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Featured Artist: Laura Lyons of Wildwood Farm

by EBlack on October 13, 2013

LL-WF Self Publishers Note: This week,  we have the privilege of speaking to a fiber artist who is more than simply a jack of all artistic trades. Laura Lyons of Wildwood Farm in Madison, CT.  has been on the art scene for years as a copper smith, gardener, woodworker, well… you name it, she has done it! Through the influence of her husband, Laura found herself surrounded by sheep and an abundance of fiber. So what did she do? She went with it!  Laura has now expanded her artistic practice to cover almost all the forms of fiber art, showing that one can be not just what we call a “jack,” but a “master of all trades.”      

Spin Artist (SA): What can you tell us about your fiber tale?

Laura Lyons (LL): None of this was my idea. LL-WF SheepI did not wake up one day and say: “Boy, do I want to be a fiber artist!” I have always loved to make things, loved materials, lumber yards, hardware stores. I have worked as a carpenter, copper smith, landscaper and used ferro cement, wood, metal, fabric and glass to make art. Thirteen years ago I asked my husband what he wanted for his 50th birthday. Since we live on Sheep Pasture Rd., his answer was sheep. I tried, at least a little, to talk him out of it, as I was the only one taking care of the plants and animals at the time. Long story short: we got two Romney sheep. A few years later, two more; one was pregnant and voila: 5 Romney sheep! So, I had to figure out what to do with the steaming heap of dirty fleece with which we ended up. Over the years I learned to skirt, wash, pick, card, needle felt, dye, spin, and weave.

SA: I love your “backdoor” introduction to fiber arts but I know you have a formal education in Studio Art from Connecticut College. Do you feel your background in art has positively affected your skills in fiber art?

LL: My background in art has influenced every moment of every day. In college I focused on mixed media. In my mind, that meant use any material to make anything anyway I wanted. I can paint but dislike the plasticity of it. I like 3-D. I like to have the character of the material inform me, speak to me, resist and educate me. The beauty of fiber is that it has parameters but the parameters change depending on the process. Felted fiber can mimic watercolor or be opaque like acrylic paint. LL-WF Sitting WomenIt can also be made into sculpture. Roving can be spun, felted, dyed, crazy carded, knitted, crocheted, braided, woven…. manufactured into rugs, clothes, tapestries, and sculpture. It can even be made into housing as in the felted sides and roofs of yurts. It turns out that wool is the most amazing material. Who knew? I certainly did not.

SA: Well, we are all thankful you found out! You once said, “using [fiber] makes me feel connected to ancient techniques and a very basic, low-tech way of life.” How have you connected to a traditional lifestyle?  

LL: We have sheep: calm, simple, and productive. We have a flower farm. I have to get down and dirty to take care of these plants and animals. I process all of our wool and any other fleece that comes my way. I like to work. I like physical labor and being aware of temperature, daylight, moisture, working with the seasons. There is satisfaction in using any kind of energy, even negative, to make things. I have found that when I have used up one kind of energy such as physical to get something done I can always move onto some other source, such as brain power to apply to some other task. When that runs out I do simpler things. LL-WF Woven RugFor instance: A.M. I may be into full throttle mowing, or washing a fleece, or dyeing. Midday: complicated knitting, or tapestry weaving or trying to answer these questions. P.M: non-thinking, standing around kindergarten, weaving a rug (basic weaving with materials that speak for themselves)

Also, my tolerance for say …warping a multi heddle loom is nonexistent. My ideal is to use low tech, ancient tools such as a felting needle or a frame loom. I prefer techniques that can be performed outdoors, in a field, sitting on the ground with your fiber animals grazing around you. I don’t actually work that way but I could if I felt like it! Pun intended.

SA: Sounds like such a peaceful philosophy of creating. I know you have embraced multiple forms of fiber art. Which one would you say speaks to you the most?  

LL: No one form of fiber art speaks to me the MOST. The beauty of it is I can move from washing, drying, picking, carding, spinning, weaving, felting, dyeing, knitting seamlessly: no muss, no fuss. I can pick up and put down and number of processes in a given day depending on the time, energy, or frame of mind that I am in. I have totally changed in that way. Up until recent years I would not stop a project until it was done. I have found, just recently, that it is much more efficient to go from process to process as my particular mental, physical and emotional capacities wax and wane over a given day. Now, instead of having one finished project in a couple of days, I may have fourteen products finished in a couple of weeks all at the same time. Each thing I do informs the other things I do and as a result, I am solving problems or discovering unknowns about one process as I am working on the next. To me, that is fun.

