By Sam Elliott
Gary Schmitt has been the resident artist with Partnerships for Lawrence for three years and from his studio inside the Theater at the Fort he’s produced award-winning works of art — sculptures meticulously crafted from loose wool through felting the fibers into dense, detailed and sometimes large creations.
Schmitt’s first foray into felting came about from wanting to make his fiancé small sculptures of animals for their mantel one holiday season.
“I bought a couple kits and I was going to replace some small animals my fiancé had when she was growing up and they had been damaged or lost,” he said. “I was going to recreate some of those, I thought, but I found out those were made with paper mache and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that, but I happened to stumble on all these other animals being made and they’re dry felted wool.”
Over the years he’s worked his way up from small woodland creatures to large forest landscapes, life-size hand tools and one new project celebrating this year’s Indianapolis 500.
The Indianapolis Arts Council commissioned 33 area artists to create pieces for a collaboration titled “Welcome Race Fans: The Arts Celebrate the 100th Running.”
So Schmitt spent approximately 260 hours designing and sculpting a wool felt piece sure to grab the eye of passersby visiting the Indianapolis Arts Council lobby.
“I thought, ‘Well, I think I could do something with felt,’” he said. “That 260 hours wasn’t all felting. I have a sketchbook where I plan things out. I do graphic design, too, and illustrations… and there are about 20 pages of sketches pertaining to this.”
At 2 feet tall by 4 feet wide, Schmitt’s piece pops in three dimensions featuring the race’s famous “Welcome Race Fans” catchphrase in large block letters above a silhouette of an Indy car.
“I’m probably one of the few people in the world doing dry felting things of this size,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt is hopeful the piece’s exposure leading up to the race can introduce more artistic individuals to the process of wool felt sculpting, which he believed only began in the mid-1980s.
“People kind of argue about who started it, but there is a good case to be made that there’s a woman who took these industrial felting machine needles out of the machine and started making stuff with them,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt, who first taught himself the craft of wool felt sculpting via YouTube videos and craft store kits, now teaches beginners his methods at his regular workshops at the Theater at the Fort.
Schmitt’s “Welcome Race Fans” piece was one of his largest and time-consuming efforts, but he hasn’t quite nailed down plans for the piece following its public display.
“Well, it is for sale,” Schmitt said. “But if (it doesn’t sell), I’ll bring it back here and put it up in the studio at the very least.”
For more, visit facebook.com/garyschmittsculpture. To see the rest of the work from the “Welcome Race Fans” collaboration, visit welcomeracefansindy.org.
Wool Felt Sculpting 101
Schmitt’s process for creating his works of art begins with nothing more than loose wool, a few special needles and what looks like an upside down giant hair brush on which he works.
“The needles have small little notches in them that help grab the fibers and basically felting is just tangling the fibers,” Schmitt said. “It depends on how much you tangle them how tight it gets and how dense the felt gets.
“Wool will felt by using needles or some kind of combination of needles with little barbs or notches in them to help tangle the wool fibers, heat and pressure,” he added. “Wool fivers are kind of like a moving target… that’s a good thing and a bad thing to be precise, if it’s always moving around. If you need to adjust something, it’s great because you can kind of move it a little bit. It’s a living material. It responds in a way that’s different than a lot of materials would.”
But even with Schmitt’s level of expertise with the process, his hands will still find themselves the victims of routine stabbings.
“If you don’t bleed, you’re not a needle felter. You stab yourself doing needle felting,” he said. “I know how to position my fingers and am getting better, but I probably still stabbed myself four times yesterday.”
For larger projects or the bases on which he builds others, Schmitt will hold as many as eight needles in each hand or up to 30 using a specially designed needling holding tool — necessary when trying to build projects as large as his.
“The more you tangle it, the more solid it gets,” Schmitt said. “The basic shapes are fairly easy to get… The more you refine it, the denser it gets and that’s a longer process.”