Category Archives: McDonald Sisters

Archeologist in Fiber Arts

Senior year in high school and I am trying to decide what my next academic study path would be. Archeology at the University of Arizona? Granted my mom’s best friend lived in Tucson so I knew people 2300 miles from home but….I was homesick going to Girl Scout camp, could I be that far away?  Other career choice was Interior Design, Retail Management and so I went to Newbury Junior College in Boston. That was a five hour drive from home, a city not as intimidating as NYC (my immediate neighbor) and only a two year program. Long story short, I spent 10 years in Boston, graduated from U Mass with a degree in Art and History.

PA/WV rug #2 size 40 x 60

Now in 2019, living in West Virginia, I have had the honor to peel back the layers of a hand stitched rug made by Otha and Blanche McDonald in the mid 1960’s. I felt like that archeologist of my youthful dreams when each element of construction was revealed.  Researching the sister’s work for a few years, I have seen many completed pieces. Because they are hand stitched, applique’ and embroidered motifs quilted together to make the heavy rugs we have not been able to see the inner layers. Until a few months ago that is. This rug was on the floor for it’s life, ending up in a summer house guest bedroom but still used underfoot. The wool, thin cotton, and knits did not stand up well to this wear. I was asked to repair and then mount the rug to be hung as art for its next 50 years.

Beige flower needing replacement

First step was to clean the rug with a vacuum, and inventory the damage. There were four large flowers where the discolored cotton batting showed through and several small centers that had worn out. I studied how the flowers were attached to the rug and realized the random stitching we see on the reverse was the anchoring threads. With some unease I began to snip away, the flowers came off one at a time.

Next was to study the stitches used to edge the motif and separate the petals. I do embroider which helped. Overall they used the blanket stitch around the center motif and outer edges. Couching is the method to detail the petals. After working four of the flowers I got into an efficient rhythm. Begin at the center, get to a petal lay the thread and then couch back to center, continue. Then stitch around the flower. Grandma’s instructions to make my back as neat as front got in the way of channeling Blanche or Otha’s style. My first attempt was evenly spaced about an 1/8 inch away but they worked much tighter and irregularly. I caught on and when the flowers were added to the rug they are not noticed as new. One problem in being authentic was I did not know what thread they used. I matched the color to DMC 844 exactly. But that was 6 separate strands and theirs was one. I went back to the State Museum in Charleston and found a researcher who worked in textiles and coincidentally grew up in Glenville, near the sisters. She suggested a cotton finger weight yarn for making socks! Made sense to me.

Matching aged colors and similar fabrics took me months. Finally I came up with a walnut stained pillow case I had made and for the blue flowers a sample piece of discontinued upholstery fabric. The blue needed to be scuffed up a bit. Taking the flowers and stems off and turning them over to see the original bright colors was exciting every time. There are examples in the State Museum of rugs that have not been exposed to wear and light. I actually like the look of these two rugs I have worked with because they tell a story of living with loving family members. Following are some images of the individual elements and their replacements.

Sorry to see this new/old friend leave us. But after making a wooden frame covered with acid free fome core and black cotton twill, I used crochet thread in random all over stitches through the entire rug and fome core to attach the heavy piece. Then added wire to hang either vertically or horizontally and packed it in the car. I got to meet the owner who had purchased the rug from the sisters and we shared the admiration of their skills. So many lessons were learned by delving into the layers and “talking with the ladies”.

ready for delivery

Please tell us how and why you create. The work can speak only so loud years later. Photograph, journal, show us the tools and materials and most importantly what inspires you and why you work with your hands. I do it to connect with the people who taught me, whose work I admire, and because of the tactile experience and meditative time each piece takes to speak my visions.

Old and New Studies

McDonald Sisters work mid 1960’s

What a privilege I have been offered to study and mount one of the McDonald Sister’s rugs.

