Cancer survivor takes unusual craft on a road trip

Poking along

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Kay Petal discovered needle felting five years ago after she was diagnosed with a rare form of salivary gland cancer. Since then she has created multiple “Li’l Celebrities” that have been featured in Art Doll Quarterly magazine. “During my cancer ordeal, I realized how much I rely on my sense of humor, and with needle felting I’m finding the same to be true,” she said. “My sense of humor drives my creativity, and each new piece strangely becomes like family.”

It all begins with a single poke.

Using a barbed industrial felting needle — retrofitted with a rubber-coated tip so her fingers don’t bleed — Kay Petal turns one poke into hundreds and then thousands of pokes until the mass of unspun wool she has been stabbing is shaped to her liking.

Petal makes woolen dolls, funny-looking little creatures with an odd lifelike quality to them.

Her celebrity dolls are fast becoming her claim to fame. She has shaped wool to look like Bono, the Beatles, Conan O’Brien, Ellen Degeneres, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and a long list of other famous people.

It’s an art form that’s not easily explained, but the results are impressive and a little weird at the same time.

“Creepy? It’s OK, you can say it,” she assures her audience, anticipating the question. “They are a little creepy to some people.”

But to Petal, these woolen masterpieces make her laugh. They’ve been her salvation, really.

Petal, who is spending a month in Kalispell giving needle-felting classes, came across the unusual craft on the Internet five years ago as she was looking for information about cancer. She had been diagnosed with a rare form of salivary gland cancer and wasn’t sure she wanted to go through conventional treatment.

“I don’t knit, sew or crochet,” she said.

But for some reason needle felting intrigued her and she tapped into the website for Birgitte Krag Hansen, a Danish artist considered one of the pioneers of sculptural needle felting.

Petal, of Wasilla, Alaska, dabbled with the craft for a few months and entered her work at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. She won Best of Show in the fleece and fiber department.

It was a stroke of luck when Petal learned her Danish mentor was coming to Alaska to give needle-felting classes, and another bit of serendipity when she and Hansen were paired as roommates for the classes hundreds of miles from Petal’s home.

“I felt like she touched me with a magic wand,” Petal said of the Danish artist.

It doesn’t go unnoticed among Petal’s needle-felting students that Wasilla also is home to former Alaskan governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

“Yes, I grew up with Sarah,” Petal confided. “Her dad was my coach. We were in the same class. We were friends.”

Petal doesn’t like to bring Palin into her classroom conversations because she finds her former classmate kind of “polarizing,” but when asked she acknowledges that she graduated with Palin in 1982.

“She was my very first caricature,” Petal said, describing the woolen Sarah Palin doll who sported a swimsuit with a “Wasilla” sash across her bodice. “She was adorable, and she really started my celebrity dolls.”

Petal sold her rendition of Palin on eBay.

Petal’s motivation in pursuing needle felting as a hobby was to find something therapeutic and fun at the same time. Her father, for whom she was the primary caregiver, died from cancer as Petal herself was being diagnosed with cancer. During her yearlong recovery, she needed a diversion.

“As a patient, you spend so much time in waiting rooms,” she said. “This makes you laugh while you’re doing it.

“During my cancer ordeal, I realized how much I rely on my sense of humor and with needle felting I’m finding the same to be true,” she continued. “My sense of humor drives my creativity and each new piece strangely becomes like family.”

Needle felting is somewhat addictive. Petal’s nephews, in their early 20s, got into it and even made stop-motion videos of some of the caricatures for her website.

“It wasn’t uncommon to have 10 young guys sitting around the house needle felting,” she said.

Petal settled on Felt Alive for her business name, a play on words that celebrates not only her craft but also her beating cancer.

Before long Petal’s caricatures began taking on a life of their own on the Internet, with interest worldwide. Her “Li’l Celebrities” have been featured in Art Doll Quarterly magazine.

She was in demand for classes, but Alaska isn’t exactly in the mainstream and it was difficult to market her skills.

It was time to hit the road.

Petal’s husband of 25 years, Ethan, gave up his job in the Alaskan oilfields, and she easily said goodbye to her work as an international vessel agent, a tedious job that involved lots of “paperwork peddling” to process foreign incoming ships.

“I hated it,” she said. “I did it for 15 years.”

They sold all their belongings, bought an RV and left Alaska in October.

“When we left we had dolls on the dashboard and hanging on the windows,” she recalled. “We had people laughing along the highway.”

The first order of business was a trip along the Oregon coast and some classes set up along the way. They eventually meandered over to Montana and were in Kalispell by late April. They’re on to Bozeman next.

“My whole point in doing this is I have to share this,” she said. “What I hear over and over again [from students] is ‘this has changed my life.’”

Petal’s husband keeps plenty busy processing orders and editing videotape for Petal’s instructional DVDs.

She’s not sure how far and wide this hobby-turned-business venture will take them.

“I have no clue what tomorrow holds,” she said lightheartedly.

Next up on her list of celebrity caricatures: Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln. She’d like to pose those dolls in Washington, D.C., for a photo shoot.

“Obama is definitely on my list. He may be in his bathing suit, too,” she said with a laugh.

Needle-felt artist Kay Petal will teach a class this week for beginners.

On Saturday, June 12, participants will learn how to sculpt a “Man in the Moon.”

The class is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Camas Creek Yarn, 338 Main Street, Kalispell. Cost is $65 plus about $25 for materials.

A variety of Petal’s sculpted caricatures are on display at Camas Creek Yarn. Call the store at 755-9276.

For more information about needle felting, go to Petal’s website at www.feltalive.com.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

Petal created caricatures of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

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