Making Liberation

finished sheep and barn punch needle

If you’ve noticed a quietness to my blog and social media lately, it’s because I’ve been nose-down in my studio, finishing a massive project.  The scale of this project goes beyond just the physical finished piece, which received its last punch, stitch, and steam this week.

When I signed up to take the Oxford punch needle instructor certification course, snow still blanketed the ground and the day length was nearly as short as it is now.  I didn’t know that there was a 2×3 foot project assignment waiting for me until I received the handbook.  Yikes!  How was that going to fit into spring and summer on the farm and my full-time teaching schedule!?

Yet, instead of seeing this as simply a hurdle to jump for my certification, I chose to embrace the project as a tour de force that cries “look what you can do!”  Ever the interdisciplinarian, I also wanted to push myself and bring in elements of the diverse mediums I teach, showcasing what each methodology could bring to the table.  I was also in the midst of launching my multi-chapter course on design, and documenting the story, journey, and decision making process of the masterwork became a process of its own.  This allowed me to use the piece-in-progress to illustrate for students all the essential steps in building a strong design and making it manifest.  This included themes of developing a designer’s eye, fundamentals of composition, the story in the image, color fluency, and (coming up next) makability. 

In tapestry weaving, the saying goes that “Tapestry is a series of a thousand choices,” which was equally true of this piece, which started as a series of sketches all the way through to the final finishing touches.  The intended resting place for this piece is on a wall in our Fiber Loft of Farmstead Creamery, where it will serve as a centerpiece of my Zoom background.  This makes it an essential component of my virtual classroom, setting the tone for our time together.

I wanted the piece to chase my Erindale Tapestry Studio vision:  “liberating the creative soul,” as well as bring into the teaching space beloved elements of our farm.  There’s the old, weathered barn with North Star barn quilt, a sheep modeled after one of our lambs, the greenery of pasture and pines of the Northwoods of Wisconsin where I live.  I wanted it to tell a story of place, belonging, and joy, without me having to even say a word about it.

I also wanted the scene to feel engaging and dynamic, with the sheep physically breaking “the fourth wall” in an act of joining the viewer.  Liberating the creative soul quite ofter involves getting out of the box, and the protagonist in this scene is literally doing that by jumping out of the frame.

I had never worked a piece in punch needle before that was deviant from a square, rectangle, or circle, so working in this three-dimensionality offered a new and interesting challenge.  I had also never incorporated needle felting or tapestry into a punch needle project before, so this was anything but simply grinding through a project to “get ‘er done.”  Due to the complexity, fineness of the work (except for a few scrolls in the sheep’s wool, everything is worked in fine point needles), and my already demanding schedule, I was gratefully awarded a time extension so I could really sink into it and give the piece the time it deserved in order to fully become its potential.

The punch needle part included many techniques:  straight stitch, stem stitch, bead stitch, using every needle size in the set, sculpting, shading, and multi-strand punching.  It was also the first time I punched a smaller piece and then stitched it onto the backing in a way that would mesh well with the other loops built up around it, which is how the wooly “hat” on the sheep’s head was made. 

Giving lift to the tapestry woven barn quilt and needle felted head and front legs of the sheep included stitched felt padding metholodogies from goldwork embroidery.  The flowers and ribbon on the garland incorporate couching techniques from millinery work, and the tapestry weaving utilizes detailed geometric technique.

The choice of materials is also very meaningful, with most of the yarns being from our own sheep (from the first batch ever ordered to the most recent) as well as yarns from my first punch needle project with Amy Oxford, yarns from my “Deceiving the Hunters” lady and unicorn tapestry that is a capstone of my graduate work, to yarns picked up on special travels across the country.  Alpaca in the barn roof adds sheen and a slipperiness, while coarse Navajo churro yarns from my beloved tapestry mentor Fran Potter add texture to the tall pine.  36 different yarns were used for all the shading, plus the roving and additional materials.  The sheep’s eye is a painted family heirloom button, and the ribbons bring the colors of the barn quilt across the piece.

Yet, just like with my unicorn tapestry, you don’t realize the full extent of how much you poured into your masterwork until it’s finally finished, and you find that a part of you was holding your breath all those months.  Now, like it’s own form of creative birth, here stands the product of all that intent and labor, fully mature and physically real.

I had been simply using a working title like “sheep and barn piece” or “leaping sheep piece” for months, waiting for the official name to arise.  Just as “the lady and the unicorn piece” matured into “Deceiving the Hunters.”  I wanted to allude to the story, to the meaning of the work.  If the point is to embrace the work of liberating the creative soul and finding a way to express that feeling in the theme of our farm, then the piece should be called “Liberation.”  At any moment, that sheep will be right out of the frame, bounding around the room for joy.  The image has managed to freeze the moment just when we realize the sheep is making this bold move to join us, disregarding the formal wooden frame.  

Let’s embrace that same joyful boundlessness in our own creative practices, and see what comes next!