A Fondness for Felting

Adare, created in 2014, was Beale’s first felted painting.

Cortland Artist Kathie Beale

by Nancy E. McCarthy

Cortland artist Kathie Beale has always drawn and painted while exploring other mediums: stained glass, photography, collage, woodcraft, basket making and more. Each medium had an undetermined – yet ultimately finite – lifespan before Beale moved on to try something new. That pattern changed when she discovered felting about a decade ago. Beale is completely captivated. “Felting is so versatile, you can’t get bored with it,” she explains.

Felt is a fabric created from natural or synthetic fibers that are enmeshed rather than woven. Beale uses wool rovings to make wearable art, three-dimensional figures and two-dimensional works such as felted “paintings.” Some paintings are mixed media creations where the felt is embellished with embroidery, paint or other materials. Her favorite subjects are animals and landscapes.

“I love her work because it reveals her love of nature and speaks to mine,” says Jo Anne Ross of Cortland. “I also love that she is so creative and does things that no one else does.” Ross purchased one of Beale’s felted paintings as a gift and then later bought two others for herself.

Beale, 72, is also a retired art teacher. “I never wanted to be anything else,” she says. Her mother was an art teacher and Beale thought it was the best job in the world. 

An Artful Upbringing

Beale and her younger brother Tom grew up in the small town of Hellertown, Pennsylvania. Her father Robert Fitzsimons was a physical education teacher and her mother Vivian was an elementary art teacher. Beale was exposed to art at an early age. Her mother had her daughter try out any new classroom art projects at home to gauge the appropriate age group for them. Beale was encouraged to create her own art, but coloring books were out of the question! “I was exposed to most media and explored them all,” she says.

Beale graduated from Mansfield State University of Pennsylvania in 1972 with a degree in Arts Education. She married that year, too. The couple lived in Washington, D.C. and then Morgantown, West Virginia, where their son Joshua was born in 1977. They would later move to Cortland where her husband grew up. Beale received her master’s degree at SUNY Cortland and taught pre-K through sixth grade students in the LaFayette Central School District. 

It was very satisfying to her when some of her former students later became art teachers or pursued other art careers. While teaching, Beale continued to make, show and sell her various artworks.

A “Couple” of Artists

Beale divorced in 1992 and married again in July 1997. Her husband David is an accomplished watercolorist and owner of The Picture House, a framing shop and gallery in Cortland where he also teaches art. “At times it doesn’t seem easy having two artists under one roof. We both seem to leave a trail of clutter in creating our art,” says David. “Kathie is more of a binge artist, while I’m more of a steady plodder. When she becomes engrossed in a project, she can work for many hours with hardly a break.”

By the time Beale retired from teaching in 2012, she was almost exclusively working with felt. Beale is a self-taught felter and never had instruction beyond online tutorials and research. “Felt paintings seem to suit her well. She has a flair for color and bold designs,” says David.

Through the years, David has organized several painting workshop trips to Ireland with his work colleague and former art student Emily Gibbons, also a watercolorist. Beale attended as well, often helping participants with their drawing skills. 

In 2013, Beale saw her very first felted painting in Ireland. She was enchanted with how the Irish countryside – replete with sheep, lake and trees – was brilliantly depicted with felt. Its price tag was beyond her means, so Beale decided that she would try to create her own. A year later she made her first painting using a photo she took of an Irish thatched roof cottage in Adare as her subject. The work was primarily wet felting, but Beale used needle felting for the flowers, windows and roof, plus added some embroidery for texture. Adare has since been sold.

Sort of Retired

After 35 years of teaching, Beale considers herself a retiree first and an artist second. Yet she is a prolific maker and actively engaged in the local arts community. Beale is an artist member of Cortland Arts Connect, whose mission includes the support and promotion of the arts and artists in Cortland County. Through the years, her work has been part of numerous local and regional group exhibits including the annual “Made in New York” exhibition at Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn and a juried show at VIEW Center for Arts and Culture in Old Forge. Another highlight was winning Best of Show in Fiber/Senior Division at the New York State Fair for a felted painting she created in 2016. 

For the past year Skaneateles Artisans (SA) has represented her work. SA is a consignment gallery that sells fine art and crafts from local and regional artists. Beale’s pieces are popular and sell quickly. The gallery carries her framed and unframed paintings, bookmarks, cards, scarves and pins, all made from felt. “Each time she brings new art it’s better and more beautiful than the last,” says owner Teresa Vitale. 

Beale is an animal lover with three cats and two dogs at home. Last year she established a Wooly Pet Portraits by Kathie Facebook page to promote her sensitive, detailed felted pet portraits. Her photo gallery features a range of commissioned canine and feline paintings and works she donated to animal rescues for raffles or auction fundraisers.

In October, Beale is excited to attend an “Art in Felt & Stitch 6 Day Retreat” workshop in Scotland led by international felt artist and author Moy Mackay. It is a small, curated group of eight felters and a perfect opportunity for Beale to network with other artists who share her passion, learn some new techniques and expand her knowledge of the craft and artistry of felting.

The Felting Process

Beale researches her chosen subject for a new felted painting by viewing photos and artwork for inspiration. “When the basic idea has hatched, I’ll make a sketch and pull the colors of wool,” she says. Beale sources for her dyed wool rovings online and has hundreds of color choices on hand. “I then decide what type of substrate I’ll use. I can either wet felt a backing or use pre-made sheets,” she says. Wet felting is a lengthy process using water, soap and rolling to enmesh the fibers. Either way, the felt sheet serves as a canvas.

Beale lightly sketches placement for colors and then begins needle felting to create her wool painting. The wool fibers are repeatedly stabbed with barbed needles of various sizes and shapes which enmesh the fibers into the substrate. When completed, the work is ironed and then framed under glass to protect the fibers. Wet and dry felting may be used individually or together in projects.

“Felting is a very time-consuming medium, entirely made up of countless stabs with a needle!” says Beale.

Visit Wooly Pet Portraits by Kathie on Facebook or contact the artist at kbeale8305@gmail.com.  

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