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POD (Lichen), wool, beeswax, lichen, thread, recycled fill, 2013, 9" x 34" x 10", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell



Detail: POD (Lichen), wool, beeswax, lichen, thread, recycled fill, 2013, 9" x 34" x 10", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Artist: Merce Mitchell, Taos, New Mexico, USA

Interview 126: Merce will be exhibiting in the 2014 World of Threads Festival exhibition Solo Shows & Installations in the Corridor Galleries at Queen Elizabeth Park Community & Cultural Centre in Oakville, Ontario.

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Interviews published and curated by Gareth Bate & Dawne Rudman.




Merce Mitchell has been pursuing the art of felt since she first gathered the wool from coyote kills in the nearby sagebrush. Living in a rural, high desert mountain mesa, exposed to open sky continuously, she was inspired initially by traditional, historic felt makers, and created raw fleece rugs and artwork. In the twenty years since, her artwork has refined into an exploration of construction and deconstruction, the manifestation of personal experience and translation of emotion. Inspirations have been found in the smallest seed that is often created on a larger scale. Her work explores the hidden in the natural manifest, while melding materials and techniques that include felt, encaustic, sewing and machine embroidery.

Merce is self-taught in felt making, and has taught both children and adults in local schools and museums, through private and public classes. Her passion for fibre art in the contemporary art world set her to curating Beyond the Fringe, a fine fibre art show for three years. She is also highly involved in producing the annual Wool Festival at Taos, New Mexico, USA. She has a handspun yarn and felt business. After showing locally for years, Merce is pursuing fine fibre art shows nationally and internationally. Merce's website


Artist: Merce Mitchell in her studio. Photo: Wanashe Frank.


You taught yourself to felt and have been doing it now for 20 years. Tell us how you got started:

I started in college with photography. But I decided the chemicals I was using to develop my prints were not what I wanted to work with, so I switched to making paper, and art out of that. When I moved to Taos in the early 90's, into the high mountain desert, the culture/landscape here translated papermaking into felt making. The processes are similar. I started with a book and some experimentation. I collected some of my first wool from coyote kills, as I was living where sheep were being herded out on the mesa. The wool would catch in the sagebrush.


POD (Natural), wool, beeswax, thread, recycled fill, 2013, 10" x 37" x 11", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


How has your work progressed since?

It's gone from uncarded, raw, natural coloured fleece to washed, carded, dyed, and colourful wool that I use to felt. Probably the biggest progression has come in my development of my techniques in not only making felt, but in how I use the felt I make. My artwork has been an exploration of useful things to more abstract objects. My explorations now are more challenging as well as personal – my voice and ideas are being channeled into my artwork in a way that gets stronger as I continue.


POD (Cream), wool, beeswax, thread, pigment, recycled fill, 2013, 11" x 38" x 13", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


What drew you to work in felt & why did you decide on this medium for your artwork?

I wanted a medium that was natural based, one that required little in the way of technology, expensive materials or tools. Everything can be found around the house or improvised when you want to felt. At first, I was really inspired by traditional felting. It is so beautiful and the design work is fabulous, and the areas like Afghanistan up to Mongolia resemble where I live now. There is something about land influencing our visual identities.


POD (Lichen), wool, beeswax, lichen, thread, recycled fill, 2013, 9" x 34" x 10", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Your educational background is in Environmental Studies & Geology. In what way does this inform your artwork?

After getting a degree in Environmental Studies, I felt there were two ways to go: political radicalism or to live it. I chose to live what requirements and solutions I saw were needed for these times. I decided to live off the grid, build an adobe house, catch water, grow a garden, compost everything, make art, and eventually I had a family and continued living this way out here in the desert. But as I am sure you noticed, I have solar power that enables my computer, my phone, my tech. How do we balance and remain aware today? Not always easy.


POD (Grey), wool, beeswax, thread, recycled fill, 2012, 10.5" x 38" x 12", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Does the geology side come into it at all?

