When Karen Straight paints, she typically doesn’t use oils, acrylics or watercolors and she doesn’t use a brush. She paints with a needle and wool.
She calls it “painting with wool” and she uses this method to create fibrous, two and three-dimensional works of art that appear to jump off the canvas.
“You basically are using wool like paint to paint a picture,” Straight said. “The fun thing about wool form is it really has a sculptural quality as well as being able to use it like paint.”
For the month of March, Straight’s wool, fiber and felt art will be on display at Paint, Metal, and Mud, a cooperative art gallery in downtown Kalispell. Her wildlife-inspired work includes wool paintings of bears, deer and a lion that she meticulously created using a needle and wool.
The time-consuming method allows her to create a three-dimensional quality in her art. In her bear piece, which appears in the window overlooking First Street W. in Kalispell, Straight wrapped wool around a toothpick, which she covered in beeswax to form a bear claw that creates a three-dimensional detail.
With a background in sociology, Straight most recently taught online courses at the University of Wyoming while running an animal sanctuary before moving to the Flathead 10 years ago. She says her passion for animals inspires her work.
“That lifelong love for animals is why I’m drawn to creating animals,” she said. “It’s where I’m at my happiest because I love and feel passionate about animals and their welfare.”
In addition to fiber needling, Straight also experiments with mixed media forms of art. In her moose piece, which is also displayed in the gallery, she used fabric paint and pastels over stiffened silk and hand dyed scrim fabric.
After Straight began fiber needling, she realized the niche art form used certain supplies that weren’t readily available in the Flathead Valley. This inspired her to open a fiber materials business, which she calls Big Sky Fiber Arts. Her online store provides wool and specialty fibers from all over the world, including Italy, Germany, Great Britain and the U.S.
Although Straight isn’t part of Paint, Metal, and Mud’s cooperative, she will be featured as a guest artist through March. The gallery is typically operated by 12 artists who work a few days a month and share building costs. As a cooperative, the artists take home all of the profit for art pieces sold and they each have their own area in the gallery.
Pia Eaves and a former Flathead Valley Community College classmate opened the gallery cooperative on the north side of the Kalispell Grand Hotel 19 years ago as a way to avoid commissions that galleries charge.
With the cooperative, Eaves says the artist and customer are able to build a connection with the transaction. It creates an artist-buyer bond when the customer is able to meet the artist.
“I’m always really happy when I know who buys my things,” Eaves said. For more information on Paint, Metal, and Mud, visit their Facebook page.
For more information about Big Sky Fiber Arts, visit https://store.bigskyfiberarts.com/.