Artist Barbara Keal began making things out of felt when she became aware of a ” motley herd of almost wild looking sheep” that graze on her local nature reserve, Malling Hill. She found sanity and vitality visiting them, they allowed her to rise up and out of the human community of the town, acknowledging her membership of the community of all creatures. As an artist wanting to express this experience through her work, she began her first felting venture making an enormous dress (with skirts of 120 or so Square feet) from their fleeces.
This was feltmaking of epic proportions, the seamless top portion of the dress she worked wet on her body for a perfect fit, whilst the endless skirts were made in panels with the generous help of some heavy horses, who pulled them wrapped around a section of telegraph pole for shrinking. Once finished the skirts of this dress became a hairy cave, which an audience could enter to witness a primitive singing performance.
Starting with sheep hats in a very literal, truth to material sort of way, Keal soon discovered that this wool which was otherwise going to waste could be used to transform people into numerous creatures real and imagined. In her quest for a wider natural fleece colour palate, she found on visiting a local farm the incredible potential of Alpaca neck and leg fleece – another material otherwise destined for dump or bonfire. Being able to make use of these un-valued local materials is very important to her, she is incredibly attuned to the the basic earthy process which transforms them into works of wearable sculpture.
The way this artist works is energetic and intuitive, usually having 8 or 10 different bags of local fleece open and mixing and layering freely to achieve a wide range of hues and textures. She uses images of animals to refer to, and sometimes as a discipline trys to follow them very closely whilst at other times working purely from imagination. All the hats are wet felted, such a magical and immediate process, the solid wool antlers are created by needle felting.
When the hats were first shown in London at Origin 2010, Keal was utterly astonished by the response, four months work was gone by the end of the second day, and everyone seemed so excited about being an animal. She worked non-stop making hats from September to April, it seemed impossible to keep up. Keal now has made hats for fashion shows, performers and films, but for her these works are pieces of transformational wearable sculpture, whose power can sit latent on a stand or active on your head. Feltworks to make you feel fierce, alive and wild.