Oh my, we love Kristina Foley so much.
Here’s the plan: read this interview, close your eyes and dream of Italy, swaying trees, bending rivers, and soft textures for as long as you like, then open your eyes feeling filled to the brim with comfort and peace. It’ll work, we promise.
How did you find yourself learning about sustainability, wool, and felting practices? Where did you learn this craft, and what drew you to these natural materials?
Can you walk us through the creative process behind choosing to felt wool into second-hand cotton t-shirts and creating animal-friendly sheepskins for your exhibition at Shop Boswell?
I have always been drawn to texture, color, design and the tactile experience of making something by hand. I began to explore felting when I studied Fiber Structure and Interlocking in college. It was part of my artistic toolbox for the next several years, but didn’t come to the forefront until I moved to Tuscany. In my new home I didn’t have my usual studio space and was working on a limited budget, felting and natural dye became my methods of choice. I made felted flowers on the dining room table while my new Italian friends chatted for hours in a language I didn’t really understand yet - making art was a way to be present alongside them, but not struggle to join in.
Living abroad I was able to appreciate what was most likely the nomadic origin of felting: modern felt-making utilizes almost the same techniques that have been used for the last 8,000 years. While I didn’t travel with a flock of sheep, there were great resources for a variety of wool and other natural fibers in both Italy and the rest of Europe. Wool is lightweight and I created my own version of a mobile felting station, which I still use, that allows me to work anywhere with just a sheet of plastic, hot water and a bar of soap.
I like to simplify daily living and make things that are useful and beautiful. Working to create and evolve a sustainable lifestyle and art practice in Western Oregon led to the idea of sourcing wool from local farms. I quickly found several woman or family-run farms in a 100 mile radius that are dedicated to lovingly raising high quality fiber animals like Merino and Gotland sheep or Alpacas.
The theme of Portland Textile Month 2020 is Repair and Reuse. Using locally grown wool to quickly adapt a second hand t-shirt into protective winter wear was my answer to the challenge. Felting wool into cloth is a modern technique called Nuno Felting which creates a unique transformation when the two materials bind together. Factor in the low costs of an accessible material like wool, the simplicity of the technique and our common human need to adapt to a quickly changing climate and there you have it. Wool is the innate high-tech fiber: water resistant, isolating from cold or heat, it’s strong, contains anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory lanolin, is fire resistant, noise-absorbing and sustainable...to name a few qualities.
The art of transforming raw shorn wool into a sheepskin that has the same soothing and enduring qualities of one that is traditionally procured is another surprising and sustainable way to use felting. It lets the beauty of each sheep’s unique colors and textures shine. Shop Boswell, with Brookes appreciation of finely crafted clothing sourced from around the world and her own line of hats (yes, more felt!), was the perfect collaboration to show the work.
We know you lived in Italy for a very long time, do you have any snippets of cherished experiences or memories from your time there you can share with us? I know I’m missing traveling, I’m sure others are too, we want to live vicariously through you!
Italy was the best school for how to enjoy life! Time moves slower than in the USA and most Italians seem to enjoy taking the time to bring pleasure and beauty into all the aspects of day to day living: creating a home, cooking, spending time with friends and family, working, traveling, dressing, relaxing...Most of my time there was spent living in a stone and terra cotta farmhouse from the 1300s in the Chianti with a community of friends. I used to joke that one had to have a 13th century lifestyle to keep that house going - it took a tremendous amount of energy from everyone to heat it with wood, harvest and press our own olive oil, make bread in the stone oven built under the staircase... However, everyone always prioritized meals and we often pooled our resources to cook and eat together outside under the giant wisteria-covered gazebo. The house was big enough to allow for guests and we hosted a lot of artists and musicians, which along with the bounty of local farmer friends, made for some pretty amazing parties!