Besides being totally interesting, geology led me to a super novel visual world. I would spend a lot of time looking in the microscope, being turned on to the patterns of different rock and their crystalline structures. When you look at things microscopically you get the sense of a world hidden in the world. I am still being influenced in my artwork by this kind of looking.


POD (Lichen), wool, beeswax, lichen, thread, recycled fill, 2013, 9" x 34" x 10", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


You mention there is an element of chaos in your work. Talk to us about that:

Felt always mutates, especially when you least expect it. Shifts occur that further exploration and creativity because they are surprises. Questions I ask myself: Is there order in chaos? Is chaos symmetrical? Is there a thread (in our lives) moving through all these life experiences we have? If I flow with unexpected chaotic presentations, where will it lead?


POD (Red net), wool, beeswax, thread, netting, pigment, recycled fill, 2013, 10" x 22" x 10", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


You work in 3D and 2D. Do you have a preference, and why?

Right now I am completely immersed in 3-D work. I have not finished exploring sculpture, or for that matter, these pods. They hold a lot of information and emotion. I work from the inside out, and this layering contains, explains, protects, and holds mystery.


POD (Marigold), wool, beeswax, marigold petals, thread, recycled fill, 2014, 7" x 16" x 8", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


What are the main differences you encounter between 3D & 2D work?

3-D work for me is more challenging. I have ideas that I want to make in felt, and so the technical side can be a puzzle at times. I really enjoy figuring it out, creating a form or a texture that conveys what's in my mind. My problem lately is that I want to create all these giant pieces, and I am running out of room in my studio. So the next step is to continue getting my artwork out into the world.


POD (Earth), wool, beeswax, thread, pigment, recycled fill, 2013, 16" x 30" x 15", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell

POD (Bronze), wool, beeswax, thread, pigment, recycled fill, 2013, 10.5" x 35" x 14", hand-felted, stitched, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


From where do you get your inspiration?

I get some very clear ideas when I walk. I walk almost everyday, and this is where problems are solved and new ideas are generated. Images just activate at that time. Another time is right upon waking. I just pray that I remember what the heck genius idea I had by the time I go down for coffee.


Green Pod, wool, beeswax, 2012, 3" x 13" x 4", hand-felted, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Do you dye your own wool?

I was forced into it! I had been outsourcing the dying of my wool, and after two different people stopped doing dying commercially, I had to learn. Both former dyers taught me and gave me great advice, and another local dyer (from a family of dyers) let me help her dye, and being the hands-on visual person that I am – it sunk in. Pretty much ... its an ongoing library of knowledge. Although dying is a blast, I didn't want to do it at first because I didn't want to add anything more to my repertoire. I think there is expansiveness in certain limits.


Briza, wool, natural dyes, copper wire, 2010, 6" x 15" x 6", hand-felted, stitched, crocheted. Photo: Merce Mitchell


You say that there is always a story in your work stemming from personal experiences. Tell us a few of these stories:

A series of unfortunate events:

For example, when my mom died, I couldn't make art for 8 months. That was the opposite of how I thought it would go. At other times, making my art was exactly what got me through. It was (is) the way to tell the truths that are not obvious. It is the way to put (felt) things back together. Do you ever think that there are some particular lessons you must learn and so you are presented over time with similar hardships? It's about following the thread. Other times, I take chaos theory literally and revel in the sheer ability of humans to survive such unexplainable curves of life. My story would be to keep coming out the other side. I would believe that art has a purpose beyond us.


Hair Pod, wool, beeswax, 2012, 5.5" x 17" x 7", hand-felted, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


You also do some teaching. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

The satisfaction on the faces of my students when they make a felt piece. It's as if they thought it would be too difficult! They discover the pleasure of fibre arts, maybe get hooked, and see the possibilities of their creative side.


PODS 13, wool, natural dyes, copper, lichen, beeswax, 2012, 3" x 10" x 3" (dimensions variable), hand-felted, stitched, encaustic, crocheted. Photo: Merce Mitchell


What are your main challenges when teaching and how have you overcome them?

