Linda Fjeldsted Blust has loved creating with fabric since her grandmother taught her to sew. But like many creative people, especially women making art with textiles, Linda was urged to follow a more “serious” career path. Then a spin on the dance floor sparked a fashion business creating unique ballroom dancing costumes. Linda now creates elaborate bird sculptures from fabric, wire, tubing many embellishments that hearken back to her dancing days.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
My grandmother taught me to sew when I was a child, so I credit her for my lifelong obsession with making things from fabric. She also shared with me her love of animals, nature and gardening.
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I studied art and fashion design in college and dreamed of opening my own gallery to sell my sewn creations. But times were different then, and my teachers and fellow students told me that anything made with a needle and thread would never be taken seriously as art. Sewing, they said, is “women’s work” and therefore of little value. So I changed my major to journalism but continued to take art and design classes for enjoyment.
After graduation I spent the next few decades working for newspapers in Northern California. Journalism was a wonderful career that I will never regret, but I was happiest during off-work hours spent in my sewing room experimenting with fabric and making handbags, kitchen items and clothing, which I sometimes sold at craft fairs and consignment shops.
One day a friend urged me to sign up for ballroom dance classes, which led to a new obsession. When we entered some dance competitions, I of course made my own costumes. To my surprise, other dancers offered me money to make costumes for them, and soon I had a little side business going. Eventually I retired from journalism, moved to Las Vegas, and became a full-time ballroom costume designer.
The ballroom world is a wonderful, busy, whirlwind scene, and I enjoyed being part of it until 2014 when my husband and I retired and moved to Reno. I took along my stash of feathers, rhinestones and sparkly trims left over from my costume business, and for the next few years I experimented with other ways to use them, including elaborate custom Christmas stockings that I sold on Etsy. But everything changed when I started experimenting with bird sculptures.
I am now a semi-retired textile artist, finally able to set my imagination free and enjoy the sheer thrill of creativity for its own sake.
How does your formal art education help your work develop? Does it ever get in the way?
The most useful classes for me were in fashion design, particularly pattern drafting, which taught me to think in three dimensions. As a result, I’ve always been fascinated with the architectural challenge of molding a piece of flat fabric into a self-standing 3D object.
Did making costumes for ballroom dancing influence what you do now? Both have to look good from all angles.
My birds have a lot in common with my dance costumes. They’re elaborate, brightly colored, heavily embellished and designed to appeal from all angles.
They also involve similar construction methods. In both cases, I start by building a good foundation: a well-fitting bodysuit in the case of a dance costume and a sturdy, balanced body in the case of a bird sculpture. When I have a completed foundation, then I’m free to unleash my artistic instincts as I embellish the surface.
When beginning a project, do you pre-plan your entire endeavor or do you simply follow where your inspiration takes you?
A little of both, actually.
As I begin each project I strive to ensure that the shape and proportions are correct and the piece is sturdy and balanced. This takes planning and research.
But once the basic structure satisfies me, I surrender control and proceed on instinct. As I test and reject various embellishments, the bird’s gender and personality begin to materialize. It’s almost as if the bird is telling me who it is, and I am simply the obedient conduit. The final product is often as much a surprise to me as it is to the viewer.
What inspires you to create? What is it about birds that captivates you for your current work?
I’ve been a nature lover all my life but am especially drawn to birds. Their variety of sizes, shapes and colors captivate me, and I had always fantasized about someday creating bird-themed art. I had to postpone that dream for decades while I earned a living and saved for retirement, but I never stopped thinking about it. Through the years I imagined all kinds of birds, both realistic and fantastical, that I hoped to someday sculpt from fabric.
Now that I finally have time for them, I feel as if all the birds that have lurked in my head for decades are competing to get out. The hard part is deciding which to make next.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
I made my first bird less than three years ago, so I’m still experimenting.
In the beginning I scoured the library and online for bird-making instructions, but most of the tutorials I found were for tiny birds with short, flimsy legs, not the big sculptures I wanted to make. However, I did find some helpful tips in a few books:
1. “The Artful Bird” by Abigail Partner Glassenberg, where I learned how to make gussets to round out my birds’ bodies.
2. “Cloth Dolls for Textile Artists” by Ray Slater, which taught me how to needle-sculpt a face.
3. “Field Guide to Birds of North America” by Roger Tory Peterson and “John James Audubon: The Watercolors for the Birds of America” by Annette Blaugrund and Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., which are invaluable references for bird shapes, sizes and colors.
I also took a couple of classes in free-motion thread painting and applied that technique to wing and tail feathers.
My first few birds were crooked and cartoonish, but I learned from mistakes. As I moved on to making larger birds, I figured out how to strengthen the bodies with wire and reinforce the legs with copper tubing.
