The Making of a Great Irish Elk - Adventures in the Art of Soft Sculptures

The love and intrigue I have for the art of soft sculptures grow more and more deep with each creation. It began with a simple banana leaf created for Varsa Nabhas at the beginning of this year and it continues today with the creation of the great Irish elk by the name of Mochta (pronounced Much-ta).

I love combining the art of doll making with the art of soft sculpturing. They are not so different, really. There are many facets around soft sculptures that draw me closer and closer with each creation. I love the process of making things from scratch. I love that I can find inspiration from an idea, doodle with the idea on paper and then go through the challenge of cutting a pattern from this and turning it into a three dimensional concept using a variety of mediums.

For me, the creative process often begins with something I've experienced in my personal life that I want to recreate with fibers. Varsa Nabhas and her banana leaf umbrella were inspired by my love for rain, my time spent living in Kenya and my time traveling in India.

Benja and her great big clock were stimulated by my love for gears as my background is in mechanical engineering and math and physics education. I also have an obsession with time, which leads me to marvel at one of the greatest modern time keepers in the history of humankind, the Big Ben clock at the Palace of Westminster in London...hence the inspiration behind the making of Benja's great big clock.

Cicindela and her firefly were spurred by my twice-charmed encounters with the magic of fireflies...once when I lived in the midwestern United States and another time during my two years of living in Kenya.

Piper and the beautiful hummingbird, Scout, were inspired by a customer's chance encounter with the amazing tiny birds that linger here in California and coincidentally are one of my favorite birds of all time. No matter how often I see them, whether they are buzzing high overhead or a few feet before the eyes, they never cease to stop me in my tracks and take my breathe away. This tiny, true-to-life-sized hummingbird is the most favorite of all the soft sculpture projects I've tinkered with.

Now, I introduce the latest exploration in my soft sculpture adventures...Mochta, the great Irish elk. In August of this year, while hiking the beautiful coast of California at Point Reyes National Seashore, we had the great luck of encountering a herd of Tule Elk, endemic only in California. We saw them early in the morning on our hike in, while they were feeding and battling in the distant hill behind a curtain of fog. I've lived in California for eight years and this was the first time for me to discover Tule Elk nearby. I will tell you that they are the most magnificent and majestic creatures to encounter. When they walk, they are graceful, enormous and profoundly enchanting with their chest and head held high and proud. When they are in battle, antlers locked and clicking with one another, they appear gentle and slow yet their head-to-head tug and dance is anything but gentle for the power behind each head lock is fierce, aggressive and much too intimidating to view except from a distance.

Since that hike, I have been yearning for the chance to bring an elk to life. So, when this current custom request came in turn and I was asked to make a doll with a companion reindeer, I could not help but bring forth my elk encounter as the inspiration for my making.

The chance to see these creatures in person was nothing short of entrancing, enchanting, beautiful, magical and majestic. And so, this moved me to bring to life a creation filled with all of this...enchantment, beauty, magic. But, I also wanted to take it one step further and make something even more majestic and mystical and that once was but can never be found again....and that is an extinct species of deer, called Megaloceros, otherwise known as the giant Irish elk. These enormous, prehistoric deer species were the largest of the deer ancestors and walked the earth so long ago. Can you imagine? 

And though, the vision and the end product of a soft sculpture creation will have the elements of enchantment, beauty and magic, the process of making them can be anything but this. As delightful, thrilling and challenging (which is an element that drives me) as it is to draft a new pattern, the work in progress can sometimes be frustrating, tedious and consumes a lot of time.

First, there must be something that moves me deeply. The encounter with the elk herd at Point Reyes was indeed the inspiration for this creation.

Then, there must be the vision of how this inspiration can be molded from fibers. So, there has to be a sketch, a picture in mind. I am not an artist and my sketches are limited to basic lines and curves. Vintage illustrations of nature and wildlife are a consistent source of information and inspiration for the drafting of my patterns. I use library books, old books or vintage artwork to gather ideas on how to draft proportions, stances and shapes.

From here I can begin to make the basic sketch for my patterns. Version 1 is always the most comical to me. They never come out the way I think or want them to come out. And it is only from drafting and then mocking up the pattern, meaning I cut the fabric and sew it together as a mock-up, can I truly realize that things are not what I intended.

It doesn't get better with Version 2 of the pattern. A second iteration of the pattern make-up can sometimes go very this one. An idea on paper may seem very nice until it is pieced together in fiber and then....the realization that weight has a large bearing on the end result.

So, back to the drawing board for adjustments. By round #3, I begin to learn a few things and my mistakes make me a little bit more knowledgeable each time, which is the part that feels very rewarding.

Version 4 arrives after many hours, sometimes days (if I take a lot of breaks) of sketching, moving sketch lines, curving some, sharpening others, adding markings, making the pieces fit together, working asymmetrical pieces with symmetrical parts, lengthening and shortening parts of the pattern. And luckily, this time around, I am satisfied with Version 4. 

The fun part comes when the final pattern is done and the final fibers are to be chosen. I like to use the best and most natural materials I can get my hands on and these don't come cheap. So, when the time comes for planning out the fiber selection, I like to be prepared and efficient with material selection in order not to let any go to waste by first planning out notations on my sketch what textures, colors and materials will be needed. This is an extremely satisfying step in the making.

Alas, the time comes to bring together the tools and materials and fashion the creature.

But, the process doesn't end there. Having the right proportion in pattern-making is the key element that hones the aesthetics of the final product. In the case of this majestic Irish elk, I went a little far with his antlers the first time around and even the second time around...too large and too stuffed, making this Megaloceros not only odd looking but also bound to keel over from the weight on his head.

In Version 3 of the antlers, I am satisfied with the size as it is now proportioned more appropriately with the size of the elk. I have also reconsidered the design so that it is much lighter and created so that they can be shaped to mock the real form of the Irish elk's headgear. The detailed embroidery on the antlers are to represent the beauty and magic of the creature. Without the embroidery and further adornments, I think Mochta will come to life much less majestic and he must be given a life with nothing less than magnificence, nobility, and resplendence. 

But beauty, nobility and resplendence comes at a price, called time and detail. So, time and detail are put forth to add to the "majestic" nature of his highness' headdress....5 solid hours of hundreds of small embroidery stitches on two magnificent antlers supported by a network of wires sandwiched between linen and wool in order to provide structural integrity and the ability to be shaped and curved.

For me, each step of the creation involves an intentional decision making.

A lace capelet requires a decision on the appropriate lace pattern or color, weight and texture of yarn that will look dainty, elegant and majestic but not too over-powering, loud or ornate.

A crown that is proportioned correctly for the size of the doll...something involving the likeness of royalty and fairy tales but not too sparkly or gaudy.

A head cap and shoulder wrap that give the impression of extra warmth and coziness but still offers a rugged sense of nature and life in the woodlands.

A dress and pair of footwear fitting for a woodland princess would involve simple colors but adorned with beautiful hand embroidery, the most delicate vintage swiss cotton lace, neatly designed fine textured fabric and detailed hand crocheted trim.

As such is the way that I work, the final details of this Irish elk will also unfold with each step of the process involving an intentional decision making.

So, slowly, but surely, the Princess Aoife (pronounced Ee-fa) and her great giant elk, Mochta have manifested themselves. And soon, very soon they will be ready to greet the world.