Being too experimental. That's fine for my own work, but for teaching, I want to keep it right on the edge of challenging and manageable. I choose projects that are appropriate for the level of my group of students. I want my students to succeed and get that first taste of fibre love or more inspiration to challenge themselves.


Caught, wool, lichen, wire, 2012, 4" x 14" x 5", hand-felted, crocheted. Photo: Merce Mitchell


When you embellish your pieces, what techniques and materials do you mostly use?

I use machine embroidery, hand embroidery (because I love to sew anything), netting, beeswax ... the encaustic process has become a sensory process with applying and breathing in the sweet smell. It changes everything, and will remain a part of my art process for a long time. I am very intrigued with any kind of metal right now, and adding that to my felt. I go into the woods and find rusty old pieces to add in, have crocheted wire to encase several pieces, and I am exploring metalworking so that I can use that technique with my felt. I just have this obsession to combine metal and felt. Rusty metal, copper, patina and metal – these are my inspirations right now and are leading me to new ideas. Felt is talking to metal.



Trillium, wool, natural dyes, fiberfill, 2010, 14" x 26" x 28", hand-felted, stitched. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Why do you find these techniques most useful/appropriate?

Sewing just has to be a part of what I do, whether 2-D or 3-D work. It is part of the process. My felt work has a lot to do with process. But sewing, embroidery, encaustic allows me to create form, surface texture, and patterns of meaning. The pods are many layered objects.


Double Spurge, wool, natural dyes, lichen, beeswax, 2012, 10" x 37" x 12", hand-felted, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell

Small Spurges, wool, beeswax, lichen, 2012, 5" x 13" x 5", hand-felted, encaustic. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Where do you get the materials you use for embellishment?

The best ones for me are found objects, like the old metal or netting that I recycle from grocery shopping. I also use found natural materials from my garden and the woods. I use lichen, flower petals, dried flowers, bones, and will try to incorporate any natural object into the felt. Felt tends to resist metal and certain plants, so the process has been one of exploration.


Extraction, a, b, wool, beeswax, ink, wire, 2012, 4" x 8.5" x 6" (4 pieces), hand-felted, stitched, encaustic, assembled. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Are there any particular art related books that you refer to on a regular basis or from which you draw inspiration?

One of the main books that is influencing me now is SEEDS: Time Capsules of Life, by Rob Kesseler and Wolfgang Stuppy. This book is a visual gem of electron microscopy focusing on seeds. Looking at the natural world at so close a range is awe-inspiring. The structure of seeds, all kinds of them, is inspiring my sculpture. Another book would be Natural Art Forms, by Karl Blossfeldt. He was doing a similar thing when he photographed seeds and plants close up. Seeing the golden mean reflected in the natural world has been a part time study of mine. I also love, love, love the artist Magdalena Abakanowicz.


You Are, wool, natural dyes, thread, 2009, 57" x 41", hand-felted, stitched, machine and hand embroidered. Photo: Merce Mitchell


You have been accepted into the World of Threads Festival 2014. What was your motivation for submitting your work for consideration?

I saw your website of past shows and was so impressed by the quality and innovation of the fibre work. It is so exciting, and I really wanted to be a part of your next show, so I subscribed to your mailing list.


Defragmentation, wool, thread, natural dyes, 2009, 59" x 37", hand-felted, hand-stitched construction. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Is there anything else you'd like us to know about you or your artwork?

Thanks so much for the opportunity to do this interview. I am looking forward to the World of Threads 2014!


Merce Mitchell's studio. Photo: Merce Mitchell

Merce Mitchell's studio. Photo: Merce Mitchell

Merce Mitchell's studio. Photo: Merce Mitchell


Do you have any upcoming shows?

I am in the process of continuing to enter fine fibre art shows nationally and internationally.

I will be exhibiting in the 2014 World of Threads Festival exhibition Solo Shows & Installations in the Corridor Galleries at Queen Elizabeth Park Community & Cultural Centre in Oakville, Ontario.



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