More about Milkweed Manor

It seems so strange, after 857 blog posts, to write one that doesn’t have any images!  For a visual artist, this is difficult to do.  But now I am expanding my artistic efforts to writing and illustrating a book, “Milkweed Manor.”  I can’t say that I intended to write a book, but the idea evolved from something else, as is so common, I think, in the creative process.

I was pondering ways to add value to my ceramic animal character figurines and, since I nearly always had a little story in mind as I created them, I decided to actually write the story and include it in a tiny hand-written booklet that would accompany the figurine.  At some point it seemed a shame to only use the writing once.  And at the same time, the characters I found myself imagining were tied together.  They all lived in the same place – the forest behind Milkweed Manor  The idea for a book slowly worked its way to my conscious mind.

And I must say that I had a catalyst in this process.  At the beginning of the year I joined a coaching group for artists created and led by Nikol Peterman, called “Fearless Academy 2018.”  It has been so helpful in so many ways.  I was working on defining my “body of work” that I wanted to concentrate on this year (in addition to continuing to produce pieces for my Etsy shop The Foxes’ Garden https://www.etsy.com/shop/thefoxesgarden} when Nikol nudged that seed into sprouting!

I never really thought of it as a children’s book, but during a visit to Barnes and Noble, looking for books sharing the format of the one I had in mind, I found myself squarely in the children’s books section.  This has taken some getting used to, but I’m almost there.

What I’m really interested in is the characters and the way they live together in their little Community in the forest.  I’ve found that what I have in mind would fall into the children’s book genre of the Anthology which is apparently (according to my research at least) not much favored by editors.  But after giving it some thought I have decided to forge ahead, banking on the value of authenticity!

So I’m aiming for about seven chapters.  I have ideas and notes for all of them, and have written the rough first drafts for four and am now working on the fifth.  Sometimes the writing seems to flow, and other times it’s difficult.  But the flowing times are so wonderful that the hardest of “stuck” times are well worth it.

I’m absolutely itching to get to the illustrating, but I’m not going to do anything but preliminary character sketches until I have the whole thing written at the second draft stage.  It’s so much easier and quicker, after all, to rewrite that to do a new illustration!

Thanks for listening, and I’d love to hear from you!

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The Little Owl

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Now I’m working on my second needle felted animal character inspired by my emerging Milkweed Manor stories.  This is Thea, the little owl.  A large storm destroyed her family’s nest and, even worse, separated her from her mother and brothers and sisters, hence the (Swarovski crystal) tear falling from her eye.

At this point I’ve completed the needle felting.  The wires you see sticking out from the underside of her feet at to allow me to attach her to a base.  And speaking of a base, for literally a few years I had the perfect piece of wood – a narly chunk from the base of an oak tree that my sister found – sitting on my kitchen windowsill.  Now I can’t find it anywhere!  So frustrating, but it’s just another problem to solve and I’ll come up with something.

The next step will be to make her bed jacket.  I bought a few pieces of vintage chenille bedspread scraps on Etsy and I’ll use one of those.  Then I’ll have to distress it to look like it’s been through a storm.

Lots of fun ahead!

The Rabbit Gets a Sweater

The little needle felted rabbit I made over the weekend seemed to need something to brighten her up.  So I made her this little sweater from scraps of a vintage felted cashmere sweater.  I buy these sweater pieces on Etsy, and in case you don’t know what the “felted” means in this context, it’s simply that you run the sweater through the washer and drier.  The process shrinks and entangles the fibers so that when you cut the sweater apart the pieces don’t fray – just like felt!  It’s a great way to use old sweaters and I’ve seen pillows, quilts, and jackets made from patchwork of old felted sweater pieces.  The cashmere ones are especially nice.

I took advantage of the rolled edge of a raglan sweater piece to use as the edge of the collar and the edges down the front.  I just wrapped a scrap around her and went from there.  Then I used the narrow ribbing from the sweater v-neck to finish the bottom.  The closure is a vintage mother of pearl button sewn to the sweater over a satin bow that matches the cashmere.

I have her sitting on a stack of ribbon spools to show her size.  Also, I think the ribbon spools make quite an appropriate seat for her!

Exciting News – Milkweed Manor

Exciting News!  I, or I should properly say Colwyn the Gray, am writing a book!  It’s been noodling around in my mind for a while and I’ve done a few pieces with the project in the back of my head, but now I’ve thought it out and I’m committed!  It will be my big project for this year.  I will be doing both the writing and the illustrating.
So what is it about?  The book is set in England in the woods behind the Cotswold manor house, Milkweed Manor, and takes place in Edwardian times.
All of the characters are animals.  Some of them are natives and others are newly arrived.  It’s a collection of chapters about the various antics of these characters, loosely connected by the characters but not by an overall plot.  I’d say it’s in the tradition of “Wind in the Willows” or the Beatrix Potter books.  It’s not strictly a children’s book because the language is that of adults, and I’m hoping that animal-loving adults will love it!  But older children would enjoy reading it and younger children would enjoy having it read to them – with a few vocabulary lessons on the side!

