Susan Aaron-Taylor exhibits as one of three solo shows at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art 

Artist Susan Aaron-Taylor describes the way she creates her fanciful creatures as a sort of alchemy. It starts with a process called felting. Aaron-Taylor takes fleece — a mixture that can include sheep, llama, or alpaca — and layers it to create a new substance.

"It's physical labor," she says from her studio in Pleasant Ridge, where she's lived and worked since the '70s. "You have to squish it together, and roll it up, and beat it with your hand." If aligned correctly, the fibers become like a Velcro. She puts it in hot water and then cold — a panel that starts as a square yard could shrink down to 2 feet by 2 feet. Then Aaron-Taylor puts it in her washing machine and shrinks it even more. The result is a durable, tough, tight fiber.

"You're taking something very natural — like fleece off the back of an animal — and you're turning it into this wearable and workable fiber," Aaron-Taylor says. "People make tents out of it."

The resulting substance is versatile, and able to be worked further. "You can cut into it. It's not like a normal material which will shred," Aaron-Taylor says. "You can make it look like different things. You can make it really thick and cut into it with scissors and get a texture out of it. You can almost paint with it, because I've got so many different colors of fleece, and I can layer it, much as an oil painter would layer different colors."

The fiber serves as the pelt for her animals, created from wooden armatures. It's a process she arrived at only relatively recently. For 40 years, Aaron-Taylor worked as the head of the fiber design program at the College for Creative Studies. One of the classes she taught was feltmaking. "One day it just made sense — why don't I use this as kind of a cover?" she says.

The final artwork almost look likes taxidermy — though no one would ever confuse her creations with real taxidermy. "You've never seen a bird that looks exactly like my bird," Aaron-Taylor says. "They become more mythological."

But Aaron-Taylor isn't going for cute. "I don't want my work to be creepy, but I want it to be edgy," she says.

A current favorite fleece of hers is Spælsau, a Norwegian sheep. She says she gets her inspiration from transcendental meditation, which she has been doing for the past 40 years. "When I'm creating, I definitely go into another place," she says. "I go into a place where you pass a place where you're judging and saying, 'This doesn't work.' Then you're in a place of pure creation, and that's where you want to be. You've got your idea, you've got your materials, and you're just purely creating. Then when you come out of that, you look at the clock and you go, 'Wow, it's three hours later.'"

On one of her journeys, she decided that she needed to start using llama wool. Later, she got hip to a llama show at Michigan State University (just like it sounds: like a dog show, but with llamas). "I just met all these wonderful lamas," she says. "So I bought all these llama fleeces. They're beautiful."

But the choice of material isn't random. "I don't just throw in stuff. I use things that speak to me, that need to be used," she says of her sculptures, which can also incorporate gemstones, bits of metal, bones, and other materials she finds. "I'm a collector. There's a place for everything in my studio," she says. And though Aaron-Taylor says her inspiration comes from a personal place, she studies Jungian archetypes, which gives her work a mythical, universal appeal.

Aaron-Taylor will exhibit new works as part of three solo shows at the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, with an opening on Friday. Aaron-Taylor will exhibit in the art center's Rose Gallery, while the Black Box gallery will host a series of monoprints by Washington D.C.-based artist Sam Gilliam. The Main Gallery will feature large-scale appliqué paintings of feathers on wood by Allentown, Pennsylvania's internationally renown Gregory Coates. Coates will give an artist talk at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 13, while Aaron-Taylor is slated to give an artist talk at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 27.

Starts at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 12; 52 East Forest Ave., Detroit; 313-831-8700; nnamdicenter.org; no cover. Runs through August 22.

More by Lee DeVito

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