Ayala Talpai

Ayala and Alicia at Ayala’s Eugene Saturday Market booth in July 2000. Ayala made the dress she wears. Quilter and fellow Wheeler Ranch alumna Charlotte Lyons made Alicia’s dress in the 1970’s.

Ayala Talpai, my dear friend since commune days and my seventh nominee for the Living on the Earth Award, writes, illustrates, calligraphs and speaks stylishly, so I prefer to let her describe herself.

“Ayala is a post-menopausal woman with five grown sons whom she raised in various degrees of wilderness settings. She is currently living happily ever after with the man of her dreams, at the end of a dirt road just far enough out of town.

“She was born and raised in New England by slightly crazed parents over whom hung the influence of her grandmother, a famous artist. Ayala’s solution to the dilemmas posed by these details was to play alone in the woods and her room, creating by age 15 over 100 dolls and related paraphernalia, and then as an adult, to merge her artistry into her household and its surroundings, a habit of folk artists the world over.

Ayala and Richard Talpai’s artist paradise in the woods, back in 2000.

“Daughter of an engineer and an artisan, she delights in coming up with new and unusual solutions to perceived and manufactured problems—a trait useful in her greatest joy, teaching. Ayala has eliminated the word ‘mistake’ from her vocabulary, having found that ‘opportunity’ and ‘discovery’ are far more accurate and workable concepts. She lives in delighted anticipation of what her students will come up with next!

“Ayala has spent her entire life making stuff, making do, and doing well. This happy obsession with creativity has led to the first innovaiton in fiber arts since the Stone Age—NOW! felting needles turn wool into a sculptural material! Having taught all ages and abilities all over the place, Ayala has also written two authoritative needlefelting workbooks.

A felt mermaid created by Ayala

“Ayala is a folk artist who has intentionally avoided the often political world of art galleries. She has supported herself with her art—at a booth in Eugene, Oregon Saturday Market these 14 years past: as creator of wedding garments for ceremonies both on and off the beaten path; as Artist-in-Residence for the county public schools, teaching woolwork to people of all ages and abilities.

“Ayala brought felting needles to the attention of the fiber arts world. She’s keeping this simple, affordable, and applicable anywhere fiber is found.”

[She wrote in one of her brochures:]

“Prepare for a lively, productive workshop (and quite likely, a lifetime’s absorption in needlefelting!)

One of Ayala’s felt placemats

“I want to talk with you about wool… the delectable compliant medium of WOOL, a sustainable and renewable resource produced by fashionably vegetarian animals. And it’s true—science recently discovered that wool is in electromagnetic harmony with the energy fields of the human body. We humble peasants have known that for centuries! (I cannot resist adding the fact that petroleum-based fibers like PolarFleece© are dulling to our auras, as well as to politics in the U.S. of A….)

“It’s become my (not-so) secret mission to get wool into studios, ateliers, art rooms all over America, even all over the planet-and not just for all the applications where it has performed so magnificently since the early dawn of mankind’s association with sheep, like making felt, spinning yarn, weaving fabric, but also… also as a medium for SCULPTURE.

“Yes yes, wool HAS been used for 3D sculpture already… but by traditional wet-felting techniques (cumbersome), and only with certain fleeces, since most wools will not accept more fiber after a certain point in the wet-felting process. Such inhibiting limitations! But we have now a recent event to mitigate all that: the introduction of INDUSTRIAL FELTING NEEDLES into the world of the folk artist, cottage industrialist, and fine-arts artist.

“In the early 80’s a girlfriend in New England gave me a handful of various styles felting needles. She had acquired a sample-sized needlepunch machine from an abandoned woolen mill there. Over the intervening years, as I delightedly needlfelted away alone in my kitchen, a question kept coming up: WHERE have these tiny versatile things BEEN for so long???

“A nonwoven-fabrics factory worker clued me in: the first felting needle patents were dated 1859. Needlepunch machines were originally designed to make batting and insulation from shoddy (shredded woolen garments), from slaughterhouse fibers, even from soldiers’ haircuts. AND… all this was occurring at the height of the Victorian era! Aha!! There’s the hitch: Victorians were total prudes and prissies. Junky old second-hand stuff is too disgusting for words!! We could just swoon away at the thought…. A century later, however, social mores shifted and recycling is now so politically correct. Also, automobiles have proliferated, and everything that’s not metal, plastic or fiberglas on a car is needlefelted. That machinery has moved into the Group Consciousness! Nowadays artists even rent afterhours time on needlepunch machines, the better to create rugs and large wall hangings.

A wedding “fairy coat” designed and sewn by Ayala

“Untold thousands of felting needle styles have been developed for industry, and with good reason-those huge machines use say 150-200,000 needles at once, a situation where a tiny difference is multiplied a thousand times over, for different fibers and different applications.

“Returning to my personal journey with needlefelting: Well, one thing led to another and eventually I was drawn out of my foothills retreat in the interest of spreading the word and the techniques I’d developed for fiber artists and their lone felting needle. Wrote a couple workbooks with the hope of getting others to make some of the myriad items that needlefelting engendered in my imagination, and then maybe taking off into their own heavily populated fantasies.

“Anybody with a flexible wrist who can be trusted with sharp things could be handed some wool and a felting needle, and it is such a delight to see what folks come up with! Even boys can be inveigled into the fiber arts by a felting needle! Moreover, all sorts of ghastly damage to fiber items can be repaired with a felting needle and an agile mind.

“The most appealing aspect of this technique is that you CAN’T go wrong, you just keep adding wool until you get what you like. No mistakes! Only opportunities, or discoveries… a perfect way to get wool back in the public eye, don’t you think? In the ‘70’s when I first met up with sheep, wool was 11 cents a pound on the open market. Really, it hasn’t gotten any better. High time to remedy that… Whatever type of wool one has at hand is the perfect kind for needlefelting. Fiber differences lend their own special characteristics to what is made from them-like dancing with different partners.”