by Emeric Harney December 15, 2021 10 min read
Have you ever seen something that immediately made you feel warm and happy and soft, like a cookie that just came out of the oven? That’s how we feel about our December Teafluencer’s Willie Woollies, positively love and all good things at first sight. Meet Robyn Reid, who turned her artistic talents in a different direction after becoming a mother, and learn about her unique journey (fueled, of course, by a daily cuppa!).
Harney: Tell us a little about yourself. Where you’re from, your educational background, where you live now, your family, etc.
Robyn: Well, hello readers! I’m a mother, self-taught mixed media artist and fourth-generation Vancouver Islander.
Throughout childhood, my family and I spent our summers living in an old, family cottage on Qualicum Beach -- a quiet, seaside village that sits along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. The little cottage was built by my great grandmother back in the 1950s and sat no more than a stone’s throw from the shoreline. My grandfather would affectionately refer to that home as his “favorite patch of earth,” and it was a sentiment we both would share. Those summers by the sea were so joyful and so indelible, and I always hoped to settle there one day.
Earlier this year, my husband, Spencer, our five-year-old son, William, and our three dogs and I fulfilled that dream. There is a stillness and a nostalgia to this small town that I’ve yet to find anywhere else, and since moving here, I am feeling incredibly grateful and inspired.
Harney: Let’s start with your first artistic passion, portraits. When did you first become interested in drawing/painting, and how was it that you became a portrait artist?
Robyn: My earliest recollections of creative expression are as a little girl in my grandparents’ home where I spent so much of my time as a child. I can clearly recall making frequent trips into my grandfather’s home office, pulling open a creaky drawer in his old, wooden desk and finding his collection of pencils and markers and all kinds of special stationery. To me, that drawer was nothing short of magical. With pens and paper, I could bring anything in my imagination to life. As a quiet kid who struggled to make friends, this practice became a happy and safe place for me to express myself.
For most of my childhood, I remained faithful to pens and paper alone, often drawing illustrations that accompanied short stories I had written. It was my grade 10 art teacher who first implored me to use paint as a medium. She gave me a portrait assignment that required me to create something using a paintbrush. That assignment sparked an instant and lifelong passion for portrait painting.
Harney: Who are some of your favorite portrait subjects?
Robyn: I feel like the answer to that question is constantly evolving. At the moment, my favourite subjects have feathered faces! I adore painting portraits of local birds, especially crows and ravens. Just prior to motherhood, I was dedicated to painting the artists who inspired me most, particularly authors and songwriters. Whether human or animal, I am fascinated by how facial nuances tell powerful stories and give insight into an individual’s journey of love, courage, suffering and strength.
Harney: After the birth of your son, you took a brief artistic hiatus when, as you have said, you considered picking up a hairbrush, much less a paintbrush, to be a triumph! Then your artistic focus shifted. Tell us about how that happened.
Robyn: In early 2017, I was blessed with William -- a beautiful, joyful, healthy baby boy -- who only slept in two-hour intervals for the first 12 months of his life. Quite frankly, I spent the first year of motherhood in a perpetual state of sleepless delirium. I was unable to express myself in a creative way, and felt much like a stranger living in the foreign land of early parenthood. I understood that my all-consuming method of portrait painting was simply not compatible with my new life. I also recognized that in order to be a healthy, productive mother, I would need to adapt and find a new way of exercising my artistic nature.
So, I would say it was my long and arduous journey with postpartum depression that led me to search for new means to express myself artistically. Thankfully and quite serendipitously, in December of 2018 I found just that. While riding a ferry to the mainland for the holidays, I made my way to the gift shop and discovered a small bin of the most adorable, fuzzy creatures I had ever seen. They were tiny, quirky dogs, made out of wool and fashioned as Christmas tree ornaments. I immediately began researching the process by which they were made -- and a cursory Google search quickly revealed a term I had never seen before: needle felting. Before the ferry was docked, I had ordered the basic supplies necessary to needle felt, and so began an entirely unexpected new chapter in my life as an artist.
