This summer, over 300 people joined our virtual workshop series led by Kazakh and U.S. craft artists in search of cultural exchange and new ideas to spark their personal creativity. A part of the Makerspace Expands! series, the workshops brought together embroidery artists, metalsmiths, and woodworkers for a behind the scenes look into their studios and dialogue to encourage Kazakh youth to embrace and explore their own cultural craft heritage.
Our cohort of artists included metalsmith Karen Smith and Ardak Abishev, embroidery artists Emilia Halvorsen and Botakoz Zeynelhan, and musical instrument makers/woodworkers Keun Ho Peter Park and Madiyar Zhapabaev.
The artists were asked to share their practice virtually and respond to the prompt: how do you enable people to “feel” materials and think creatively in this online setting? It was wonderful to see the innovations each artist created through this challenge. Smith focused on sharing hammering techniques on a range of metals, creating small medallions that participants could easily try making on their own, while Abishev reached out of his comfort zone and tried a combination of wood and bone in a new pendant.
“I am very glad that I was able to participate in the seminar,” he reflected. “This allowed me to look at my works from a different point of view, and I was able to experiment, think, and reflect in a non-standard way. It was very nice to meet other masters, talk to them about art, see their workshops, and watch them at work. I’m especially glad to meet Karen. I was very pleasantly surprised that despite the fact that we are in different parts of our planet, we think similarly and even have similar works.”
Zhapabaev took us on his journey into his studio, shooting a behind-the-scenes video that showed the entire labor-intensive process of making a musical instrument, from branch to horn. Park shared his process of creating small guitars from basic materials and explored the range of playful guitar body shapes.
As a finale, feltmaker Janice Arnold—who participated in our first virtual series—traveled to Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, in November to lead workshops while sharing her artistic practice and artwork. From their very first meeting on Zoom, Arnold and her virtual workshop partner, Aizhan Bekkulova, knew they were kindred spirits. They had met four years ago at the Intersections in Felt symposium in Baku, Azerbaijan, and continued to follow each other’s work with deep admiration. Working together in person served to crystalize their friendship through love of felt.
Our in-person workshop series coincided with the first-ever International Felt Festival (Kиiз. Felt. Keçe. Войлок) in Kazakhstan, led by Aizhan Bekkulova of the Union of Artisans.
“Felt, the unique nomadic invention, has been providing our ancestors the very chance of survival in the harsh continental climate of Central Asia for thousands of years,” Bekkulova said. “Today felt keeps the same functions, providing means of living for the hundreds, if not thousands, of Kazakh felt masters.”
Supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Republic of Kazakhstan, this festival brought together master feltmakers from across Kazakhstan and beyond, including Salih Girgiç of Turkey and Mihály Vetró of Hungary, for a week of events, workshops, and celebrations. We coordinated our visit with the festival, while hosting separate master classes and talks at the U.S. Embassy Makerspace.
In her opening presentation, Arnold shared her deep reverence for Central Asian feltmaking. “I learned to speak the language of wool, she said. “I gained a reverence for not only the process and the people but the spiritual connection that this material has and can teach us.” She went on to discuss her connection to Central Asia through felt: “Our countries share a powerful bond. As humans we are makers. We make things with our hands, and this fabric is an important part of that tradition.”
As a gift to the festival, Arnold created a large-scale immersive felt installation titled Cave of Memories: 43° North x 76° East. The coordinates relate to the precise location of the Kasteyev State Museum of Arts in Almaty. In connecting her installation to the origins of felt in Kazakhstan, she gathered stones from a mountain stream outside Almaty, incorporating them as an integral part of the massive suspended felt pieces. Projected on this installation was a photographic reflection of the seasons around her home in Olympia, Washington. Visitors found inspiration as they walked in and through her installation, seeing felt presented in a new way.
Her three-part workshop series was an incredible success. What was originally intended to be a master class for fifteen grew into a community exchange of over forty participants over the course of three days held at the U.S. Embassy Makerspace in Almaty. Youth and masters came together, learning innovative techniques from Arnold while sharing ideas and new directions for their work. Arnold and Bekkulova co-led the final class themed around improvisation in felt. As samples of felt explorations were passed round, students had the opportunity to ask the experts to share their techniques for innovative material combinations.
“I’ve experienced a kind of burned-out state lately, but this workshop gave new perspectives and ideas of what to do,” workshop participant Assel Khairula said.
In reflecting on the series of programs, Aizhan stated, “Due to our felt festival, our felt masters have increased interest toward this outstanding material and have gotten many ideas of felt applying. For many years, I dreamed of inviting Janice Arnold to our country to acquaint local craftsmen and artists with her work. My dream came true and was a total success. I do believe that we will repeat this experience many more times.”
In honor of Arnold’s contribution to felt making around the globe, and as a symbol of the connections she made with so many artists, she was inducted into the Union of Artisan Kazakhstan as an honorary member. For Arnold, Bekkulova, and so many of the festival and workshop participants, the week was a time to reflect on the history of felt in Kazakhstan and throughout Central Asia, the importance of honoring traditions while discovering the language of felt in our contemporary cultures.
In addition to the talented artists we worked with throughout this series, I would like to acknowledge the entire team who brought all of the many pieces together for this virtual and in-person program: Aizhan Bekkulova, Alisha Shalakhmetova, Leila Aitmukhanova, Dana Jaxylykova, Ashkhen Khudaverdyan, Natalyia Vshivtseva, Azhar Nurbayand our many translators. Thank you!
This workshop series was made possible through the Chevron, US Embassy in Kazakhstan, Union of Artisans Kazakhstan, and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Lesli Robertson is the project facilitator for the Center’s Kazakhstan project and an interdisciplinary textile consultant, educator, and outreach director for Around the World in 80 Fabrics. She works with communities across the globe to find creative ways to promote, preserve, and honor textile traditions. After traveling to Kazakhstan, she now has an even longer list of felt, jewelry, and musical instruments that she absolutely needs in her collection!