Let Your Imagination Fly

6 Jan 2011

Where do you stand on art dolls? Some people love 'em. Some hate 'em. I've seen doll art flourish as angels, goddesses, and other feminine totems, then fall out of favor as an art form (been there, done that), and then be reinterpreted by a new generation of fiber artists who call them "stuffies" or "softies."

In their latest incarnation, these fiber art soft sculptures most often take an animal form, and birds are particularly popular. I don't know why birds attract so many artists, although I can guess. First, many people find them inspirational-the concepts of flight and nesting have great appeal.

But they also present many creative opportunities for embellishment, from beaks to eyes to feet, and especially wings.

When I first saw Abby Glassenberg's fabric bird sculptures, I was blown away. To my eye, she is one of the best artists out there for capturing the essence of a bird through an almost magical combination of fabrics (many vintage or salvaged), embellishments, and technique.

Abby is a former teacher who began her fiber art career making and selling toys. She began sewing stuffed animals based on vintage and Japanese patterns, and then she started drafting her own.

Then, for an exhibit at her local library, she created a series of birds.

"They had a natural history museum look about them that I liked," says Abby. "I realized I could make them even more complicated. I like time-consuming pieces, and there are infinite varieties of birds."

Aided by her husband, Charlie, who is a birder, and the birding guides her children collect-in particular The Sibley Guide to Birds-Abby is constantly studying beak lengths, talons, and feather patterns as well as birds' expressions, the way they tilt their heads, and color variations.

Wings and feathers have always been a challenge. For a while, Abby used a punch to make fabric shapes (such as hands or leaves) which she layered to create feathers and wings. But that was time-consuming and it hurt her hands. She began experimenting with fabric scraps and developed a way of tearing and looping the scraps to make wings that were realistic yet also fanciful.

Now, as she describes in her new book, The Artful Bird, Abby has branched out in the wing department (if you'll pardon the pun), to decorate wings with all kinds of materials, from ribbon to book pages, to smocking.

"Embellishing the wings of a bird is one of the most exciting parts of fabric bird making," writes Abby, in her book. "I often wait until I have a turned, stuffed, standing bird before I decide what sort of wings it might have and what color scheme to use. To me, the wings are a blank canvas, and this is my opportunity to be creative with colors, textures, and materials."

Here is just a sampling of the methods and materials she uses:

Column 1, from top: lace overlay; smocked fabric; looped sheer ribbon.
Column 2, from top: lace overlay; cut-up book pages; glued seed beads.
Column 3, from top: free-motion embroidery; glued rhinestones; acrylic paint; fabric yo-yos.

As you know, I'm usually more fascinated with cat- and dog-themed art than with bird motifs. But ever since I got my copy of The Artful Bird, I have been seeing my scraps and embellishments as feathers, tails, crests, and beaks. With Abby's easy to follow directions and patterns, I'm looking forward to expanding my studio zoo to include fiber art "dolls" that can let my imagination fly.


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heather pyle wrote
on 8 Jan 2011 10:50 AM

HI POKEY,

I have been a long-time subscriber and fan since 2005 of the magazine and all your videos....

I was thrilled to see there are other people interested in fabric sculpture like I am.  Love these birds. I actually made a giant fabric sculptured fish,  hanging over a bed of fabric rocks complete with sea urchins, clams and a hermit crab last year. Used this to cover a cement block which was necessary to hold up my fish.  There is also a lovely mermaid doll who hitched a ride on the tail of the fish. This took 1st place in my quilt guild's annual fabric challenge and a third place in the doll category of our annual Quilt Show in Henderson, NV. Just in case you are interested in seeing it here is my blog address:  

aquariart-chocoholic.blogspot.com

It is in the february 25, 2010 post. I can't ship it to enter into any shows because it is way too heavy so I am thinking about donating it to St. Jude's Hospital pediatrics ward, as soon as I am out of love with it.  I know I am not sounding modest but it is really cool.   Heather