Linking up, through a referral from the State Museum archivist, with the owner of two pieces has lead to hearing stories of the original purchase in the late 1960’s directly from the sisters, the “home life” of these textiles in their family rooms for years and for the past two decades tucked away in guest bedrooms in their summer cottage always on the floor. Come to find out the family had relatives who knew these ladies and even photos with mutual people. All of this adds more bits to the articles and stories I have gathered in researching how the handwork was done, by whom and why techniques were used now almost fifty years after the makers have passed on.

back stitches

New questions arise by looking at the back of this rug. There is an intricate pattern of stitches outlining the motifs. That makes sense, the layers are all attached, stuffed flowers, leaves and stems embroidered with details BUT the threads on the front are colorful and those showing on the back consistently dark? And why are there tiny light blue x’s in thread detailing many large petaled flowers? Those stitches are not seen on the top at all.

layers and stitching

In one area the backing fabric has worn and we see a layer of burlap, with the same stitches covering it. Did the ladies make this repair? Did the owner? I do not think so since they have recently had some wear on the front professionally repaired by a West Virginia quilter (good work matching fabrics and threads).

The steps I go through to mount this rug so its life can continue on the wall will be documented in the next few posts. In the mean time, to catch up with who Otha and Blanche McDonald were and the textile work they created, I invite you to visit the series of pages under the tab at ArtWools.com/McDonalds  .

Research has been supported by funding through a Tamarack Foundation Fellowship award. Glenville State College research library and the archives at the State Museum in Charleston, WV have supplied me with much of the leads and photographs. Blanche graces the cover of the first issue of Hearth and Fair which has become Goldenseal Magazine.

Emily Hilliard

Recently Emily Hilliard, West Virginia’s Folklorist, visited the studio and I shared my collected knowledge on the McDonalds along with my personal journey with textile crafts. She is the first official folklorist for the state, funded in part through the National Endowment for the Arts and working at the West Virginia Humanities Council.

 

The most recent pieces I have been working on channel the sisters and the revealing techniques they used. Measuring 11 x 14 each, the same design was first hooked to look like the back of a rug.

Three McDonald mimics by Susan L Feller

The second piece is the front. Each upholstery fabric petal is stuffed with polyester filling, stitched to the linen backing and then embellished with a different embroidery stitch to make each flower unique.  I definitely felt the ladies were working alongside and perhaps Otha had some critical comments I brushed off as Blanche may have over the years together.

The third version is a rearranged collage of upholstery fabric, applique’d and embroidered onto a striped sample. The back embroidered with a quote and book title by two environmentalists: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Rachel Carson. This adds to the series “Pillow Talk” I have been creating over the past year.

My studies throughout have been History and the Arts and this project feeds both of these curiosities. I continue to search for more work by Otha and Blanche McDonald. Perhaps you recognize their style and can lead me to a piece, please send a message.

If you are interested in working on any of these handcrafts, I am teaching Rug Hooking, Applique’ and Embroidery at Augusta Heritage Center July 22-27  and would enjoy meeting you and sharing skills.

Recognition and Education

Rughooking is a technique easily learned, leading to opportunities to master the materials, various techniques and design elements with practice – one loop at a time. With the method comes a connection to generations of people who enhanced their surroundings creating utilitarian rugs from material once part of a garment or blanket. Each of these aspects drew me in and comforted me as I developed confidence as an artist.

1968 purchase award McDonald Sisters rug

 

At least half a dozen years ago I saw a large tapestry on permanent display in the Legacy of Craftsmanship Room at the State Museum, Charleston, WV with a label describing the techniques as embroidery, appliqué and hooking. How exciting to know the same technique I was immersing my time and skills in had been recognized by the state of West Virginia arts commission. At the Appalachian Corridor Exhibition of 1968 (first of three bi-ennials under that name) a purchase award to Blanche and Otha McDonald for their rug was issued along with several other media.

These first art pieces entered the collection housed at the State Museum and are now joined, over the past 40 years, by a couple of hundred contemporary art pieces thanks to the Bi-Ennial Juried Exhibition conducted by the Commission on the Arts, Division of Culture and History.

On Sunday, November 12, 2017 ten more works were awarded purchase recognition. I am thrilled to announce there is another hooked piece in the permanent collection: Progress in the Mountains, Susan L Feller, Augusta, WV.

The exhibit is on public display through February 11 at the Art Museum of WVU, One Fine Arts Drive, Morgantown, WV. The award winners will next be displayed at the State Museum gallery and then become part of the archives.

Just think 50 years from now someone will research the collection to find and study my hooked runner for materials, techniques of dyeing and hooking, and respond to my design just as I did the rug from 1968. One difference is I have documented my process, written articles, continue to record and publish the tools and materials I use and contribute these to the archives at the Museum. The McDonald Sisters work does not have these answers compiled as conveniently for research. A lesson I learned to rectify because of my frustration after seeing that rug and label on display and asking who were these ladies? Why did they mimic rughooking with their needle, thread and fabric strips? What inspired their designs and development of product?