LL-WF Laying LadyHaving said that, answer two is: my favorite form of art is the one that involves the most processes. Recently I have been trying to put together a large number of tapestry weavings that also include needle felting. I started by picking primitive images with flat, graphic color fields and areas of fine detail such as faces, hands, and feet, which I rendered in needle felted wool on woven backgrounds. I wove Hawaiian ladies and copies of art by Gauguin:

 I became more ambitious with a large portrait of my friend Hatsy and her late koi, Goldie Meir, LL-WF Women and Fish

and more art deco with Klimt’s “The Kiss,” which is a portrait of Carolyn, my niece.LL-WF In Love

These pieces take a lot of concentration and represent my greatest challenges so far. The other favorite art piece is the needle-felted representation of the decades old Smithsonian poster “No Place Like Home.” It took 25 years to figure out how to render the likeness in fiber. It is a mixed media piece, which also includes glass, beads, and plant materials.LL-WF Felt word

Lately, I have been deconstructing rugs and blankets made from my very first natural colored fleeces. They had been used for up to twelve years and were looking tired and dirty. LL-WF Rugs in a RoleI dyed and in so doing cleaned the yarn or roving then rewove it into large, colorful, clean rugs. It makes me very happy to rewrite history the way I want it using techniques that I have learned in the intervening years.

In the last few weeks I purchased a tri-loom and used homespun to make a Celtic jacket.

SA:You really know how LL-WF laura jacketto keep your fingers in all forms of fiber art.   But I know that your interests lie in other areas as well such as botany;  how has that influenced your fiber work?

LL: Next to art, science stole my interest. Lab work, looking at specimens under the microscope, going out into the field and cataloging all of the given plant forms in a specific grid all involved drawing and identification. I love growing things. Understanding life processes, seeing the world outside change in front of my eyes everyday, every season, every year, without me even paying attention always fascinated, entertained me, and made me feel a part of something. Growing plants and gardening fits right into my love of creating small environments: colors, shapes, form, ever changing little outdoor theaters everywhere.LL-WF Pond in the Woods

SA: Perspective is everything, and seeing the world from different angles  can really influence artistic expression. You have such great felted animals! What has been your favorite animal to make, and which one was the most difficult?

LL: My favorite felted animal is the next one. I love them all. They are real to me. Often the ones I spend the most time on are portraits of other people’s animals. LL-WF Big Ear DogThere is always a story attached to them. My favorite of those is the Bali Dog. A mother came into my booth at the Guilford Expo the second year that I showed. She brought a photo of a dog that her daughter had found on a street in Bali and adopted. The mother visited and brought her a pink collar. Unfortunately, the daughter was transferred back to the U.S. and had to leave her dog behind with friends. The mother had me create the dog for her daughter so she would have her always. 

There is the Palomino that went to Mississippi, LL-WF Horse

the giant ass that went to Tennessee, LL-WF Felt Donkey

the tortoise my friend photographed crossing the road, LL-WF Turtle

Rafe (my friend’s Corgi), LL-WF Dog

and Ralph, my friend’s Angora goat whose fleece is given to me each year.LL-WF Goat Cart

SA: What has been your family’s reactions to the addition of the medium of fiber to your art work?

LL- My family has always encouraged me and joined in whether it is building, clearing land, making gardens, putting up fences. Until about three years ago my “studio” was my living room couch with about six feet of space behind it full of plastic bags stuffed with fiber. It took thirty-seven years to get around to converting the top floor of our pole barn into a finished 20’x30’ studio space. Mark and I have been here designing and building everything ourselves for almost 40 years. We are now hosting fiber events with Dayna Mankowski , the owner of Madison wool. My husband has been a huge provider of food for these events. He loves to cook and is unbelievably good at it. His enthusiasm comes and goes at the idea of these events but he has always been there when the time comes, energetically providing whatever may be needed at the time. He has been a real trooper, always there to help when asked. My brother, husband and sons have all helped set up, take down tents and displays at fairs and art shows, loading and unloading our van. I am happy, grateful and amazed at how much support I have received from my family.

