Laura Dean Bennett
Animal lovers who step inside the Pocahontas County Artisans Co-op at the Depot in Marlinton will be delighted to encounter the menagerie of lifelike animals made by Jan Skellion.
They’re not like the stuffed animals that most of us had when we were kids, and they’re not stuffed like animals displayed as trophies.
This is a different breed of “stuffed” animal – made by a process called needle felting.
Soft to the touch, and with such realistic faces, Skellion’s animals are the next best thing to the real thing.
Anyone who has ever sketched, painted or sculpted knows that faces can be challenging. But Skellion must have an instinct for it.
Maybe because the artist has a real affection for the animals she makes.
“All my animals have names,” Skellion said.
Besides the common popular animals, she makes more unusual ones, as well. They include a sloth, a bobcat, a camel, a snail, an ostrich and a toad.
The toad was originally going to be part of a scene with a bobcat, but he took on a life of his own, so to speak.
“I was making a bobcat and I thought it might be fun to make a little scene with the bobcat chasing something, so I thought I’d include a toad in the piece,” she said.
“Well, I started making the toad, but I guess I got a little carried away with him, and he got too big to fit in with the bobcat piece.
“So he went out into the world on his own and found a home with someone who likes toads.”
Owls are also popular. Besides a beautiful owl, there’s a charming fox, Slow-Mo the Sloth, Mack, the Scottish Highland cow, and Cleo the Camel.
“People often come to me with an idea of a certain animal that they want me to make.
“I’ve done dozens of commissions,” she said.
Skellion described the process of creating these felted friends.
“I start with a sketch of the ‘skeleton’ of the animal,” she said.
“I make the armature for the animal from pose-able wire. Then I wrap it with pipe cleaners so the wool will stick to the wire and stay in place.
“After that, I wrap the armature with wool or fiber and then create the shapes of the animal’s face and body and apply them to the armature.
“Some animals are easier to make than others. For instance, sheep are easy- cats are hard.
“I use a needle to felt the wool covering the armature and then use a finer needle to do the details and the colors. That’s all there is to it,” Skellion said, modestly.
Sounds easy when she says it, but somehow I think that making those exquisite faces must require a lot of artistic talent.
When I compliment the realism of her animals’ faces, Skellion admits that they often require a few tries to get them right.
“Well, it’s not like I always get them perfect right off the bat,” she said.
“But it’s no big deal – if something isn’t coming out right, I just take the piece apart and start over.
“I’ve had to do it many times. I’ve ripped whole heads off and put them back on again,” she laughed.
That’s one of the aspects of needle felting that Skellions likes best.
“It’s a very forgiving medium!
“It’s so versatile – you can do so much with it. And there are so many different fibers and textures.
“Even if you’re just talking about wool, there are so many different varieties of sheep, and they all grow different wool.”
Besides her “3-D” animals, as she calls them, Skellion has also started making “2-D” versions, as well – her animal portraits.
The first portrait that she felted is on display at the gallery.
It’s a magnificent needle felted portrait of her German Shepherd, Jax.
“Since I made that one, I’ve done several,” she said.
“I love doing them – it’s like “painting with wool.”
Many people know Skellion as a hairdresser.
“I’ve been doing hair for 43 years,” she said proudly.
She used to have a beauty shop in Marlinton until a fire destroyed it five years ago.
“The fire was a terrible thing,” Jan remembered.
Jan’s Corner Salon is in Buckeye now, and she works there on Monday and Tuesday of every week.
“Doing hair is also an artistic pursuit,” she mused.
Skellion grew up in Greeley, Colorado, and was an art major in college at West State College in Gunnison, Colorado.
“Even then I didn’t see myself as an art teacher or a commercial artist. I wanted a more rural life,” she said, as she thought back.
“I didn’t want to live in a city. I was horse crazy, and I knew I wanted to be a country girl.
“I always said that one day I’d take up riding and have some horses of my own.”
“I was never able to have horses until I came to Pocahontas County.
“So, here I am, living my dream,” Skellion said, beaming.
Twenty years ago this April, Skellion and her husband, David, moved here from Colorado.
They used to come here from Florida for fall vacations and, like a lot of our visitors, fell in love with Pocahontas County.
Jan and David live on a farm near Mill Point with three horses – a mini, an Appaloosa mare and an off-the-track Thoroughbred – and two German Shepherds and three cats.
And Dave raises African Cyclid fish.
And speaking of cyclid fish, her “famous fish,” Mousse (yes, like the hair product), was living in an aquarium in her shop in the Old Bank Building when it burned.
“But, thank goodness, Mousse came through the fire unhurt. And I’ve still got him,” she said, smiling.
Skellion’s needle felting started out as a hobby.
“It was really just something to do so Dave and I could join the Pocahontas County Art Coop together.
“They really wanted Dave,” Skellion laughed.
“David does beautiful carved wooden bowls. But we wanted to join together so I had to come up with something.”
Skellion came across making needle felted animals as she was casting about for a unique craft that no one else was doing.
She happened on YouTube videos about a relatively new art form called needle felting posted by a lady named Serafina, a fiber artist who lives in Maryland.
“Serafina started out with a small cottage industry and has turned it into a huge business,” Skellion said.
And, on a smaller scale, so has Skellion.
“I started out small. I bought local wool from a fiber artist in Renick and people seemed to like what I was doing,” she said.
“Now people bring me local alpaca fiber.
“What started out as a hobby has turned into a business,” Skellion said.
“My animals sell locally, nationally and even internationally.”
Besides showing and selling their work in the Pocahontas County Artisans Co-op, both Dave’s and Jan’s work can also be found at Tamarack.
“I’d only been doing the felting for about a year when my work was accepted at Tamarack,” Skellion said.
“I show at the Allegheny Highland Gallery in Clifton Forge and at a shop in the Art Colony at the Greenbrier Hotel. And I also sell through Facebook.”
But Skellion has kept her love for the art form by not putting too much pressure on herself.
“I work when I’m inspired – not necessarily every day.”
Skellion’s needle felted animals may originate in Pocahontas County, but they really get around.
When I ask where some of her animals have ended up, Skellion tells me about a bulldog portrait she sold to a customer in Seattle.
And one of her animals – an adorable squirrel clinging onto a piece of screen – has found a home in Australia.
A man from Michigan came into the Marlinton gallery and when he saw her animals he asked if she could do a squirrel hanging onto a screen.
He had in mind a Christmas gift for his sister who lives in Australia.
His sister, who’d married a man from Australia, had told him about a squirrel who kept coming around. It would climb onto a screen door and would look inside at them, and they’d gotten quite attached to it.
“And I did the white rabbit and the door mouse from Alice in Wonderland for a fiber artist from New York who was putting together a large Alice in Wonderland display.
“Needle felting is really a neat medium,” Skellion said, “and I enjoy talking to people about it. I get the best reactions from people.”
For those who would like to learn the skill of needle felting, Skellion will be teaching a class on April 12 for the Pocahontas County Art Guild at the McLaughlin House in Marlinton.
Students will get a kit with a couple of needles, the wool to make a little sheep and a felting surface – a burlap “envelope” stuffed with rice.
Sign up at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a fee for the class.