It seems I can now say I too am part of the generations of rughooking craft makers. And that makes me happy pulling new loops.

A day reflecting and forecasting

Using this time of the year to review my artwork is misleading yet revealing. The full exploration is omitted. That is the body of work recording experiments, progress and preferences in techniques, materials and design. Yet the time capsule approach unconsciously exposes a compass-nature is my muse.

2013 I received a Fellowship from the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts to complete research on Blanche and Oltha McDonald, fiber craftsmen from Gilmer County WV. I also began a Year Study of daily designs exploring my collection of art/craft tools.

The Year Study came to a close 11-4-14 with a collection of 365+ works and several larger rugs. My work has not ended though, every piece I think about a lesson learned from the daily exercises.

11-3 to 11-4 2014

Progress in the Mountains, Susan L. Feller 2015

 

 

The natural beauty of West Virginia is valued by a variety of economies. It supports tourism, agriculture, transportation, energy and logging along with generations of living with and on the fruits and animals of the land. Progress in the Mountains was created to celebrate and acknowledge the real Wild and Wonderful of the Appalachians in 2015.

 

 

 

 

Along came 2016 and in the fall a big change.  My artwork began a period of talking. Craft is a therapy with tools of slow stitching, loop pulling and gratification of controlling the end results.

The therapy and a personal effort to become involved with my local community, sharing and listening to multi-generations, seems to have worked this year. I am back to reveling in telling the stories of our natural surroundings. The Leaf Series encapsulates the techniques, materials and design style of my life studies.

Another year is ahead.

 

 

Finishing work 17 years later

I learned an artistic textile technique, rughooking, in 1994 and stepped into the pattern making (line drawings) by interpreting traditional folk motifs on frakturs. In other words using someone else’s visual design (centuries old and out of copyright infringement) and composing with an expected balance. I mastered skills, materials and tools and became proficient in the craft.

Adam and Eve, Susan L Feller 2000

Adam and Eve, Susan L Feller 2000

By 1999 I wanted to grow into my own style and enrolled in a workshop “Balancing Act” lead by Rae Harrell at Green Mountain Rug Hooking Guild in Shelburne, VT. With an open mind and no planning lines were directly drawn on the foundation material, my colors selected from a comfort pile and friends contributions, and I began to hook breaking “rules” I did not even know I had adhered to when I saw others using different widths of strips in one piece! The result was Adam and Eve, completed in 2000 and juried by Mary Sheppard Burton into an exhibit Hooked Art in the 21st Century at the Textile Center, Minneapolis, MN.

I have continued this journey making patterns and more regularly creating artwork depicting the natural wonder around me in West Virginia, and communicating social and economic issues. All the while a panel hung in the studio labeled “work in progress-Adam and Eve weave”.

base, woven wool from Adam and Eve, Susan L Feller 2000-2016

base, woven wool from Adam and Eve, Susan L Feller 2000-2016

I had pinned onto muslin strips of the fabrics used to hook Adam and Eve with intentions to stabilize them either subtly or with embroidery stitches and attach to the hooked piece creating a large pillow (22 x 24).  A year of exploring past and new skills (Year Study), five years researching textile craftsmen from West Virginia (McDonalds), a source for discontinued upholstery samples and a conscious pull back to slow stitching with thrums from weaver Wendy Clark I finally felt it was the right time.

I enjoy composing, selecting materials and techniques each step interacting with the others until work can begin. There is a point of frustration when an idea can not be accomplished with existing materials or skills ….. the hunt for those takes away from the creative process but is essential if the work is going to be great instead of just good. I always have too many ingredients and need to simplify too.

upholstery samples, motifs from Design in a Box-Frakturs, Susan L Feller

upholstery samples, motifs from Design in a Box-Frakturs, Susan L Feller

The two figures came out of my Design in a Box-Frakturs. Until the organic leaf with blue color upholstery was added, my design was ok but too equal in values, shapes and colors. I decided the figures did not need to have facial details for us to know who they were. By us looking at their backs and the plants layered over the bodies the title made sense. They are going into the garden where the serpent rises up on the hooked side.

