2017-06-30 / Front Page

Discovering the artist within

Danielle Bonney: Accidental avian artist extraordinaire
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Kennebunk resident Danielle Bonney with her fiber art creation of a life-sized great blue heron, purchased by the National Parks Service and now on display at Presidio Park in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo) Kennebunk resident Danielle Bonney with her fiber art creation of a life-sized great blue heron, purchased by the National Parks Service and now on display at Presidio Park in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo) A native of Kennebunkport, Danielle Bonney, 48, now lives in Kennebunk, where she makes her living as a social worker aiding the elderly through her own business, Serving Our Seniors. But three years ago a chance encounter while seeking out a new hobby led her down a new path as a fiber artist.

It’s a craft Bonney not only became good enough at that she now teaches others, she’s had her work purchased by the National Parks Service and put on display at Presidio Park in San Francisco.

Recently, Bonney sat down to share with Post readers how she discovered the hidden artist within.

Q: You make animals out of wool felt, why that, out of every artistic medium you could have chosen?

An American kestrel, left, and a northern saw-whet, two examples of the wool felt creations of Kennebunk resident Danielle Bonney, who markets the works online at her etsy.com shop, Wild Thing Maine. The animal adaptations also can be found at local stores, including Restless Threads. (Courtesy photos) An American kestrel, left, and a northern saw-whet, two examples of the wool felt creations of Kennebunk resident Danielle Bonney, who markets the works online at her etsy.com shop, Wild Thing Maine. The animal adaptations also can be found at local stores, including Restless Threads. (Courtesy photos) A: I was going into the Kennebunk Library one say and I was thinking, gee, I really wish I had a hobby, but I really couldn’t do anything. I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I couldn’t do anything. And just as I walked up to the counter this man brushed by in front of me and threw a book down, then kept on going. It was called Wool Cuts and it had a little penguin on the front of it. I opened it up and it was all about needle felting, using sheep’s wool and this special barbed needle. It was for kids, but it showed the technique of how to do it. I was like, “This looks really easy. I could do this.” And it is easy, really. Anybody could do it, if you just practice.

Q: So, you checked out the book and started your artistic journey?

A: Well, now. The man came back by while I was looking at the book — he was a special needs person. He had Down syndrome — and he said, “No, you can’t take that. That’s mine.” He had just left it there while he continued browsing.

So, I went home and bought the book and the wool online. And when everything arrived I just started making all the things in the book. I learned all the techniques. The first thing I made was a bumblebee. It took me, like six hours [laughs]. I made all 20 things in the book and I thought, well, these look kind of childish, I wonder if I could make something that looks more real. So, I started looking at backyard birds. I mean, I’ve got all these birds always flying up to my windows. So, I made a chickadee. I worked so long on it. It was tiny, and if I look at it now it seems ridiculous. But at the time I was very proud of it. My son was like, “Mom, that’s actually pretty good.”

Q: How did you know you had found your own means of artistic expression, that this was more than a passing fancy?

A: Well, I couldn’t stop doing it. I was kind of obsessed with it. And then when people actually started buying them, I got so excited. I just love doing it. It’s very relaxing. And it’s so easy. All you do is you take some sheep’s wool — it comes in all different colors and you can layer them together — you roll it up, and you start poking it with the needle. As you do that the barbs in the needle tangle the wool and it gets more and more condensed, and then you can shape it into the body, or the head, and the wings, and then you just needle the parts together. It’s like sculpting with your hands and clay, except it’s with wool and a needle. The hardest part was figuring out how to make the feet.

But it really stems, I think, from my love of animals. They’re just so fun to make. And then when people actually buy something, it’s so much fun. Even now, I’m like really? You want to buy something I made?

Q: Why is that?

A: I’m not a natural artist. I have not been doing art or crafts my whole life. I was never ever interested. My husband does have that artistic thing he was born with. His name is David Bates. He owns Fotografix Studio in Saco. I’d be like, what’s wrong with this, and he’d encourage me to compare what I was doing to a photograph of the bird, to really compare the size and shape of each part to what I was doing. It used to be that maybe one out of five birds I’d do would come out okay, but I learned over time and got better and better the more I did it. Now I have the confidence that, even if someone requests something I’ve never made before, I know I can figure it out.

Q: How do you feel when you think about how far you’ve come?

A: It still amazes me to think I’m some kind of artist, or something. That would be the last think I would have predicted for myself. If you had told me five years ago, “You’re going to be an artist and make things from wool,” I would have been, “What??” It’s come as a complete surprise to me. I didn’t even know this was a thing. But neither did anybody else, at that time. When I first started, I’d tell people what I was doing and they’d just be like, “What?” Nobody had ever heard of it. But now it’s really taken off and it seems everybody’s heard of it, they’re all like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve tried that.” It’s something that’s become very popular. So, really, I found it at just the right time.

Q: What do you think about when you are making one of your creations?

A: I kind of get into a zone. Sometimes I listen to books on tape while I’m working. I can’t really watch TV or anything, because if you look up you stab yourself. It’s a really sharp needle. I’ve put one right through my finger before. But it’s really like meditating, because it’s so repetitive and your concentrating so hard. Sometimes I’ll sit there so long until my legs are falling asleep and I’ll look up and it’ll be dark out and I’m like, “Oh, my God, that’s what time it is?”

Q: Do you make any kinds of animals besides birds?

A: Oh, all kinds. Mostly I like doing the kinds of birds you’d find in Maine. I’ve done horses and cows — not life-sized on those, of course — and tortoises and mice. My mice are pretty popular. And I do a lot of people’s dogs. People who have lost their dogs, they’ll ask me to do one of their dog. At Christmastime I might have 20 dogs lined up, working away feverishly, trying to make each one look like the dog in the picture.