One of my dream experiences there was working for Boboutic, a knitwear label designed and made in Italy by a pair of artists. Watching them select beautiful yarns milled in the country and transformed through their innovative design while constantly experimenting to push the material boundaries (and the knitwear factories patience!) was one of the many beautiful examples I saw of art and life being fused together.
With a bit of resourcefulness and help from your friends, it was possible to travel to special places on a shoestring budget - hiking in to ‘free’ camp under the twisted Juniper trees on the beaches of Sardinia and Corsica is one of my favorite memories.
Your day-to-day seems to be in constant communion with nature, be it gardening, your connection to the animals who provide the wool you felt with, or working with a sustainable company like ARQ ( ;) ). Were you always drawn to the grounding aspects of the earth, or did you have something of a “turning point” or specific moment that drew you in?
I grew up at the end of a dirt road on a little farm near the Ozark National Forest in Arkansas. My parents were part of a small back-to-the-land movement and I was homeschooled with a group of eclectic young families in the area. Some of my best memories are following streams and playing in the woods with my sister and our dog. My parents passed on their joy of a homemade life and in that sense the love of the natural world, the rhythm of keeping a garden and the practicality and beauty of using the materials that surround me as both inspiration and artistic medium came along.
I couldn’t believe it when I discovered ARQ was in my little town and I will forever be indebted to Jennifer from Alchemist Jam for introducing me. ARQ is a great example of the type of business that inspires me: they start with organically grown fibers and work with carefully selected factories in California to produce a high quality product. It’s a family business run by people who care about their employees and aren’t afraid to forge a new path to follow their values.
We’ve covered what I imagine are many of your pastimes-- but what can you tell us about how you spend your time outside of work, and outside of your wool felting practice? What are the things that really make you feel grounded, fulfilled, and cared for?
I love nothing more than a day at home where I can follow my body’s intuitions. A long walk on the beach while my partner Zane bodyboards, cooking and sharing a meal with friends, a good stretch session, listening to music (I love to stream independent radio from around the USA like Portland’s X-Ray.fm), and lots of clay face and body masks.
I wish we could spend more time together, but alas most of us at ARQ are stuck working from home. How has quarantine and COVID affected your daily routine? Are you grateful for the extra quiet time or do you find yourself craving certain aspects of the “life before?”
I think all that time growing up in the middle of nowhere created a pretty contented introvert which has made certain aspects of this strange time more bearable. Of course, I miss the freedom to travel and connect with my friends without having to worry and overthink all the details! Life over the past year has taught me a lot about letting go of my sense of control. I used to like planning and trying to create the most special experience for everyone, now my priorities have shifted to focus on the present and cherishing the people I love. Working at ARQ has also been such a blessing because I’ve found a daily crew of thoughtful, kind and productive people to connect with while staying safe (we work in a really big space!) - sometimes the shipping warehouse feels like it might turn into an impromptu dance party.
Last but very much not least! From all your time in the garden, and all your time in Italy, I’m dying to know what your favorite meal is (in as much detail as you feel is necessary to fully paint this picture for us, or for us to make it ourselves at home), please & thank you!!
My favorite meals change constantly with what’s in season and my mood! Let’s narrow availability down to Winter in North America. Soups get me through the week. I recently made a Butternut squash soup that was dreamy and easy. Halve a Butternut squash and scoop the seeds out (this is literally the hardest part, plus you can toast the seeds and eat them later). Season with sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper, Sage leaves and oil. Roast in the oven until well done. I usually do this the evening before I will use it. Once it’s cooled, strip the skin off by hand and put it in a pot with a can of coconut milk (I prefer unsweetened with a thick layer of coconut cream on top) and a can of water. I use an immersion blender and add more water if necessary to get to the desired creaminess. Enjoy that amazing color! Warm and season: for a sweeter soup add a little grated Nutmeg or Saffron threads, then again move towards savory with a drizzle of olive oil and some Parmigiano Reggiano. Either way, a little toasted Sourdough from your local bakery will serve to wipe the bowl clean.
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Photography by : @lmarissaboone