Mary Beth Daniels’ color-soaked fiber art beckons us in for a closer view and leaves us with a strong urge to reach out and touch her wonderful textural creations. Her varied landscapes and floral designs surround us when walking into the Chilmark Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, providing a delicious surprise. Whether they depict actual views or those from Daniels’ imagination, each is an intimate world that seems to send out a personal invitation for us to enter them.
Daniels uses fiber derived from sheep, alpaca, mohair, and silk, much of which comes from the animals she and her husband own. The couple moved here 11 years ago and began with three alpacas. They now number 53, and sheep, mini donkeys, goats, and ducks also populate their property. With a lot of fleece on hand, Daniels decided that although she knits, “I find it confining. So, I wanted to do something where I could use the fiber from the animals in another way. This is my way of honoring all those we have on the farm.”
About three years ago, she was at an art show and saw someone doing wool painting. “I was just fascinated with it, so I started playing around with the fiber and making art.”
While most of the works are not large, Daniels’ pieces have an immediate visual impact. She is able to create an impressive variety of effects. There are tightly rendered realistic scenes such as “Bench with a View,” in which the wooden seat looks out over the water with a large swathe of multi-toned blue sky above. There are more abstract renderings, for instance, with “Sheep at Sunrise,” in which five small round white creatures are nestled inside a more roughly indicated landscape topped by a spectacular sun-kissed sky.
Some of the artworks are entirely abstract designs. The central flower on the bottom in “Fuchsia Explosion” pushes into the picture frame, sending all the other flowers up and about. And those in “Budding Pastels” appear to float on a watery surface, bringing Monet’s late water lily paintings to mind.
Daniels sometimes creates dense surfaces, such as in “Cottage in the Fields,” building it with many layers of fiber. In other instances, such as “First Flowers,” she applies the fiber sparingly so that the images are translucent — alluringly wispy. In “Flowers in a Vase,” Daniels mixes the two aesthetics so that the blossoms have literal depth while she indicates what appears like shadows on the table with the barest of black and brown fiber.
Daniels fashions her fiber paintings using both wet felting and needle felting techniques. In wet felting, you begin by layering fleece at 90-degree angles, then apply warm, soapy water and agitate it on a rough surface to lock the fiber into a single tight piece of fabric. Daniels uses this resulting felt as a canvas, sometimes leaving the original surface unadorned, and, at other times, employs needle felting, in which she uses a needle with tiny barbs to add fibers on top of the felt to create texture and add artistic elements.
Daniels skillfully employs a complex mixture of colors in her art. She dyes some of the fiber herself after having the herd sheared and then skirting the fleece to remove all the vegetative matter, followed by washing, drying, and carding it. Currently, she is experimenting with natural dyes using teas, indigo, walnuts, and beach plums. “I try to leverage things out of nature and create art out of it. It’s more in alignment with being an eco-artist,” she explains.
Although Daniels has played with oils, watercolors, and acrylics, she has had no formal art training. In creating her compositions, she sometimes works from photographs, sometimes from memory, and in other instances, the compositions seem to take on a life of their own once she starts them.
The pieces in the show are handsomely framed, some of which have a depth of their own. Daniels abhors using glass on top of her works. “It flattens it out and destroys the beauty and depth,” she insists.
Daniels hopes her work inspires people to realize that there are so many ways we can create art with unconventional things. “I think there’s an opportunity to create art all around us. That’s what I love about my art. It combines my passion for the animals, which are really my teachers and guides. I’m a minister and spiritual counselor, so art is my spiritual practice,” Daniels shares her ultimate belief that “whatever you love, I think there’s the opportunity to integrate it into whatever you’re doing.”
“The World in Wool” is on exhibit at the Chilmark Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank through Oct. 12. Visit soulcelebration.com to learn more about Mary Beth Daniels.