Q: What was your first sale?

A: It was one of my clients, one of the seniors I work with, actually. I was showing some of my birds off and this one woman said, “I want to buy three for my daughters.” I had to laugh, I said, “You’re legally blind. Trust me, they’re not that good.” But she was, like, “No, no, I can see! They beautiful.”

Well, I was not going to charge her, of course, but she absolutely insisted. I did eventually sell them to her, but at a big discount — like not even enough to pay for the supplies. But after that I was hooked. I started making things all the time.

Q: You now sell your work online, when did that start?

A: It was about a year after I first started, I opened up an etsy shop online. I remember I said to my husband at the time, can you imagine if some stranger was to actually buy one of my birds? Well, it was about a week later I actually sold one, and I’ve been selling them ever since. Most of my business comes from the etsy.com shop, but I’m also in a store downtown called Restless Threads, as well as at Hurlbutt Designs in Kennebunkport. And the Brick Store Museum has some of my work. I also tried doing craft shows, but that was so much work, and this is already so time consuming.

Q: How did you feel when people started buying your work?

A: Well, it was very nerve-wracking at first. I would work on each piece for hours and hours because I was like, these people are paying me, this has to be so much better. I just did not have confidence. But now I’ve sold hundreds of birds. Who knew?

Q: How long does it take to make each of your creations these days?

A: Well, even a small bird takes like two and a half hours. And then the more detail there is, the more time it takes. The seagulls I sell online for $100, but each one takes me about seven hours. The great blue herons that I do, that takes me about 25 hours.

Q: And your great blue heron is on display in San Francisco alongside a red tailed hawk that you made. How did that happen?

A: The National Parks Service actually contacted me though my etsy shop in October and said would you be interested in making two life-sized birds? I said, me? Are you kidding? I love the national parks. I’ve been to, like, 30 national parks. I said, yes! I would have done it for free. They’re in the Presidio Park visitor exhibit, which is right next to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Q: How did you get started teaching your craft to others?

A: I’m in the Wells Library all the time, getting things for one of my seniors. I know the librarian there. We went to high school together. She knew what I had been doing and she was like, wouldn’t you like to teach a class? I said, ‘I can’t teach a class, I don’t even know what I’m doing.’ But she said, come on, it’ll be fun. Well I did it, but I was so nervous, I was hoping nobody would sign up. But it was such fun. I just told them, look, if I can do this, you can, and everybody was so excited and they all left with a little hummingbird they made. They were all really good. Like I say, it’s not a hard thing. But it’s kind of like meditating when you’re doing it. Some of my students will spend an entire class just working on a single ear. But I love that people feel like I did when I started, that they have no artistic ability, but then they leave saying, “Oh, my God, I made this.” and that’s so much fun to see.

Q: Where do you go from here?

A: Well, I’m still doing the classes at the library. They fill up really quick. And I’ve been all over doing demonstrations. And I’ve started putting together kits that people can buy.

Q: Do you hope to become a full-time artist?

A: No, I don’t think so. I might like to make it half-and-half, but I think if I just did this I might get sick of it. And I really love working with the elderly. I have the nicest clients.

Q: What drew you to that line of work?

A: Well, I did things backwards. I had my son and then I went to school. My first husband was in a car accident and was in the hospital for a long time. He was in a coma for like six months. There was a social worker who was such a great help to me, she was such a great support to me day in and day out. And I thought, wow, if I could just help somebody like that. When my husband died my son was 2, I had to do something, and give him somebody to look up to, because I was it now. So, I went back to school and studied psychology. But they said I’d need to get a PhD in order to do anything with it, so I switched into social work. My first job was at Piper Shores in Scarborough, working with seniors and people with Alzheimer’s. I loved it. Later I worked at the hospital, Southern Maine Health, on the cancer ward. So after five years of that I resigned and started my own business. It took several months before I got any clients, but it finally took off and I’ve being doing it for seven years now. I’ve had as many as 13 clients at any one time, but usually averaging about seven. I’m usually with each one for several years. I drive for them, do their groceries, cook for them, walk their dogs, do their laundry, whatever they need. It’s really a joy to help these folks remain in their homes.

That’s why I think I enjoy the wool art so much. I have this job that I love, that I think is very important, but then when I go home I have this entirely different thing that I get to do. What’s funny is that when I started my business I put two little birds on my cards, just because I thought they were cute, and now here I am making birds.

Q: What would you say to people who think, like you once did, that they are not creative?

A: Just that anybody can be an artist. That’s the thing. If somebody like me can make this and have people paying me left and right, then everybody has got a talent. I really believe that now. Maybe some people are born with some ability, or maybe it’s just that they get interested in it at an earlier age so they have more time practicing at it — and I really practiced at it. I worked really hard and for a long time it was really hit or miss — but I really do believe now that everybody can do something, whether it’s paint, or knit, or make beautiful cakes, or whatever. People don’t realize how good they can get at anything with practice.

And I think people should do what they want with their lives. Right about the time I started my etsy shop I became a certified care manager, which was something I did because I thought it would help me advance my business and make more money. But the night I passed the test I was out to dinner with some friends and they were like, that’s great, but I was like, ‘Yeah, but I don’t really want to do that, I want to make my birds. Here, I have some in my car, I’ll show you.’ [laughs]. And that’s what I did — I kept my business just as it was and made my birds.

So, I think people should follow their hearts and just do what they love.

More to see

To see more examples of Danielle Bonney’s wool animal creations, visit her etsy shop online at www.etsy.com/shop/WildThingsMaine.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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