A Q&A with fiber artist Vallorie Henderson

If you think artists are real-world challenged and flighty by nature, you need to meet Vallorie Henderson (valloriehendersontextiles.com). She is a creative that is so organized and business-minded that she teaches other artists how to be as well through the Kentucky Small Business Development Center. But first came her own art discovery.

LEO: What type of artist are you?
Vallorie Henderson: I am a fiber artist. I create both a production line of felted contemporary craft objects as well as one-of-a-kind, two-dimensional felted abstract landscapes. My creative process stems from a belief in perfection and symmetry, but with the knowledge that these qualities often hide within imperfection and asymmetry. I want to bring a love of exploring, a minimalist sensibility and a somewhat organic approach to making. For this reason, I strive to understand the capacities of my chosen materials, wool and silk, to perform both physically and poetically.

Explain your artistic process.
Most of my abstract landscapes begin with either quick watercolor sketches or simple line drawings that I create in a journal/sketchbook that I carry with me most everywhere I go. Sometimes I choose to create a narrative about how the sketches will be translated to dye baths for the silk and Merino wool that I use to create all of my work. I buy a bump of undyed Merino wool roving from a wool merchant in Boston [a “bump” is a British term that refers to more than 10 pounds but less than 25.] This is an affordable price break for me. I also buy undyed yardage of silk organza and crepe that I often dye in the same bath as the Merino wool. I keep an extensive dye journal that documents the formulas, weight and end result of each bath.

The process of wet-felting Merino wool through woven silk fabric is a Japanese technique referred to as Nuno felt. Nuno felting produces a lightweight stable fabric that can be either very thin and gossamer or dense and multi-layered, depending on the proportion of wool to silk. I was a quilter long before I knew how to felt, so I enjoy cutting and manipulating the lightweight Nuno felt and them piecing it back together with very traditional hand and machine stitching. The resulting landscapes almost always features raw edges and asymmetrical design concepts. My inspiration for the designs of both the landscapes and contemporary craft objects typically comes from extended interaction with our natural world. I collect rocks, dried mushrooms, twigs, bird feathers, nests — all reminders of daily walks outside.

My Cherokee ancestors did not think it possible to own land, believing instead that we are born from Mother Earth. As an artist, I accept that we are made of this earth and in some manner, have always known the earth and its environs. Being part of the earth, its secrets are part of our fiber, our purpose, our memory, and our spirit. We are this place and all of its stories and events. Making connections between our experiences, their location and time is to be part of a greater whole while living in the present.

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How has your art changed over the years?
I did not understand how to make felt until 1996. I learned to quilt, hand embroider and make river cane baskets as a child under the tutelage of both my grandmothers. While earning my Bachelor of Arts from Berea College, I learned to weave and worked in Fireside Weaving, one of the five student craft industries the college is known for. At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I combined my skill in hand quilting to replicate traditional 4-harness weaving drafts for my Master of Fine Arts show. The resulting wall quilts were large, primary geometric designs that were exercises in precision piecework.

My first attempts at felt involved raw wool from my own sheep that I sheared, cleaned, carded and dyed. The sheep were a Hampshire Suffolk cross breed that produced a very course and short fiber roving. The resulting felt was thick, course and looked more like hide than a fabric I could cut and piece. Once I learned how to make Nuno Felt, I found my natural aesthetic easily.

Who are some of the artists you admire?
[Textile artist] Anni Albers, [multi-media artist] Sonia Delaunay, [sculptor] Louise Nevelson, [painter] Helen Frankenthaler and [glass artist] Dale Chihuly.

What do you want to do that you haven’t done?
Travel to Japan to study with traditional Nuno felt artists [to] create really large-scale corporate pieces.

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