“The Torpedo Factory Artists Association is a community of professional artists working in cooperation with the Torpedo Factory Art Center Board and the City of Alexandria to make this dynamic art center possible.”
"The process of felting is a mystery to many people," says Roz Houseknecht, a member of the Potomac Fiber Arts Gallery in studio 18 at the Torpedo Factory. Throughout March, Houseknecht will be the featured artist at the Bethesda Library on Arlington Road in Bethesda, Maryland, which will display several of her works—including felt wall hangings, felt vessels, and small textile accessories, many of them created as "challenge works" to suit the themes of previous exhibitions.
Eager to share the creative potential of fiber art, Houseknecht will be on hand to discuss her work with library patrons. On two Saturdays—March 8, 2014, and March 22, 2014—from 10 a.m. until noon, the artist herself will demonstrate how felt is made, shedding light on an ingenious but little-understood process.
"Felt is created by taking the loose fibers of wool from sheep and carefully arranging them in cross hatched layers," Houseknecht explains. "The fibers are then sprayed with soapy water and gently agitated. Once the fibers begin to mingle, they become permanently bonded to form a fabric. This is an irreversible process."
During her two demonstration sessions, Houseknecht will show adults and children alike how to take loose wool fibers and make small felts using different techniques—and her enthusiasm is sure to be tangible.
"Felting has become my passion among the textile techniques," she explains. "It allows me to use my skills in dyeing fibers, both merino wool and silk fabric." The end result, Houseknecht says, is a versatile body of work that encompasses the full range of artistic possibilities: "decorative, functional, sculptural, and wearable."
one of Marcia Jestaedt's preliminary sketches for the Morrison-Clark Inn
Torpedo Factory artists regularly make work that suits the scale of our homes—but they also create large-scale art that shapes and defines our public spaces. Right now, two of our artists are hard at work on projects for buildings in downtown Washington, D.C., that promise to set an inspiring mood for locals and tourists alike.
Last year, the Morrison-Clark Historic Inn and Restaurant at 1015 L Street, NW, asked Marcia Jestaedt to create artwork for their new lobby. The inn is putting the finishing touches on a seven-story addition, and because the new reservation desk will be located next door inside an old Chinese church, decorators and designers are eager to honor the history of the building. Jestaedt was quick to see the artistic potential in this bright, unique space.
"Agamemnon," an example of Jestaedt's finished work
"I'm making three robes with Chinese motifs," she explains. "They'll be made of raku fired tiles and embellished with gold leaf, with glazes dictated by the colors being used in the new lobby."
Scheduled for installation in June, Jestaedt's creations will help welcome guests to the inn. Designed to be displayed behind the reservation desk, the largest of the three robes will measure nearly six feet by five feet, while the two smaller ones will be three-and-a-half by two-and-a-half feet.
"The large imperial robe has a large Chinese peony in the upper center, and below it is a series featuring a dragon chasing a pearl," Jestaedt says. "The two smaller phoenix robes have a long Chinese key border running down their lengths and a wave motif at the bottom."
Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, painter Joyce McCarten is undertaking a grand-scale project that will likewise convey warm artistic greetings. Kettler, a D.C.-area developer, is opening a new apartment building at 450 K Street, NW, in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood, and the company has commissioned McCarten to make two 17-foot-high paintings for the lobby.
"They want abstract oil paintings that have welcoming colors," says McCarten, who has designed two works consisting of three separate pieces each, destined to be united on the lobby wall.
For now, though, turning small sketches into massive paintings necessitates a change of scenery: After some preliminary work in her studio, McCarten has temporarily relocated to an industrial space in Merrifield, Virginia, where 18-foot ceilings offer ample room to paint. Fortunately, the artist is amused rather than daunted by the challenges ahead.
"I'm only four-foot-eleven, so pictures of me next to the canvases should be quite fun," she says. "My contractor friends have cleared a space for me among their snow-removal equipment and jet skis and given me plenty of wall and floor space. They are a great group of guys, always trying to make sure I'm warm enough and have food and drink, and they worry about me going up and down a ladder."
The hospitality and neighborliness of McCarten's temporary studio-mates lifts her spirits—and may further brighten her massive new work.
"They are fans and guardian angels!" she says, with good cheer that will shine from her canvas for decades to come.
When you talk to the ceramists at the Torpedo Factory, you soon discover that they devote tremendous care to an aspect of their process that the public rarely sees: choosing the type of kiln they use to fire their work. Some use electric or gas kilns that offer tremendous creative control—but this month, several of our artists are celebrating the wonderful enigma of a traditional wood kiln, in which flame and ash leave wild impressions on art.
A wood-fired bowl by Lori Katz showing flame marks and signs of the wadding that kept works from touching
"The firing took 36 hours," says Lori Katz, recalling the trip she took to the Cheltenham Center for the Arts in Pennsylvania last August with several other Torpedo Factory artists, including Brian Grow, who designed and built the center’s wood kiln with a friend in 2000. "We worked in shifts, but most of us wanted to be there when the kiln reached temperature, so it was a very long night," Katz says. "It was my first wood-firing experience, and while the results were mixed, it was extremely educational."
Through March 7, 2014, four of the artists from that experimental jaunt—Grow, Katz, Susan Cohen, and Joan Ulrich—are showing examples of their work in "STOKED: A Lifetime of the Cheltenham Wood Kiln." The exhibition uses a decade of unique ceramics made in the kiln, from functional wares to sculpture, to spotlight each step of an exhausting process that can challenge even the most experienced artisans.
