Sunday, May 26, 2013

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

A digital fox hunt leads us to the marvelous art of Rae Stimson

A primary perk of writing this blog is the opportunity to meet some really unusual people. One such person is artist Rae Stimson. This remarkable young woman is a true artist and artisan in every sense of the words. She inhabits her space with the products of her multi-faceted craftsmanship. We originally discovered her because of her felting and her beautiful felted hats. Once we got to know her, we started to appreciate the breadth of her handiwork, as you'll see below. Her focus is not to make money but rather to work, to construct, to make. Luckily, her creations are ingenious and without artifice.

To say she is unique is an understatement. Home schooled in Iowa until high school, she and each of her two brothers attended Interlachen Art Academy, a high school in northwestern Michigan devoted to fine arts, music and visual arts. Both of her brothers and her parents are all artists. Her mother is a sculptor and her father is a jack of all artistic trades.  At one time he even made bag pipes on commission. Both of her parents work at the Maharishi University of Management (formerly Maharishi International U.), which strives to provide a consciousness-based education with transcendental meditation; organic, vegetarian and vegan meals; and to produce graduates who focus on people and the planet.

Rae herself went to Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. A Buddhist-inspired, student centered liberal arts university, Naropa is a leader in contemplative education. The school seeks to produce graduates who "think critically, communicate effectively and know their hearts and minds".

Rae's boyfriend, Graham Swindoll, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, is a photographer. His photographs of her work appear on her Etsy site. Both working artists, they make a formidable pair. Each is inventive and original because that is who they are, not because it is something that someone else thinks they should do or be.

The time we spent at Rae's home was a refreshing and stimulating experience which we'd like to share with you.

Rae's hat depicting a World War II aerial bombing raid, complete with felted tanks, felted smoke, felted bombers suspended on wires, and a target bridge ... (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Her hat depicting a graveyard, complete with open coffin with a movable lid ... (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

This is just the tip of the iceberg. We recently went to visit Rae because we found her work riveting, joyful, and a bit subversive (in the best possible way).

It all started around November, when Valerie was searching on Etsy for a small felt fox or wolf (to put on an Easter hat next to an Easter chick or Easter bunny -- never too soon to play with an idea). She discovered Rae Stimson's felted foxes. They were all too big for a hat, but one thing led to another, and instead she found Rae's swallow tail hat -- that's it below, front and center with gray swirls -- and countless other mind boggling creations. At the time, the hat was away at an art fair, so Rae contacted Valerie when the hat was returned to Rae's apartment in Brooklyn. And one fine day in early May, we traveled to Brooklyn to see and try on the hat, and experience first hand Rae's many other marvels.

Valerie brought with her an Issey Miyake jacket that seemed tailor-made for the hat.

"That was easy!", to quote the Staples office supplies commercial. No question -- this hat was a keeper.

In our never-ending quest to show there's more than one way to wear a hat, Jean shows her own take on how the hat could be worn.

Below you can see how that looks from the front. In the original Etsy photograph, Valerie saw some resemblance to the Starship Enterprise (no, she's not a Trekkie), but when she asked Rae about her inspiration for the hat, Rae said it came "from a hat that briefly appeared in a Marx Brother's film. I don't recall which one. I loved its elegant simplicity and interesting shape that reminded me of the forked tail of a swallow. I emphasized the swallow's tail element of it in my version of the hat and made it the deep blue color of a swallow."

Once we got the business out of the way, we set about oooooohing and aaaaaahing at Rae's marvelous ingenuity, playfulness, and manual dexterity. We found this armadillo bag among Rae's work. (Like so many of the pieces you see here, you can find it at Rae's Etsy shop.

You can clearly see the armadillo's head and claws. We asked Rae how long it takes her to make her creations. She was unable to give an estimate, saying it involved many hours of repetitive work, which she did while watching television (and clearly old movies as well). Rae sees needle felting as a technique [that] has much, mostly unexplored, potential as a fine art medium", which she hopes to use "to push the boundaries between craft and art..." In Rae's work you can already see that happening. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Here it's rolled up into a ball, an armadillo's defensive position. Rae thought the shaped of the rolled up armadillo lent itself to a bag shape, and added a felted cord to sling it over the shoulder. Rae used flexible, durable annealed wire so the armadillo starts out nearly closed, but is easy to pull open. Don't forget to take a closer look at how she's rendered his armor. Rae is great at details! (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

For a costume party, Rae made this long horned sheep's head out of felt, then added a ruff (which she also made herself) and a satin cloak. (That's Rae in there.) We asked if she starts with a completed idea, or if her designs evolve as she makes them. Rae responded that "[w]ith needle felting you need to know exactly what you're making the whole time for the shape to turn out right."

As with so many artists, there is never enough room. When not being shown to visitors, the ram's head lives at the top of a book shelf, along with this life sized fennec fox, which lives in the desert. (Can you see his ear hairs and paw pads?)