LL-WF SpinningSA: So happy to hear you have such a healthy support system. What can you tell us about your wheel?

LL- Until last year I used a Louet S10DT. Lexi Boeger held Camp Pluckyfluff here at Wildwood farm in 2012. After that, I treated myself to what I considered to be a “big girl” wheel.LL-WF Mouse I bought a Majacraft Aura from Dayna Mankowski of Madison Wool. I use both wheels but mostly the Aura. The ease of use, solidness and stability and the fact that it is for art yarn spinning makes it a standout. Lexi designed the wheel to do what she does. I want to do what she does. How could I go wrong?

I am new at making art yarns and no expert at it but I have an absolutely fabulous time making things out of these yarns like art-bombed gourds, woven purses, mice and bears in sweaters.

SA: Those mice and bears are so sweet! How would you describe your studio space? 

LL- I love my new three-year-old studio. It has opened up my whole life. It is the top floor of a thirty-seven year old pole barn. It is 20’x30’ with an adjoining unfinished but usable 16’x20’ space which connects to a three-bay garage. It is excellent for large events such as Lexi Boeger’s 2012 and 2013 Camp Pluckyfluff . She is returning again next June 7-8, 2014. LL-WF Outside the HouseJackie Graf came and taught a Natural Dying Workshop this May and I understand she wants to do it again next year focusing on one dye source and all of its permutations. Arlene Ciroula came and ran the Snowball, a 70’s themed day of spinning last February. Next year we hope she will bring the 80’s to life. Michelle Snowdon cam in August to teach Spinning to Wearable Art. Dayna Mankowski is the organizer and key contact for information. I am looking forward to many years of events taking place here at Wildwood Farm. LL-WF Snowy HouseMy family and I have labored in love long and hard to fulfill the dream that we have been harboring to meet people from all over the world in our driveway. We are hosted an art studio hop this summer welcoming art and garden enthusiasts from Izmir, Turkey. Thanks to my husband Mark, two sons: Jonathan and Ross, my father George Chittenden and brother Paul in particular who encouraged and helped us all of our lives to follow our dream.

LL-WF Woven Bag 3SA: I know it was only a few years ago that you started showing your art in galleries and shows. How has displaying your art affected your outlook on your own pieces?  

LL- As I developed new techniques my products started evolving. In 2009 I was invited to display 8 carpetbags hung as art in my friends’ local coffee shop; Cilantro. I was encouraged when they sold out. I applied and got into various juried art shows and fairs. I have had a shop on Etsy for years. When my studio was finished in 2011, I was accepted into the Shoreline Arts Trail studio tour. Recently, I have joined the local coop: Shoreline Creative Arts Boutique, and started hosting events with Dayna Mankowski. The effect of all of this has been to connect me with people who are like me. They get it. We confirm and encourage the drive for creativity in each other. It does not get better than that!

LL-WF Woven BallMy own outlook on my pieces is pretty simple. I do what I do to amuse myself. It is endlessly interesting to make things and fiber art seems to evoke good connection and feeling in other people. It is warm and fuzzy. If something I do or teach how to do makes someone laugh I have done my job. It is all amusing and if the least amuseable in a needle felting class cracks a smile or laughs at what he or she is able to do, I feel smug. I can go home. I have done my job. Life is too short not to have fun at least some of the time. The cost of a barbed needle and a wad of roving is not too high a price to pay to enjoy oneself for a while.

LL-WF BearSA: This has been a joy, Laura. Thank you for sharing with us. I just have one more question for you. Where is your favorite place on the farm?  

LL- I see the whole farm, basically our entire lives’ work, as a giant set. The idea of having events here: fiber, art, poetry, theater, weddings, concerts, parties…. gives me great joy. The thought of creating a set-up for people to experience themselves and each other in an expansive, open-ended, positive and creative way makes me very happy. At this point, that is my biggest hope and highest goal. The whole of Wildwood Farm is my favorite place.

SA:  Thanks again, Laura!  Your work is simply amazing and inspiring.  Dear Readers, I owe you a giveaway announcement for the Big Hooks from Llamas in the Raw Sanctuary.  No more entries will be accepted.  Winner to be announced this week.  Good luck to all!


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