Each bird species presents new challenges, forcing my creative methods to constantly evolve.
For instance, when I sculpted my first phoenix I wanted to give it raised wings so it would appear to be preparing to fly. After many false starts, I eventually built a convincing set of wings from wire and interfacing, covered them with feathers and then sewed them to the bird’s back with upholstery thread.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
Last year I received a request for an African Grey Crowned Crane. I wasn’t familiar with this bird, so I spent some time researching it online, where I found photos from all angles, closeup shots of the feet and head, and written descriptions including measurements. I also found a beautiful video of a male crane performing his mating dance in front of a female, which provided a good impression of the bird’s playful personality.
Using a profile photo as reference, I drew a rough pattern, cut it out from gray cotton fabric, stitched it together, and stuffed it with Poly-fil. This sounds simple enough, but it actually took a few attempts. Drawing patterns for 3D structures is more complicated than creating a flat image because the shape changes as it’s stuffed.
I won’t go into detail here about how I made the legs and feathers and attached them to the body because it’s a multi-week process that could fill an entire book, but you can follow it in detail on my website: wildthingsbylindab.com/blog/category/crowned-crane
The biggest challenge was how to make the crane’s spiky golden crown, which I saved for last because I had no idea how to go about it.
A friend suggested that I make it from fiber optics, which seemed at first like a great idea. I could imagine how fun it would be to have a crown that could light up. But after spending about $100 on fiber optic supplies and agonizing about how to hide the battery casings, switches and illuminators, I gave up on the idea.
But it wasn’t a total loss because I discovered that the fiber optic filaments were the perfect size and stiffness for the crown. So I cut them into 50 4-inch pieces, painted them with metallic gold nail polish, attached them to the head, and stuck shiny beads on the ends. I loved the result so much that I made two more cranes.
This is what I mean by proceeding on instinct: Sometimes I have no idea how I’m going to make something, but if I just experiment a bit, a solution always shows itself.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
A lot of textile artists make 3D birds, but we each have our own style. Some are hyper-realistic, while others use recycled fabrics to create a vintage look. I think mine are unique because they’re large and elaborate – some might say overly fussy. I love to use intense colors, lots of sparkle and experiment with a variety of techniques, including embroidery, beadwork and free-motion machine quilting. They may not be everyone’s taste, but they’re definitely hard to ignore.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Our previous home in Las Vegas had a big, roomy suite where I ran my dance costume business above the three-car garage. It was a dedicated space where I could concentrate without distraction.
But we downsized when we moved to Reno, and my current sewing studio is a converted den in our modern tract home. My office occupies what should be the dining room. And my bird sculptures roost on shelves all over the house. It’s a big happy mess, and I love it.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
The most important tool for anyone who sews is a good basic sewing machine – in my case the same Janome Memory Craft Pro that I used in my costume business.
These are some other tools and materials that I rely on:
1. A Sew-Brite wheeled sewing table, which has a huge cutting surface and lots of heavy-duty drawers for holding tools and trims.
2. Vintage china cabinets to store fabrics.
3. Computer and Adobe Creative Cloud suite, particularly Illustrator and Photoshop, which I use to draft my patterns.
4. Drawers full of trims, yarns, embroidery floss, laces, buttons, beads, Swarovski crystals, feathers, fabric paints and silk flowers, mostly left over from my costume business. I love finding ways to use these on my birds.
5. Assorted interfacings, stabilizers and Lutradur.
6. Fabric paints and markers.
7. Other liquids, including fabric stiffeners, Mod Podge, Super Glue and Scotchgard.
8. Wire and metal tubing.
9. Polymer clay and tools for working with it, including a pasta roller.
10. Carpenter tools, including drills, screwdrivers, wire cutters, a small circular saw and soldering iron.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I couldn’t function without a table vise to hold my birds while I work on them.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
I wrap my fabric around cardboard comic book boards (available on Amazon) which allow me to store the fabric upright on shelves.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I’m no psychologist, but I like to imagine that everyone has the capacity to be creative, but it’s up to the individual to choose whether to stifle that creativity or nurture it through training and practice.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
I’ve never been stuck, so I have no advice on getting unstuck. A bigger problem for me is staying focused on one project at a time.
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
Be an original. Follow your own muse rather than copying somebody else’s style. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Not every effort will be a masterpiece, but it can still be a teaching moment that will help you in the future.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website, like my bird art, is a work in progress. I mostly use it to post photos of my birds and information on where they’re being exhibited. I also like to blog about my creative journey, in case someone might find it useful in their own work.
Here’s where you can find Linda Blust and her work:
Interview Posted January 2021