I am came back down to earth slowly, now that Luckystone’s Wiawaka Felt Retreat is really over. Why does a week on Lake George feel so much longer than a week at home? I left inspired, exhausted and fulfilled.
Browsing my emails, I discovered correspondence for this event with Polly and Sylvia Watt started almost two years ago. I can hardly believe I really pulled it off.
In 2011 Polly took my sister Susan and I to visit her old friend Sylvia in Brisbane. It was my first trip to Australia. In the early years, when Polly was developing her nuno technique, Sylvia was felting with her and Sachiko, Wild Turkey Feltmakers.
I’d been hearing abut Sylvia for years, but I was unprepared for the breadth of creativity filling her home. It is all layers and color, both vibrant and subtle, all very atmospheric-
The huge triptych painting she refers to as her Horse’s Asses, series of felt wall pieces in varying sizes, richly stitched.
And my favorite: a huge framed felt work of a black horse felted in mysterious layers. I was teaching art felt at Polly’s studio in Australia. My own creative focus is on felted layers and stitch. I had to learn more!
A few months after I returned from Oz, I started to hatch a plan for Sylvia and Polly to come here to teach double sessions at a feltmaking retreat I would organize at Wiawaka on Lake George.
Polly and I have enjoyed our felting retreats at Wiawaka. It is a beautiful historic women’s retreat, very rich in history. I believed students would be interested, even if they hadn’t heard of Sylvia before. If Polly considers someone a great teacher, I believe. Given Sylvia’s wry humor, unflappable manner and unique creativity, I was pretty confident. After all, I’ve been wearing a fabulous felt tunic by Sylvia’s for twenty years!
When you plan an event at a place you personally love (Wiawaka), you cross your fingers that participants will feel a similar affinity for the place, because nothing is perfect. And when your sister (Polly Stirling) is one of the instructors, there is a bit of added anxiety (is my sister really as great as I think she is?). And when she’s teaching with new materials (North American plants), you cross your toes that it will work.
And when you scrounge for equipment to set up a dye kitchen, and bring the tables for twenty-two students, you thank your lucky stars that you have good friends and a sweet, strong, helpful husband.
The outcome was excellent, we had a group of focused, passionate feltmakers who were a pleasure to be with. And with the exception of our sister Susan tripping and breaking her finger, our Wiawaka Felt was all I hoped for and more.
Polly’s students worked in the little House of Trix at the edge of the lake.
We had wonderful slide shows by both instructors in the lovely parlor of Fuller House, where meals are served.
One evening was our traditional show and tell of work from the retreat and other student work. We drew quite a crowd of other Wiawaka guests.
Starting out her students, Polly shared examples of boldly printed pieces she’s created from her local plant materials in Australia. The markings of her eucalyptus pieces are undeniably striking, but Polly explained that her taste has evolved to value the most delicate plant imprints.
Polly’s students produced a wide range of beautiful results, from the bold gold of turmeric to the subtle blues of black beans.
My old E-Z Up tent (from my dog agility trial days) became the dye house where we cooked up fabulous dye-pots with crab apple, poplar, sumac, comfrey, avocado, black beans, red cabbage, turmeric and black walnut. Copper wire, iron, alum and acids were employed to tweak the color options. There were steamed bundles with St. John’s Wort, Japanese Maple, Chokeberry, Blueberry, Mullberry, Plum leaves, Cotinus, onion skins, petals and all sorts of surprises.
Participants sported painter’s caps adorned with the name of their assigned job of the day: Steam Head and Petals were my favorites. A clothes line drying plant dyed textiles was strung between the trees like a prayer flag to Wiawaka.
I regret that I didn’t get more dye photos, but my sister Susan and I had to take a detour to Glens Falls Hospital when she fell and broke her finger. Like the trooper she is, she was back in the game by evening!
A bit further through the woods, Sylvia’s group worked on Felt Assemblage in the screened porch of Lake House, where most of the students were lodging.
Sylvia shared her “doodling” exercises to encourage creative flow, then felting of materials began. She had us felt several pieces then urged cutting, assembling and incorporating unexpected elements of fabric and stitch.
Encouraging us with ways to see our work with new eyes, and new possibilities. Her approach is very positive, focusing on the process of creating art, guiding toward an outcome, and really encouraging exploration. She has an art background and strong knowledge of art history and contemporary art. This all comes into play in her teaching, making connections to open up new ways of making design decisions. That, coupled with new ideas on disassembling and reassembling was exciting.
Sylvia’s philosophies make me think of Marjolein Dallinga- urging focus on process as essential to the creative journey.
A strong, practical message Sylvia shared was aimed at keeping your art practice part of your daily life: keep your work out and accessible, don’t hide it away. If you sketch, keep your materials at hand, if you stitch, keep it out in the open. Make it easy to access and make it part of your life, not an exception to your life.
I like that, and I find I do live like that. My art clutter makes me self conscious when I have company, but it helps me live an actively creative life.
The wealth of experience and inspiration that Polly and Sylvia shared with twenty-two creative women in the serenity of Wiawaka was truly fiber art soul food.
Now I have a better idea of how to satisfy my hunger. If I can just keep my Mushi Jane’s paws off my work, I’ll be ok.