Colwyn is one of the main characters.  As a young rat he relocated from the Welsh Marches to the Cotswolds seeking a better life.  He arrived as an illiterate youngster but found he had a talent for and an interest in literature.  Inspired by the happenings around him, and taught to read and write by the Little Owl Thea, he became, at first an amateur, but later the official chronicler of Milkweed Manor.  And as the chronicler, he became known as Colwyn the Gray.
His book is entitled
Milkweed Manor
Tiny Tales of Love and Courage
as chronicled by
Colwyn the Gray

Creating a Needle Felted Rabbit

When I made this little needle felted rabbit over the weekend I took photos at various stages to document the process for any of you who might be interested in how needle felted animals are made.

Here are all the materials I’m going to use – 14 gauge aluminum wire, pipe cleaners, pure wool felt, and wool fiber in various colors.  I’m also showing the notebook because every time I made a new type of animal I keep notes so that I can make another one in the future. 
The first step is making the wire armature.  The gauge of wire depends on the size of the animal – the larger the animal, the lower (heavier) the gauge.  The wire armature is much like a skeleton.  It provides support for the figure plus allows it to be posable to some extent.
The wool fiber won’t stick very well to a plain wire armature, so I wrap the armature with pipe cleaners.  The fuzziness of the pipe cleaners helps the first layer of wool to stick.

Needle felting is an additive sculptural process.  That is, I build form by adding material in the appropriate shapes in the appropriate places.

For most of the first stage of the needle felting I use a core wool roving.  Roving is like a thick rope (not twisted, though) of wool fiber that you can split lengthwise so you can have thinner or thicker pieces to work with.  The roving allows me to wrap the armature.  Core roving is available in a variety of colors but I most always use white.

As I add wool, I secure it in place by repeatedly poking it with a special needle.  Wool fiber has tiny barbs on it, as does the needle.  Poking the barbed fiber with the barbed needle entangles the fibers and creates a single mass.  The more often you poke, the more compact the mass becomes.  In addition to securing the fiber in place, one can use poking to create particular shapes.

The photo above shows the rabbit after 3 or 4 stages of adding wool.  In the first stage, I add wool to the entire armature.  After that, I continue to add wool where the animal is thicker.  So, there are several layers on the belly, but few on the lower legs and arms.

The tricky part of the core wool felting is to not add too much.  That’s because there needs to be “room” for the final layer, which is the color layer.

Some animals have features that need to be sculpted in a special way.  For the rabbit, it’s the ears.

Bird’s beaks or feet, or claws on larger bears are other examples.  For bird beaks or bear claws, I make then with polymer clay, cure them, sometimes paint them, and glue them to the armature before I begin felting.  For bird feet, I often make them with twisted wire as part of the armature, using rusted or colored wire.

I made the rabbit’s ears as a separate piece and attached them to the rabbit when I was nearly finished with the core wool.  At that stage I can tell how big they need to be and where to attach them.  I cut two ear shapes from pure wool felt for each ear.  A single piece of cotton covered florists’ wire forms the armature for the ears.  The middle of the wire is the space between the ears.  One either side, a long loop of the wire is inside the ears, then the ends of the wire wrap around the head.  I sew two felt ear pieces all around the edges, sandwiching one of the long wire loops between them.

Before I attach the ears to the head, I needle felt wool fiber in the finished colors on both sides of the ears.  I find this step very difficult to do once the ears are attached to the head.

To attach the ears, I wrap the end wires tightly around the head, cutting off any excess.  Finally, I needle felt core wool over the wires.

The next stage is to add the colored wool.  At this point, I tend to use wool batting rather than roving.  Batting is thick sheet of loosely entangled wool fibers.  Wool batting is available in a nice variety of colors.
The final step is to add the eyes.  The eyes on this little rabbit are 8mm amber glass eyes with black pupils and wire loops on the back.  I get my glass eyes from http://www.glasseyesonline.com and I highly recommend them and their products.
I think this little rabbit needs a special touch so it’s not quite finished.  I’m thinking about what that special touch will be, and one idea is a little sweater that I would make from scraps of an old cashmere sweater – like the beautiful lavender pieces that she’s sitting on.  (I bought these recycled cashmere pieces from another Etsy seller.)

A Postcard From Paradise

A while ago I got the idea to do a series of small collages, Postcards from Paradise.  This is the first one I did and it’s approximately 4″ x 6″.  The mail element is the little painting I did of a chipping sparrow.  Other elements include bits of paper napkins (the black and white images in the upper right, lower right, and lower left corners), the white branch of leaves from a stencil I made, the 5 flying black birds which is an image transfer from a fragment of an ad I tore from a magazine, and the writing that I did on a piece of wax paper saying “little bird, how sweet is thy song.”  I thoroughly enjoy doing collage, but I like it best when the main elements are my creations.  So, I’m happy with this little piece,
With one exception!  I created it on a piece of 1/8″ hardboard, which is all well and good, but the particular piece of hardboard that I bought and cut has a very rough back which doesn’t lend itself to finishing nicely.  In the future, I need to remember to consider the back!  
After all, quality finishing is a sign of a quality piece.

The Lady of the Lake

Creating this river otter as the Lady of the Lake has been a labor of love.  She is needle felted from pure wool.  Her eyes are glass eyes.  The base is a gourd that I cut and painted.  She is connected to the base by bolts that I attached to the wire armature with two part epoxy glue.  The frog is polymer clay with glass eyes and painted with acrylic paint.
The dragonflies are a little more complicated.  The bodies, heads, and eyes are glass beads on thin wire.  The legs are twisted wire with small beads for feet.  The wings are Fantasy Film with wire glued on then finished with Golden glass bead gel.
I am very happy with this piece, especially her face.