health scare in 2014 motivated artist Margret-Ann Miller to create Smaug the dragon.
More than 2,000 hours, nine months, and a less-daunting medical outlook later, Smaug the Needle Felted Dragon was finished. His head towered 4 feet above Miller’s living room floor, his scaled, 8-foot-long body was trumped only by the massive span of his outstretched wings, and his long tail slithered around his body like a snake.
His physical makeup? Corriedale and Romney sheep’s wool. About 50 pounds of it.
Intentionally or unintentionally, Miller had created what may be one of the largest freestanding needle-felted sculptures anywhere.
“[After visiting her doctor] I just went to my car and thought … What if I have a year? What do I want to do? And it was the dragon,” Miller said. “I worked on him night and day — I was obsessed. I wanted to show people that you can do something this large and that I didn’t build him over an armature.”
Smaug is the focus of an exhibition of Miller’s work that opened this month and runs through Dec. 12 at the Lea Gallery at the University of Findlay Virginia B. Gardner Fine Arts Pavilion.
To learn more about Margret-Ann Miller’s needle felting, visit therovingartist.com.
For more information about her exhibit at the Lea Gallery at the University of Findlay, go to campus events at newsroom.findlay.edu
Needle felting is a technique in which needles with notches on the end are used to mesh or interlock wool fibers into a sculpture. Artists use the wool or hair from goats, alpacas, sheep, llamas, and silkworms to create everything from the smallest of creatures to clothing to large sculptures or 2D pieces.
It’s an art medium that even five years ago was mostly unknown or unexplored and today is still finding its way into mainstream art. Since Smaug, Miller has created Artie the Needle Felting Dragon, which she recently featured as the main character in her self-published children’s book. Artie and friends live in a village that was needle felted from top to bottom, including the rock and waterfall background, wizards, acorns, and toadstools.
Miller was a quilter for more than 20 years when she started exploring needle felting. She bought a kit and took a class. Now, Miller teaches needle felting at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg and in 2014 created the Fiber of Our Being felting guild. She teaches people of all ages, and class participants have created fairies, mice, gnomes, and poppies. Her vision is to educate others on the proper techniques and materials necessary for needle felting.
“You know, people would say, ‘Are you working with dryer lint?’ Nobody knew what I was working with. It’s more popular in other areas, but needle felting is still an up-and-coming art form.”
Miller goes through bins and bins of wool, which she stacks in rooms in her home that were previously used for living instead of storage. She gets her wool from farms in Michigan, Ohio, and near Roan Mountain, Tenn., by her father’s cabin, which she uses for inspiration when she creates 2D needle-felted landscapes.
“It’s like anything else, you need the right tools. I’m tired of going to fiber shows and people are selling fiber for felting and you ask what it’s for, what kind of sheep it is, and they say, ‘Oh, felters don’t care; they just want to get started,’ ” she said. “This is why it’s not taught well. Would you take a painting class and would the teacher tell you, ‘Pick up a brush, it doesn’t matter what brush? It doesn’t matter what oil or watercolor or canvas? Because none of that matters?’ Of course it matters.”
Smaug the Needle Felted Dragon is currently holding court over Miller’s other creations at the Lea Gallery, which is connected to the university’s Mazza Museum, one of the world’s largest repositories of children’s book illustrations. With his glow-in-the-dark polymer teeth and claws, amber eyes, and fiery orange felted breath, Smaug towers over children as they stand in awe of the creature.
“The dragon is such a really unique sight to see when you walk in,” said Mazza spokesman Kerry Teeple. “It’s almost so much that you can’t take it all in, it’s so amazing.”
From 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Dec. 4, Miller will be the presenter at the Mazza Museum’s Funday Sunday, a monthly event that draws hundreds of children and their parents. At this month’s event, themed Daring Dragons, Miller will talk about needle felting and do some demos and storytelling.
A second needle-felting artist, Megan Nedds, has three sculptures in the show: a monkey, a parrot, and a macaw. Nedds, who graduated from the University of Findlay with fine arts degrees in children’s book illustration and graphic design, was looking for a medium to work with when, during the summer after her high school graduation, she found needle felting online.
She now has her studio, the Woolen Wagon, and hopes to remain in the needle-felting industry while picking up work in the more traditional forms of watercolors, pastels, and colored pencils.
“From what I see on Facebook it seems to be gaining popularity,” Nedds said of the medium. “I really like that it’s made out of natural materials and the flexibility of it. It can be sculpted like clay, but I feel it has more visual interest.”
Although Nedds has started creating more life-sized animals, most of her work is between 8 and 12 inches long. She said Miller’s work was eye-opening.
“It’s really impressive. She works on a really large scale, which you don’t see much of online,” Nedds said, noting that the most similar in size needle-felted sculpture she has seen is a chimpanzee created by Chicago artist Kiyoshi Mino.
Although it hasn’t been confirmed yet, Miller believes Smaug is one of the largest needle-felted sculptures in the world. She said she was visited by representatives from Ripley’s Believe it Or Not at the ArtPrize international art show and competition in Grand Rapids, Mich., and wrote to the Guinness Book of World Records recently to inquire whether Smaug’s size is a record.
Although Smaug is her largest project, Miller’s quest to prove that bigger is better in the world of needle felting started when she created a likeness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional character, Balin, after seeing him in one of the Hobbit movies. This year’s project is a large Christmas nativity scene, complete with needle-felted shepherds, kings, camels, and a scene with a “twist.”
“I don’t want to make 300 penguins,” she said, a dismissal of mass producing her pieces. “This is my calling. I want to push the limits with felting.”
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