Harney: Willie Woollies are absolutely, stunningly precious. What is your inspiration for each of them? Do they each have their own back story?
Robyn: Oh, thank you so very much! Very early in my Willie Woolly journey, I had the great fortune of crossing paths with prolific Canadian author, teacher and all-around exceptional human being David Bouchard. He asked me to search within myself. Were there stories inside my heart to share with the world? It was this encouraging and inspiring conversation that became the catalyst for my public storytelling, which has become such an important part of Willie Woolly.
Through my creations, I’m able to share tiny tales that often speak to the hopefulness, joy and wonder I find in Creation. But I have also found that they serve as little vessels for me to share some of my innermost thoughts and insights, including my experiences with heavier things like loss, motherhood and mental health.
Sharing in this way has led me to make very special connections with people from all over the world. Many of them have a Woolly of their own and continue to share its narrative through individual accounts on social media. From this, a really amazing community has developed, made out of Woolly adopters from all different walks of life who use my creations to tell their own unique stories and perpetuate the message of wholesome joy and the power of kindness and imagination.
Harney: The short snippets of narrative that accompany each of them are beautifully written. They read like a wonderful children’s book, veryVelveteen Rabbit in nature. Have you considered writing a book with these characters?
Robyn: That’s a very generous comparison. Thank you! This is something I have been asked before and have spent some time considering. The concept of a Willie Woolly book strikes me as a bit of a conundrum, as the narratives that accompany the whimsical animals are most often aimed at an adult audience. In essence, I would be creating a storybook for adults. I haven’t figured out the details, but I can say for certain that this is something I will continue to ponder.
Harney: Do you have a favorite Willie Woolly or two? If so, why do they resonate with you?
Robyn: Oh, that’s a hard question! Like every maker, I put a little piece of my heart into everything I create. But along the way, there have been a few Woollies who remain especially meaningful to me, mostly because of what or whom they represent.
For example, there is a hummingbird named Hemingway who represents my struggles with early motherhood and postpartum depression. There is an old mouse named Bobby Burnsbloom who represents my beloved Pa and his journey with Alzheimer’s. More recently, there is a sweet wolf named Fionn who represents my dear friend Barry and touches on my experience with grief after the loss of my Nana earlier this year. And, of course, there are a few Woollies who I haven’t parted ways with for various reasons, like little Joseph (the mouse pictured on the beach) who is a full-time resident at my home and has become something like a teensy, tiny brand ambassador, making regular appearances on my social media.
Harney: What are each of these wool creatures made of (besides wool!) Do you make each of them by hand?
Robyn: Yes, nearly every detail is made by hand, from their paws and noses sculpted out of polymer clay, to their tiny clothes, which I have so much fun making! Beneath the wool is a skeletal frame of armature wire, which makes them poseable and able to hold little things like miniature teacups!
Harney: Maybe the most fascinating aspect of your Willie Woolly characters is that they are not available to purchase...but you will send them to someone free of charge upon receiving a special request. You write that they “are sent to people to sow seeds of creativity and joy.” Why did you decide to go this route? How do you decide which requests you will fulfill? Do you think you’ll ever make them available for purchase?
Robyn: Have you ever found the perfect gift for someone? Do you remember the perfect joy you felt when you gave it to them? I feel this every time I send a Woolly into the world. Giving in this way has truly been an exercise in joy.
When I started Willie Woolly, perhaps the only thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to create a happy space where I could share, connect with others and freely give my creations away to those who could use a token of love and hope in their lives. At the time, I was feeling isolated and alone in early motherhood, and as a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression for much of my life, I also keenly understood how little gestures of kindness have the power to give a person feeling desperate that little bit of hope they need to carry on.
To be able to create as a labour of love is a great privilege. The connections, encouragement and kindness I have received from my audience and Willie Woolly family has filled my cup in profound and wonderful ways.
