Felt artist Chantal Cardinal finds new forms with "magic" material

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      Step into textile artist Chantal Cardinal’s East Vancouver studio and one of the first things she’ll ask you to do is take a seat—not on one of the stools that surround her wide, seafoam-green-topped worktable or the plastic folding chairs resting nearby, but in a big, cocoonlike chair that hangs almost two metres from a protruding pole. It looks like something a butterfly burst out of and then promptly abandoned after completing the four stages of metamorphosis. That is, if said butterfly possessed the wingspan of a mutant bird and the cocoon resembled the exterior of a living birch tree.

      “It’s become this sort of initiation,” Cardinal tells the Straight during an interview in her corner of shared creative hub the Arts Factory (281 Industrial Avenue). “Even the other artists [working in the space] will say to their guests, ‘You have to sit in it.’ ”

      Upon closer inspection, one will discover that the hanging chair is made of thick white felt, which has been layered with grey fibres in a way that mimics the natural appearance of birch bark. In fact, felt is what many of the objects in Cardinal’s workspace are produced from: woolly caps adorned with cat ears cover mannequin heads; felt lighting fixtures—some also fashioned after the trunk of a birch tree—are suspended from the ceiling; and decorative pyramids, cubes, and spheres crafted from the unwoven cloth are strewn throughout. On her worktable is a sizable tapestry in progress constructed with pink and black felt, the pink fibres forming a network of quadrilaterals similar to shattered glass.

      The pieces trace the steady progression of Cardinal’s felting career, wherein the Montreal-born artist gradually moved from manufacturing wearables to experimental objects to large-scale wall hangings. Although the fashion-design grad, who now works under the moniker FELT à la main with LOVE, had dabbled in everything from costuming to ceramics to massage therapy, it was felting that stuck with her after she relocated to Vancouver in 2008.

      “It’s kind of like painting because I can paint, but with fibres. It’s kind of like sculpting because I can actually turn things into 3-D,” she explains. “It’s just a matter of figuring it out.”

      Chantal Cardinal

      As a former athlete, Cardinal was also drawn to the physical aspect of wet felting, a process that involves matting, dampening, and pressing tufts of wool and other fibres together to produce the cloth. This textile can then be embellished, layered, and manipulated to form garments, housewares, and whatever else the imagination can conjure up. “Felt is very magical,” states Cardinal. “It takes on the shape that it dries in.”

      Take the artist’s Joy lamp, for instance. The textured fixture was pinned and crinkled atop an exercise ball, giving it a half-dome shape—its edges left asymmetrical and jagged—that softly diffuses light radiating from the bulb within. Cardinal’s Sea Globe lamp, meanwhile, takes the form of a balloon, though large holes have been left between lines of felt, some of which dangle from the bottom like jellyfish tentacles. The pyramids and cubes were a bit more challenging: these pieces must be constructed flat in a way that produces a three-dimensional effect once they’ve been propped up, putting Cardinal’s grade-school geometry skills to the test.

      “I love trying different techniques, different effects,” she says. “It’s nothing but experimentation.”

      At the Eastside Culture Crawl, Vancouverites can expect to see a comprehensive survey of Cardinal’s work, including the aforementioned objects, numerous felt samples, and a special wall hanging that she is constructing specifically for the four-day fete. Measuring 1.5 by 2.5 metres, the tapestry will depict part of a birch tree crafted from thick layers of felt, resulting in a 3-D shape. Attendees will also be able to see Cardinal at work as she expertly felts an array of other supersized items. “Lately, it’s been about how far can I go,” she says. “How big can I go while still getting the felt to hold?”

      Whether you’re stopping by to pose a few questions about felting or simply on your way to the dozens of other artist’s studios in the area—there are over 50 in the Arts Factory building alone—don’t forget to take five in Cardinal’s cozy hanging chair. “I’m encouraging everybody to sit in it,” she says. “Some people will say, ‘Oh no, I don’t wanna dirty it.’ But I’m like, ‘This is a workshop. It’s fine.’ ”