREENFIELD – As a man who makes sculptures from wool, Gary Schmitt straddles the line between artist and crafter.
He describes himself as a wool sculptor — using traditional craft materials and techniques but using them in a non-traditional way. He makes recognizable objects – a hammer, an electrical outlet, a harmonica – but they’re made of felted wool.
“Sometimes I get my pieces into art shows and sometimes into craft shows,” he said.
Schmitt, whose work is on display now at the Twenty North Gallery, 20 N. State St., through Sept. 28, said the art of felting can be done in two ways: wet felting, which involves bonding layers of wool on a flat surface using soap and water; or dry-felting — the method Schmitt uses — is done with clumps of wool and a felting needle. The two methods create vastly different types of projects. In most cases, wet felting is used to create wearable art; projects using the dry felting method tend to be sculptures.
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Schmitt’s artistic process begins with clumps of wool and barbed needles. By gently punching the needle into the wool, the barbs on the needle grab onto the felt and tangle them. As the fibers become more tangled, the clump of wool begins to take on a new shape and become more solid.
“It’s a little like clay,” Schmitt said. “You train the shape to stay in the position you want.”
Schmitt has been working with needles and wool for about seven years. With a background in industrial design, a bachelor of fine arts in print-making and additional training in painting, drawing and graphic design, Schmitt was up to the challenge of replacing a papier mache animal for his fiancée that had seen better days.
With the success of that, he then tried making some small animals as Christmas gifts for his family.
Schmitt decided he liked felting and began looking around for art felting workshops. He tried his hand at felted landscapes – and suddenly, Schmitt’s work began to receive some very public attention. His landscape piece – “Round Hill” – was chosen in 2014 for one of the High Art billboards, a project sponsored by the Arts Council of Indianapolis.
In 2016, Schmitt won Best of Show in the Surface Design Association show at the Hancock Arts Twenty North Gallery with a piece called “Cold War Dinners.”
The piece, featuring a felt airplane against a white background dotted with small black circles, was inspired by Schmitt’s childhood spent growing up near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The plane in the artwork is a model of a B-52, and the black circles represent dinner plates forgotten on the table, Schmitt explained.
Dinner time was interrupted more than once, he recalled, by large noisy B-52 aircraft suddenly taking off from the Air Force base.
“We never knew if it was a drill or not,” Schmitt said, “but it would interrupt dinner. We’d drop everything and run outside.”
Hancock Arts president Nancy Leslie is proud Schmitt is the first felt artist to have a show at the Twenty North Gallery. As a fellow artist, she admires Schmitt’s work as beautiful and very intricate, she said.
Not to mention tempting to the fingertips.
“You want to touch it, but you know you can’t,” Leslie said.
Schmitt recognizes it’s the tactile aspect of his art that draws people to it – and makes them want to touch it. In addition to the 20 pieces of artwork on display that are off limits to curious hands, Schmitt has placed one article in the exhibit – a felted pyramid – specifically for visitors to handle.
Leslie looks forward to getting her hands on some felt of her own at Schmitt’s felting workshop at 9 a.m. Saturday at the gallery. Schmitt will lead the class in creating felted pumpkins. The $35 registration fee includes all materials.
“I can’t fathom how he gets the most beautiful artwork out of such raw materials,” Leslie said. “I’m anxious to see if I can create something that looks like what it’s supposed to.”
Schmitt’s art has taken him to some far-flung places. In 2015, he won a creative renewal grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis. His proposal included additional art training at nationally known felting workshops in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Maine and a trip to Europe to research areas where felting was traditionally important.
“Felting happened before weaving,” Schmitt said, “as an ancient form of cloth-making. There was fur, then felting, then weaving.”
Schmitt’s collection of felted art is on display through Sept. 28 at the Twenty North Gallery, 20 N. State St. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.
The felted artwork of artist Gary Schmitt is on display through Sept. 28 at the Twenty North Gallery, 20 N. State St. Open hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Email email@example.com for more information.