I have no plans for selling Willie Woollies in a traditional sense, but I would love to find more creative ways to use them as a means to fundraise.
Harney: What kind of reception have your wee Woolly buddies had? Are you surprised by how this art form has blossomed for you?
Robyn: If you had told me five years ago that I would find great joy and fulfillment in creating tiny, fuzzy animals, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. As it turns out, crafting characters out of wool is a cathartic, therapeutic experience for me, and a synergistic marriage between my work as a portrait artist, illustrator and storyteller.
I am just as surprised and humbled by how well my wee, woolly buddies have been received! There is this notion that as adults we need to put away those things that were so dear to us in childhood -- that our connection to magic and whimsy is no longer appropriate. But there is this inner child in many of us who still wants to carry a little mouse in our pocket or bring a tiny bear or squirrel on an adventure in the woods. I feel as though Willie Woolly creates a space for people to revisit those beloved, magical places that still live inside our imaginations.
Harney: Any big Willie Wooly plans for the future? And are you still painting?
Robyn: I have a few exciting collaborations in the works. I also plan to pursue more fundraising initiatives that align with my passions for animal welfare, mental health and seniors’ care. And when I’m not creating Woolly characters, I’m working on the illustrations for a children’s book I’ve recently written.
Harney: What advice would you give to aspiring artists? Did you receive any advice as a young artist that helped you?
Robyn: Being true to my own point of view was one of the most valuable things I learned when I was apprenticing as a young artist. That advice holds true today. My advice to other aspiring artists, in the age of social media, is to not ove-analyze the analytics. Social media offers us tools and insights into what our audience wants and when they want it. But it’s so easy to become too focused on this data, and even discouraged by it when it doesn’t render the results we’re hoping for. I feel like this can sometimes obscure our visions as creators, as we push ourselves to adapt to what our audience might want, instead of what we inherently feel inspired to share. So, in a nutshell -- use the analytic tools lightly. Don’t dwell on the algorithms or compare yourself to other artists in your genre. Follow inspiration wherever it leads you. And finally, create meaningful, authentic content from your heart, and the right audience will find you and love you for it.
Harney: So, are you a tea fan? If so, what role does tea play in your life? Do you have any rituals that involve tea? Do the Willie Woollies fancy a cuppa?
Robyn: A good cup of tea must be one of life’s most universal and simple pleasures! In my family, it has always been a beloved, daily tradition. I can still vividly recall my Nana serving us tea in fancy china while singing Doris Day’s “Tea for Two.”
You might be surprised to learn that there is quite a tea culture in the Willie Woolly community! In fact, all Woollies thoroughly enjoy a cup of tea, and are often featured doing just that in my posts and stories on Instagram.
Harney: Do you have any favorite flavors or types of Harney & Sons tea, or anything on your list you’ve been keen to try?
Robyn: As a matter of serendipity, it was one of my Willie Woolly adopters who introduced me to Harney & Sons several years ago. She sent me a thoughtful care package that included all kinds of Harney tea flavors. Let me say, it was love at first steep, and I’ve been a faithful Harney & Sons tea enthusiast ever since. My pantry is full of your beautiful tins! My personal favourites are Paris, Vanilla Comoro and Victorian London Fog -- and wee Woolly Joseph has a penchant for Earl Grey Supreme (with a generous splash of milk and sugar, of course!).
We know, you’re champing at the bit to check out more Willie Woollies and to get a closer glimpse into their world (and Robyn’s)! Get ready for cuteness overload and some magical, straight-to-the heart storytelling when you visit Robyn’s website and Instagram, and then head over to her portrait website to see that work as well. We’re grateful to Robyn for allowing us to feature her work, story and mission. All photography was provided by Robyn and the Willie Woollies!
Also, as we close out 2021, a shout out to all 12 of our wonderful Teafluencers this year! If you missed any of them, you can check out their awesome stories on our blog. Thanks, Teafluencers, for sharing your time and talents with us -- along with your shared love of tea!
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