M y lifelong interest in the natural world - and a budding interest in sculpting - led me to the hobby of needle felting
The little creatures are made of wool (mostly sheep or alpaca), which I sculpt by repeatedly stabbing with a barbed needle.
The poseable critters are felted over wire armatures.
Facial features, including the eyes, are meticulously felted with a very fine-gauge needle.
Simple pieces take me around four hours to complete. The more complicated ones can take ten or twelve hours.
For whiskers, I sew in tail hairs donated by neighborhood horses!
Cathy Bell captures animals in action
ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY KATE COUGH
GOULDSBORO — One could be forgiven for thinking there is a pair of rats perched motionless on a cabinet at the Gouldsboro home of Cathy Bell.
Bell’s woodland creations — red foxes, harbor seals with mottled coats and horsehair whiskers, a chipmunk with wax-dipped toenails — look as though they are nearly in motion, reaching for an acorn or ready to leap off of a shelf onto an unsuspecting visitor.
As twilight deepened over the pink granite ledges of Wonsqueak Harbor on a recent December evening, Bell was seated at her dining room table, sculpting the tail of a felted fox. Needles used for sculptural felting are barbed (“the opposite of a fish hook,” Bell explained), made to slide easily into the wool and catch, meshing the fibers together.
Bell shows off two felted rats at her home in Wonsqueak Harbor. Bell has been felting for around four years but started creating her woodland creatures in earnest last year.
The mother of two begins her creatures with a wire armature skeleton that is as anatomically accurate as possible. “I just look at it and try to get the proportions somewhat right.”
Bell learned anatomy while working as a taxidermist after retiring from the U.S. Air Force. But the taxidermy work was largely constructing hunting trophies, and Bell longed to create pet memorials and animals for museums — jobs that are difficult to come by.
Felting gave her an outlet. “I liked the feeling of bringing an animal back to life. When I discovered this I got the same kind of satisfaction.” After the skeleton is formed, Bell wraps it in pipe cleaner, which helps the wool stick a bit better. She felts mostly with sheep’s wool, usually merino and Corriedale (a crossbreed of sheep that is part merino), occasionally accenting with downy-soft Angora.
After wrapping and sculpting the wool (which takes around 10 hours for a prototype and half that for something she’s made before) Bell adds finishing touches. Whiskers are made from horsehair (collected from fence posts of horse-owning friends) and glued into noses; toes are hardened by dipping wool into hot wax.
The retired Air Force major is adamant that she is not an artist.“To be an artist you need imagination. We call ourselves crafters,” Bell said, referring also to her mother, a water-colorist whose scenes of the coast are painted on doors around the kitchen. Like her mother, Bell also takes her inspiration from nature: a peculiar piece of driftwood, a striking block of granite. “A lot of times it’s things I see on my walk,” Bell said. “I’m trying to use the beauty of what’s around me.”
Although her career made it difficult to fill a house with furry companions, Bell has made up for it in retirement with pets both live and woolen. Roaming her house in Wonsqueak are two cats, two red-footed tortoises, four parrotlets, two corn snakes, a ball python and Dan, the border collie. “I’ve always loved creatures,” Bell said. “I’m one of those people who brought wild animals home.”
Bell begins her creatures by constructing a wire armature wrapped in pipe cleaner. Bodies are made mostly of sheep’s wool (a merino-Corriedale blend) often purchased from Sarafina Fiber Art, Inc. in Maryland.
“I haven’t found a good source of the kind of wool I want in Maine, said Bell, adding that she would love to buy locally if possible.
Bell has been felting for four years, but only recently “got serious” about the craft. She taught herself, mostly using online videos, as most workshops were far away and costly.
Bell’s first felted creature was a puffin (“they’re really hard to make”), but she credits a simple stuffed doll named after a Pink Floyd character with her crafty beginnings.
Brit Floyd, a character from Pink Floyd’s album “The Wall,” is a Tim Burton-esque stitched doll that Bell made. She sent pictures of the doll to band members, who adopted it as an informal mascot: Brit Floyd now has his own Instagram account (@britfloydpink), with pictures posing with Russian stewardesses and in front of Italy’s Trevi Fountain. The doll even earned Bell backstage passes to a show.
Eventually, Bell said, her aim is to create life-size portraits of pets out of wool, similar to taxidermy. She has done a few commissioned pieces, but mainly sells her work at local galleries, including SevenArts in Ellsworth and Works of Hand in Winter Harbor.
“The income is very useful but I’m not depending on it,” said Bell, who estimates that she makes around minimum wage after the cost of materials. “I’m happy to have the commission just go to local shops.”
Prices for Bell’s creatures range from around $36 for a single seal to roughly $110 for a larger, perched owl or otter, depending on the piece’s size and complexity.
Although she was born in Holliston, Mass., Bell spent her formative years in Idaho and Alaska, where she lived in King Salmon (“a remote village not accessible by roads”) and Fairbanks, close to the Arctic Circle.
Bell’s woodland creatures are sold in local shops, including SevenArts Gallery in Ellsworth and Works of Hand in Winter Harbor. The mother of two said she likes to sell locally and support shops with commissions from her work.
Living in Alaska, Bell said, taught her to appreciate long periods of darkness as a time for hibernation and reflection, something she also looks forward to in Maine. These days, she spends her winter days reading and felting. It's portable. I can put it in a small basket. I've done work in airports, in the emergency room," Bell said. "If I know I'm going to be waiting somewhere - I take my basket."