Lori Katz and Joan Ulrich in Cheltenham
"I don't take the chance to try a new type of atmospheric firing lightly," says Ulrich, who points out just how many new variables she and her colleagues had to consider: size, shape, material, even the specific place inside the kiln where the work is stacked. "Moving flame and swirling ash in the wood kiln promises different effects on the skin of pots and begs for exaggerated curves and edges," she explains. "I imagined which of my forms would lend themselves well to this firing and tweaked some of my usual crisp edges into softer contours."
As the artists found out, the wood kiln roars with a dizzying randomness. Flame, ash, and wadding may leave unforeseen streaks and burns that the artist may find disappointing—or unexpectedly beautiful. In one case, a teapot and an urn made by two different artists bumped into each other and were forever fused together. Describing the uncertainty of the experience with a blend of amusement and exhaustion, Ulrich notes that a wood kiln defies the popular notion of artists creating their work in places of quiet reflection.
Brian Grow inside the kiln
"The Cheltenham kiln is the largest kiln I've ever fired in, and it demands, it seems to me, an outrageous effort: many participants, long hours, and a lot of physically taxing labor in extreme heat," she says, recalling how she carried wood, helped make heat-flow decisions, and acted quickly when the stoke-hole door of the main chamber broke in her hands. "Certainly there were 'sitting around the campfire' moments," she admits, "but there were far more 'flying by the seat of your pants while stressed out and sweating' moments!"
For Grow, one of the minds behind the Cheltenham kiln, outlandish snafus and unbearable heat are part of the sheer joy of it—as is the spirit of teamwork it kindles.
"I'm intrigued by the variety of relationships that take place during each firing: the marriage between the kiln, the flame, and the artwork complemented by the dance of artists loading, stoking, and unloading the kiln as a team," he says. "The premise for everyone in last August's group was to attempt something they hadn't tried before. For some, that meant wood-firing itself; for others, it meant altering their work in order to elicit a different result."
The Cheltenham kiln in full firing
Grow himself took the opportunity to revisit a favorite form he'd not recently attempted: figure-oriented sculpture, which he scattered in pieces throughout the kiln and reassembled only after the firing was done.
"Bodies in the fireboxes and heads in the chimney flues!" he says. "I call these figures 'reliquary' because for me they contain the relics of the firing. They bear the physical remains in their crusty, fire-painted, ashed surfaces—but, more importantly, they embody the varied energies of the group of artists who stoked the kiln in partnership."
No matter when you visit the Torpedo Factory, you're bound to find artists focused on fascinating projects, but their work doesn't end when our studios close. Painter Beverly Ryan, for example, is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Art at Montgomery College in Germantown, Maryland, where she was recently graced with a rare opportunity to study the deep roots of art in American life.
In keeping with the theme, all of the Smithsonian Fellows will find new ways to understand the consequences of the transatlantic exchange initiated by Christopher Columbus, whether through economic and cultural echoes, the living legacies of animals and plants, the spread of diseases, or the role of art—which is, of course, where Ryan comes in.
Beverly Ryan, "Delta," oil on panel, 40" x 36"
"I'll use the National Museum of the American Indian as a starting point to research indigenous cultures’ trading goods, specifically artwork and crafts," she says. "I'll also research early trade between these cultures and the newly arriving Europeans to see what role these works may have played."
Ryan is still fine-tuning her project, but 2014 promises to be a busy year. As a requirement of the fellowship, she'll turn her discoveries into several classroom projects, all of which will immerse students in the history of the Columbian Exchange.
"They'll visit museums to conduct research," Ryan says. “That's what's so heartening about this fellowship: The research is meant to be shared widely and resonate across generations—just like the cultural phenomena we plan to explore."
In recent years, the Penn Quarter has become the epicenter of Washington, D.C., a thriving neighborhood where convention-goers, food lovers, museum and theater patrons, and sports fans mingle by day and night. To tourists and locals alike, the intersection of 7th and H Streets, NW is a flashy, vital place—but that wasn't always the case. Photographer Fred Zafran vividly remembers the years of blight, and these days he senses forces that are more subtle than nightlife.
"Something about this neighborhood kept bringing me back, to wander the streets with camera in hand, to explore, to understand, and with the intent to document what I saw," Zafran explains. "Vibrant and bristling with energy on the surface, this D.C. neighborhood could be considered a model of urban renewal—but I found the spirit of the place to be elusive, somewhat disquieting, and vaguely foreboding."
Over the course of a year, Zafran returned frequently to the neighborhood surrounding 7th and H. Within sight of the Chinatown arch, past rows of new restaurants, in the shadows of churches and shops, he began to discern what most of us are moving too quickly to see.
"I wandered the streets and alleyways without plan or preconception—observing, listening, and remaining open to the unforeseen," he says. "As I did, images slowly emerged, a revelation of what was below the surface. It was the hidden refrain of a neighborhood pulsating and trembling at the intersection of three distinct D.C. subcultures: a popular entertainment quarter, a Chinatown fading in decline, and a shadow world of the nearly forgotten, those struggling and living too close to the street."
From February 18 through March 30, 2014, you can see what Zafran uncovered in "7th and Streets, NW: The Hidden Refrain of Inner City DC," a solo exhibition at the Torpedo Factory's Multiple Exposures Gallery. Zafran himself is quick to point out that these images don't simply document or comment on life in the neighborhood; instead, he found that he'd captured something far more elusive.
"No photograph is the same as the reality it represents," he says. "More as a symbolic representation, this work is an effort to communicate the perceived emotional tone and tenor, the narrative and refrain—the faint and intangible presence of place."
See "7th and H Streets NW: The Hidden Refrain of Inner City DC" at the Torpedo Factory at Multiple Exposures Gallery, studio 312, from February 18 through March 30, 2014. Meet the artist as the exhibition opening and reception on Sunday, March 2, 2014, from 2 to 4 p.m., and explore more of his work at fredzafranphotography.com.