From Russia with Love – Artist Blends Old World Tradition with New World Experiences
Across three generations from Soviet Russia to Bracebridge, Elena Pozdeeva’s family has been perfecting the ancient art of felting.
Now her home studio bursts with the fruits of that labour – scarves, hats, 3D sculptures and wall hangings – all of it from the most practical of beginnings.
“In Russia, I was doing felting with my mom and grandmother. This was mostly domestic felting,” says Pozdeeva. “Sometimes you dyed your own wool but mostly we were using unprocessed and undyed wool. It was something traditionally done in the area, but not done by everyone.”
Beginning with modest creations built to tackle frigid Russian winters, the limits of Pozdeeva’s felting are now only limited by her imagination.Felting has seen an uptick in popularity in recent years but primarily the process of needle felting. Needle felting involves
transforming wool into 3D objects, using a barbed needle. At the micro-level, felting involves agitating the wool fibre and forcing it to bond together, creating a solid fabric.
Pozdeeva specializes in wet felting. Wet felting is the process of connecting or blending wool, wool roving or fibre together to make a fabric strictly by using water, water temperature fluctuation, soap and agitation. In other words, it’s using only your hands to transform wool into fabric.
From this seemingly basic technique, Pozdeeva has created Muskoka themed wall hangings of all sizes, sweaters, scarves, hats and even birdhouses.
“The water passes right through and the whole thing dries in about 30 minutes,” says Pozdeeva, holding up one of her teardrop-shaped birdhouse specimens. “The colours won’t run either.”
Recently, Pozdeeva has been returning to her roots by creating sculptures from unprocessed, undyed wool. Her latest creations are a series of three dimensional, larger than life seeds and seed pods.
Growing up in the Ural region of Russia, Pozdeeva was interested in different styles of art like conventional pastel painting and craftwork. She worked in the advertising industry in Russia, while her husband Petr was a mechanical engineer by trade. The economic turmoil that followed the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. left Pozdeeva and her husband looking for more stable options.
Essentially on a whim, they acquired their Canadian visas and moved to Mississauga.
“Everyone warned me about the cold and snow but it’s very cold in Ural. I was looking around and wondering where the snow was. It’s not so bad,” Pozdeeva recalls with a laugh.
She eventually landed in the retail fashion industry and the couple had two children –Alexandria and Tim, before deciding they needed a change of lifestyle and a fresh start outside of the city.
“Ten years ago, we rented a cottage in Gravenhurst,” says Pozdeeva. “I opened a window and saw these rocks and trees. I said I’m going to live here.”
Before long, she and Petr had purchased a house near the Muskoka River in Bracebridge. She also became reacquainted with the traditional family art of wet felting.
“I started simple, just to help make my fingers remember,” she says. “Then I started to experiment with what is possible with wool, like 3D effects and making it look like acrylic – maybe I can do something different?”
Pozdeeva says she was welcomed with open arms into Muskoka’s arts community and particularly by the Muskoka Arts and Crafts organization and its executive director Elene Freer.
The house Pozdeeva and her husband live in now is more than 100 hundred years old and her artwork hangs from the walls in the upper level and fills her basement. Her materials are all sorted by their various colours and types in orderly plastic tubs.
“I try to buy Canadian wool, mostly from Quebec and Ontario,” says Pozdeeva. “Mostly it’s sheep’s wool - Merino is the most popular - but I also really like alpaca.”
People are looking to make those stronger connections to nature, says Pozdeeva, and her artwork does just that.
While synthetic material like polyester can take anywhere up to 200 years to decompose, wool returns to the earth in as little as three to four months.
It’s also incredibly versatile, she explains, as it can be worn in very cold Muskoka winters, yet is light and breathable to wear in summer.
The history of felted garments can be traced as far back as 3,500 years ago to Europe and China, and can be found in many areas and cultures over the years.
Finished felt clothing products, like scarves and coats, are soft and durable, composed of one piece and no stitching.
“I make all my own patterns. The tricky part is celebrating the shrinkage. Different things shrink at different rates and felting is a shrinking process. When you use the hot water and soap you can manipulate it. It will shrink up to four times its original size,” she says. “It takes about 40 hours to do a coat and everything is one of a kind. I don’t like doing the mass produced things.”
The finished product can go directly into the washing machine, as it’s already been shrunk.
Pozdeeva has now set a new goal for herself – to take what she knows and allow others the chance to learn. She would like to go to area farms and teach them how to felt.
“A lot of that extra wool they have just goes in the garbage,” she says. “I’d like to show them how to wash it and process it themselves. You just need hands and soap.”
She also has some experience in teaching art and would like to do so again.
“I want to make myself useful and give back,” she says. “It’s less money than other jobs but I’m more happy because I can give more. In my opinion, that’s the key to success.”
With her talent for creating and sharing her experiences, Pozdeeva is already very successful.