The tools needed were simple: embroidery needle, threads, sharp scissors, and a few embroidery stitches from my past (satin, long and short, and back stitching) with my studio frame by Townsend Industries and Bob the supervising cat. By stretching the piece on a 14″ square frame I often used the left hand as precisely as my dominant right one. I involved people in the process using Instagram and Facebook postings (the images show my left hand holding tools often staged for the shot).

Construction problems needed to be solved: selecting and installing a zipper (pillow form needs to be pulled out for transporting shell to workshops), anchoring edge with layers of wool and muslin and eliminating bulk for pillow, hand stitching two together when one was slightly larger than the other (measured but design grew, wool is a flexible material) but it all came together on January 16, 2017.

Into the Garden, Adam and Eve

Into the Garden, Adam and Eve

The proverbial question asked of a craftsman “How long did it take you?” can be answered this time with “Seventeen years!”

 

2016’s influence

It’s time to look back, review, evaluate and gather inspiration from the people, places and things on my journey of 2016.

With students and friends while gathering for a few days of immersion in our mutual interests…fiber arts on the Puget Sound, retreating in Hampshire County WV and South Carolina, teaching in Maryland and Ohio at Sauder Village and lectures at Schwenkfelder Library, Pennsburg PA inspired me as much as my encouraging their design skills. Working with Alissa Novoselick and Emma Pepper developing an arts conference in WV; participating in an exhibit curated by Roslyn Logsdon in Maryland; promoting the McDonald Sisters of Gilmer County to thousands; and handing off a legacy to Green Mountain Hooked Rugs exposed me to new skills and supportive people.

Big city Seattle, arts filled Asheville, rural Summerville Georgia,  Thomas, WV population 600 and the beauty of nature along trails in Fayetteville, Seneca Rocks, and Harpers Ferry are places remembered in my sketch books and beginning to appear in fibers.

We gather objects to remember places and people especially collecting them from fellow artists. I like to wear jewelry made by artist friends when traveling, it is as much of an ambassador as I am. We often photograph our flowers in the art vases, new artwork hanging on log walls, and even show great food on our trips sharing our experiences with an “extended family”. Thank you to Kate Harward, Ginger Danz, Christine Keller, Norma Acord, Donald Stone, Wendy Clark, Rebecca Wudarski, Mountain Daughter Metalworks, Bruce Wilson and Marilyn Bottjer for your talent we live with daily.

I am planning to explore places, interact with friends and react to artwork daily in 2017, perhaps we will meet up on our journeys and share some experiences.

Tamarack Foundation Fellowship

Tamarack Foundation logo jpeg

During Tamarack Artisan Foundation’s 10th Anniversary celebration three Fellowship Awards were presented for artistic excellence and lifetime commitment to promoting and fostering the arts in West Virginia.  I am honored to have been selected by the review committee along with humanitarian photographer Paul Corbit Brown of Oak Hill and sculptor/author Carter Taylor Seaton from Huntington.

Ex Director Sally Barton; Carter Taylor Seaton, Susan L. Feller and Paul Corbit Brown

Exec. Director Sally Barton; Carter Taylor Seaton, Susan L. Feller and Paul Corbit Brown

The support for artists within West Virginia is unique in the United States.  TAMARACK at Beckely was the first facility built as an entrepreneurial opportunity for all art/craftsmen in our state.  Since 1979 a Bi-Ennial Juried Exhibition with $30,000 in awards funded through the Division of History and Culture has acquired for the State Museum contemporary works.

The Tamarack Foundation is extremely important to the proliferation and continuation of art made in West Virginia because it raises funds from corporate and private donors and distributes these by supporting artists to create a national market; grants and awards for juried shows and lifetime achievement; and acts as ambassador and lobbyists for independant craftspeople.

I submitted a project to research the social environment of Blanche and Otha McDonald of Letter Gap, WV during the 1960’s as they created fiber works using hand sewing techniques (including ‘faux hooking’).  The funds will help in travel expenses to catalog stories and images of works from collectors into a publication with step-by-step directions for fiber artists to be inspired to create contemporary works.  Teaching these skills and the story of these two independant women is my goal.

Flowers for the McDonald Sisters, Susan L. Feller

Flowers for the McDonald Sisters, 2013 Susan L. Feller hooked, trapunto, braiding, beads