Member Spotlight: Leslie Horan Simon
October 28, 2020
This month’s member spotlight is Leslie Horan Simon. Leslie’s efforts to protect rare and endangered sheep breeds inspires her work and her focus on using carefully sourced wools. Leslie is based in New York City.
My medium is wool. Not just any wool but that which comes from rare and endangered breeds of sheep. My interest in working with fiber started about ten years ago and has evolved into a passion for fiber as the basis of my artwork and for my activism as I seek to raise awareness about these rare and endangered breeds of sheep from around the world.
In my first felt works, I used commercially produced yarns that I would knit or weave into fabric and wash to create felt. I also made felt by needle-felting wool roving with a 12-needle embellishing machine. I cut the felted fabrics and used the pieces to compose a number of works that tell personal stories. Details were created with appliquéd wool fabrics and hand stitched embellishments. These earlier works are on my website under Felt Works 2016-2019.
As my knowledge of wool has grown it’s like becoming conversant in a new language. A turning point came when I learned to spin my own yarn. I began buying different forms of wool and worked on my spinning skills. I’ve come to love the repetitive, meditative aspects of spinning as well as the immediate tangible results. The hand-spun is now an integral part of many pieces. The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Deborah Robson & Carol Ekarius has been a great resource to me, allowing my knowledge of fibers to grow exponentially and inspiring me to begin my own research of rare and endangered breeds of sheep as I bought different wools from small farms and individual shepherds from around the world.
I’ve expanded my ability to make large pieces of felt by purchasing a FeltLOOM, the Lexi model, freeing me from the limitations of the 12-needle embellisher. I choose to felt in this way for physical reasons as wet felting is an arduous process. I also prefer the felts that I can make with my FeltLOOM because they are thick and lofty and light.
As I work with each new breed, I keep detailed records of sources, what fibers I bought from each of them and other information including the names of individual animals whenever possible. For some of my pieces, I’ve created maps and keys with breed and sheep names to indicate what wool makes up each part of the work.
As I make larger work, I find that I am no longer telling such personal stories and have begun expressing myself more abstractly than I’d done before and enjoying the new-found freedom. I often employ a natural palette, but sometimes blend dyed fibers into natural wools to create more colorful work.
The relationships I’ve developed with many of my sources are enormously rewarding and interesting and have led to a series of works each of which will focus on a specific source. This series is on my website under Rare Wools Works 2018-2020. The first in this series is a piece done with Navajo Churro wool sourced from 3 women: Irene Bennalley from Two Grey Hills in northwest New Mexico of the Navajo Nation, Katherine Tucker of Desert Churro Rovings, and Sonja Payne of Woolhalla Tunis who sells wool from sheep that she raises as well as wool she sources from the southwestern United States. All these women are as devoted to their work as I am to mine so I called this first large-scale piece Devotion to honor them.
To make Devotion, I washed, processed, spun, knitted, wove, needle-felted, cut and composed every bit of the wool that makes up this work. It’s a fluid and fascinating process requiring strength–both physical and mental–sensitivity, and an openness to dialogue between me, the wool and the world. Each part of the process requires a slightly different kind of focus and there is always something to be done. At the end of the day when the studio goes quiet, I settle down to some reading and writing. I rarely have a bad day. I am fortunate to be able to do the work that I was meant to do.