Felt sculpture, fantasy and focus

Interview with Gemma Lee Cross, artist and sculptor, creator of trolls for EP's forthcoming rural tour of fire-ravaged towns.

Hi Gemma. How long have you been living in the Manning-Great Lakes area?
Since I started Year 8 at Wingham high school. I really enjoyed my art classes with Mr Page and Mr Challis.

How did you get into felting?
I was doing some voluntary work at the Steiner school in Taree and I met Michele Jose who was doing some needle felting workshops at the Craft Cottage, so I started going to them. I learned the basics of needle felting, then came marriage and children, and I didn’t really get back into it for a few years. In 2017 I started taking our daughter to a Steiner-inspired playgroup and I was asked to make their seasonal nature table props. I made needle felted fairies and seasonal maidens. Then I had other clients contact me to make more for their children or workplace, such as a childcare centre.

What do you like about this art form?
Fleece is very forgiving. If I make a mistake it is easy to fix. It is clean to work with and easy to contain. It is just a matter of putting the needle down if I need to tend to the children and then pick it back up when I have time. So it is a very accessible art form. I love the stabbing motion, as I really have to focus on the stabbing and shaping so that I don’t stab myself. I can’t let my mind wander, which is great for my anxiety.

Can you tell us a little about the techniques that you use to make your sculptures?
Dry felting is stabbing the fleece, which locks the scales on each strand together. Wet felting involves hot soapy water and rubbing to mat and shape the fleece. Sometimes I use wire armatures adding layers of fleece.

I feel that there a connection to “mother” nature that underpins your work. Would you like to comment on that?
Yeah, so I feel that I have grown as an artist since I’ve been a mother. I bring these creations to life as a mother would for her children, shaping and nurturing, while growing strong attachments to my creations.

Can you describe your thought processes that accompany the act of felting?
For example, with this (the troll project for Endangered Productions), I thought about how I would make the shape, what position the needles would need to be in, how much fleece to use. Then I start with the basic armature then add simple shapes such as logs, balls, tubes and flat shapes.

You are describing a very technical thought process?
I make it all up as I go. Sometimes it doesn’t work so I have to figure out a new way.

That is what I would call part of your creative process, “making it all up”, thinking and bringing characters from your imagination into tactile being.

Mainly I am focusing on the children’s favourite characters. The children often ask me to make characters for them, so I am giving form to their imaginations.

I believe that felting and felted objects are for everyone, including children. Why do you think that adults love this art form?
It is something nice for grandparents to do for their grandchildren. Anything that is handmade is beautiful for children to receive. It is made with love, with natural fibres.

What benefits do you think that felt play brings to the minds of children?
Respect. They are interested in how they are made. They see the time, effort and love and they take great care of them.

What are some of the opportunities that you have had to show your work ie via exhibitions?
The very first exhibition I was a part of was “Mixed Bag” at a Taree gallery called “A Little to the Left”. I created a number of story book characters to depict my daughter’s time at story time at Hallidays Point Library. All the characters were from her favourite story books and they had tiny library bags. I got permission from the authors to bring their characters into the 3D realm.

After that was the selective “Naked and Nude” Exhibition at the Manning Regional Art Gallery. My entry was three naked women, showing before, during and after pregnancy. It was called “To Contentment”. That same sculpture was accepted in “Northern Exposure” at the Glass House in Port Macquarie.

Where would you like to take your art next?
I am working on another collaboration with a local textile artist, Freya Moon. We are working on an exhibition about environment. My goal is to work towards a complete process where I wash, dye and card my own fleece. I have started researching local fleece providers such as a farmer who grows sheep for meat. And there are a few Alpaca farms around and people are always offering me those fleeces, but it has to be mixed with sheep fleece for what I do.

The recent bushfires over last spring and through the Christmas and New Year periods were devastating, directly threatening the community of Wingham and damaging the air quality for months at a time. Was there an effective means of solace and comfort during this time for your family?

We kept inside a lot, at home making crafts together, board games, building cubby house, reminding us all that the world can be good.

Find Gemma
Facebook: scrapsofhappiness here
Instagram: gemma_cross_sculpture here


Interview by Sandy Gray, Set Designer, July 2020

Endangered Productions is taking the Coffee Cantata to areas of regional NSW devastated by fires and drought, after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. Gemma's felt troll heads will feature in excerpts from Peer Gynt - a taster of EP's forthcoming major production.