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A Wall in Sheep's Clothing

Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra installs a work made of dried flowers, seeds, and sheep pelts.

Claudy Jongstra pieces together a wall of wool and dried seeds.

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“My pieces are usually site-specific,” Jongstra says, “but this was a live installation.”

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Awash in blond wood, spotless panes of glass, and vast white walls, the new SFMOMA can be overwhelming in its sleek brightness. But a turn onto the fifth-floor footbridge leading to the sculpture garden offers a visual pick-me-up: Aarde, a 46-foot-long installation made of hand-shorn wool from heirloom sheep. The wispy, scraggly, silky wall was created by Claudy Jongstra, a 53-year-old Dutch artist known for her hand-felted textile art. Originally trained as a fashion designer, Jongstra has provided wool for designers like Donna Karan, Christian Lacroix, and John Galliano (not to mention Jedi costumes for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace). But she finds her inspiration far from the runway, on a secluded farm in the northern Netherlands. There, she makes artistic use of a flock of 250 purebred Drenthe Heath sheep, of which there are only 1,200 in the world. The iconic breed is Europe’s oldest, Jongstra says: “You’ll often see them grazing in 17th-century paintings.” With the exception of Aarde, which also uses botanicals from California, the artist’s zero-waste works are produced entirely from the farm’s bounty, colored with natural dyes made from botanicals like onion skin, indigo, and calendula.

Jongstra shipped 40 pieces of natural and dyed wool, ranging from wisps nearly too delicate to handle to weighty, 10-pound pelts, from the Netherlands. She and a crew of Dutch and local installers spent two weeks in February sprawled across the museum’s footbridge, piecing together a patchwork of felted wool, Japanese paper, and 16 native California species of dried seeds and petals. Each swath of wool was backed by felt, then affixed to blocks on the wall with insect pins; the Japanese paper was painted in an acrylic gel, then coated with dried botanicals. The wall’s long-haired sections sway softly in the breeze, lending the impression of a breathing, shaggy beast.

Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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