An arctic fox collar.  Rae said she "learned the basics about needle felting in a fiber arts class at Interlochen Arts Academy", and taught herself the rest.

And Rae's fox cub hat, in a photo taken from her website. Rae styles her Etsy pictures with a lot of forethought. Here she's painted a fox's black nose on her own, and given her eyes a fox-like accent. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Also living atop the book case is Rae's life sized baby spotted seal, shown here in a picture on her Etsy site. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

And more toys! A needle felted parrot designed to strap to your shoulder... Check out her earrings: a key hangs from her right lobe and a tiny airplane hangs from her left.  Her vest is made from one which belonged to her grandmother; Rae redesigned it for her own purposes.

Two new creatures were added to Rae's Etsy shop that we didn't see during our visit: this gorgeously colored Iberian emerald lizard, (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

and an adorable tiny three-toed sloth (were his claws made from disposable chopsticks?). (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Rae also makes needle felted hand puppets! We fell in love with the vulture chick and the baby tapir. We also appreciate the fact that Rae doesn't anthropomorphize her animals. They don't smile or have human eyes or wear cute little sweaters ...

And if you thought 'engineering' and 'soft and fuzzy' were at opposite ends of the spectrum, Rae has found a way to combine them in her wonderful felted mobile.

Venus de Milo is a work in progress. Check out the articulated strands of hair and abdominal muscles. Rae hopes to take this a step further in the future by getting the wool to look smooth and hard like marble.

Valerie couldn't resist trying on the graveyard hat -- with coffin open. The wearer has the option of open or closed coffin. Very Tim Burton! Given the broad array of Rae's millinery creations, we asked her what gave her the urge to make hats. Rae said "My inspiration for the [first] hat [I made] came from looking at extravagant vintage hats on ebay with much yearning. At the time I was unable to afford these, so I decided to make my own vintage style hats. These later developed into more surreal creations with strange creatures and miniature scenes."

Valerie also tried on the kitchen hat, complete with dalmatian dog, kitchen table, curtained windows and tiled floor. This hat is beyond amazing.

Here is how Rae styled it to appear on her website. Rae wins the Who Wore It Better? contest hands down. The straight black bangs, the graphic, nearly geometric black and white dress, and the right-angled block of mascara (on one eye only!) are unbeatable. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

"Don't look Now!" The humor of Rae's pieces is inescapable. When she adopts the wide-eyed look of silent film stars, she looks like something out of a vintage photo album.

Rae's octopus hat, complete with hand-sewn netting and pearls.

Valerie captures a portrait of Rae wearing her octopus.

Want to win the prize for best costume at your next costume party? Speak to Rae. Here she appears in a complete 'alien robot' costume looking like she stepped out of a Flash Gordon serial. The grainy black and white of the photo is perfect, not to mention the early 20th century bee-stung lips. And don't even get us started on the fabulous felt cone bra with spirals! Rae feels, as we do, that fashion is a form of art, and uses "needle felting as a way to create wearable sculptural pieces." (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

Jean had to get into the act.

The way that this gramaphone curves over her shoulder is reminiscent of Bjork's famous Swan outfit. (Photograph by Graham Swindoll)

A woman of many talents, Rae also made this wood carving of silent film director Fritz Lang with a scene from Metropolis. (OK, the shorter list would be what she can't do.)

She also made and hand-colored these black and white photographs.

Nobu, one of her two rescue cats born right around Super Storm Sandy, just had to get a closer look. (Yes, we know the picture is blurry. He moved, and we can't resist cats.) His brother, a solid black mirror image, was much too shy to make a public appearance.

Rae's boyfriend Graham was sweet enough to capture the three of us together. On the wall is a wood carving of another silent film director, less well known, whose name escapes us.

Rae and Graham -- after we departed, they headed to the park.

Well, we did it again! We really should have photographed ourselves together, at Rae's, each wearing one of her fabulous hats, but we didn't! When will we ever learn???!!! So instead we lassoed a hapless passerby at the train station in Brooklyn before making our way back to Manhattan and asked her to take pity and photograph us. ("And can you get the feet in?", we pleaded, as if we were wearing shoes by Nicholas Ghesquiere.)

What we're wearing:
Jean is wearing an Amy Downs turban, Hedari black with white polka dot pants, Kyodan jacket, black resin Creepsville skull necklace, black with white polka dot and white with black polka dot cuffs from Chaos, black customized Dansko clogs, vintage glasses, pearl and skull earrings by Kirsten Hawthorne, vintage bakelite rings, and vintage gold rings.

Valerie is wearing an unlabeled military style straw hat, with a pin by Georges Larondelle, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Jean's mom's earrings, unlabeled bolero, shirt by Express, pants by Jones New York, shoes by Bernie Mev.


  1. What a wonderful visit!! Thank you, again, for the excellent reporting and for introducing us to Rae and Graham. Nobu is quite beautiful, too. xxoo

  2. What marvelous artists! Thank you for including her, her boyfriend and their work in your blog!