Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Adventuress, actor, skier, mother, filmmaker, and fibre artist Mechthild Reinders is an artist with a wide range of practices that feed off each other. What connects such a diverse range of talents? A passion for the wild.
Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1959, Mechthild originally studied theatre at the Folkwang University for the Arts before moving to Paris to pursue her interest in clowning at the prestigious École Philippe Gaulier. Its alumni include actors Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Looking at Mechthild's felt designs it’s easy to spot the theatrical influence. Her felted animal heads look as though they belong in a productions of Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Magic Flute. The names of her haute couture outfits are also a link to the performing arts. There’s the Medea jacket in black and red Merino, Wensleydale, Bamboo and Silk; the risqué Nights in White Satin created with Magilan and Organzasilk, Chubut and Norske Spaelsau lamb curls; and last, but certainly not least, her Homage to Audrey Hepburn’s, Breakfast at Tiffany’s hat made from Chubut and Merino. Visit these at: http://mechthildreinders.com/
Mechthild’s photographs of her work are also art pieces on their own. Here it’s easy to see the part nature plays in her creativity as well as her background in documentaries and her love of skiing. Her abstract pieces lie against earthy, textured backgrounds, A lush carpet sits on pebbled beach, A unicorn made out of Gotland, Merino, Bamboo, Hemp, Alpaca, and Silk is photographed in the forest near a winding creek.
The pilot for her documentary Raising Stars can be seen at https://vimeo.com/28870606. This highly personal film is a cinematic biography of a family involved in competitive downhill skiing which asks the viewer to think about the emotional cost of competition. Beautifully filmed, this short clip leaves one curious and eager to see more.
Recently we had the pleasure of talking to Mechthild via Skype. The conversation was fascinating. We hope you will enjoy our interview with her.
How did you start felting?
Maybe it was the forest’s fault … because ever since I was a child, I had a deep longing to be surrounded by nothing but Wild, the Untamed, the Archaic, and was bewitched by snow and ice. This longing to be in Nature, undisturbed, became my addiction at a young age. Growing up on the edge of Hamburg in Northern Germany, I was a child of the woods. The forest right in front of our home was my playground. There were wild boar, deer, blueberries and mushrooms … and so much snow that schools had to even close one winter!
As an adult in Norway, I spent a significant amount of time in the great outdoors —often alone on back country ski excursions, many of them several weeks long.
Or was it Mrs. Wamig’s fault, my eldest son’s Waldorf Kindergarten teacher? “We have been felting today!” she said when she placed a tiny woollen doll vest in my hands. It was twenty years ago. We were in Muenster in North Rhine Westfalia, where I had checked 17 different daycares and Kindergartens but none were acceptable except the Waldorf Kindergarten. Today looking back, I admit it was the child in me that wanted to be there. This is where my felting unconsciously started.
Soon after the birth of my younger son, in 2002, we emigrated to Canada for my husband’s career. With my immigration I found a vast Arctic Garden Eden. I started ice climbing at the age of 43 and went on epic back country ski tours in the Rockies. I crossed ‘White Oceans’, the biggest glaciers, like the Columbia and Wapta Icefield, many times. I tented on them at minus 20 C. In North America’s epic backcountry wildernesses, I found solitude, solace and spirituality again.
But daily life does not happen on an icefield. The loss of my European home and being alone with two young children took its toll. I felt like my roots were cut off. I felt I had lost the ground from under my feet. I felt desperate, depressed and paralyzed by sadness.
I decided to stay home and be my “Children’s First Teacher.” I took it very seriously. We sent our eldest, Moritz, to a local public school and I ordered tons of Waldorf books from Germany and started to teach my other children at home; celebrating the seasons’ most beautiful festivities, including big theatrical events for St. Martin, St. Nikolaus, the Spring and Winter Equinoxes and Midsummer night.
Here, it finally all came together – my theatrical background, my desire to create, and the sense of drama. I started felting with my children —creating with natural dyes. The assistant principal and teacher of my younger son’s grade 2 class asked me to work in her class. I did this for a full school year in 2008/09, all while undergoing pancreatic tumour surgery.
I regarded these unpaid, exhausting volunteer hours as a present to my younger son. A huge tapestry is hanging in the school library now, a white “canvas” felted with the kids, who even used their feet. After the wool was dyed in September, we felted Christmas ornaments with cochineal dyed wool. When insects were on the agenda, we felted butterflies. We felted Easter eggs in the spring and at school year’s end, and for the Africa study, the students felted African scenes on the canvas with their dyed wool.
I received a grant in Calgary to work with children in another school, many from displaced families. “This reminds me of my grandmother” said a young girl who’d fled Afghanistan. Hearing her touching story was the ultimate reward for me.
I taught felting workshops at home, in our community centre and at the Leighton Arts Centre (south of Calgary, AB). All of this was very humble felting compared to what I am doing now!
Where are you artistically these days?
I have come a long, long way. I am now in my third artistic life, as a fibre artist. It has been a journey over decades, on my way to my true self. It’s as if the little seedling, once placed in my hand by Mrs. Wamig, is now blossoming —20 years later.
In September 2016. I flew across the Atlantic to deliver my film to the European ARTE producers (ARTE is a European public service television channel that promotes cultural programming), not knowing that I would start a New Life in the Old World. There, I discovered an old friend I’d known while attending clown school in Paris, now living in Strasbourg, where ARTE’s headquarter resides.
I moved in, set up a felting atelier right away and had my hands wet with olive oil soapy water! Some fellow felters from Canada recommended a marvellous family-owned wool supply and felting business north of Stuttgart, “Wollknoll”. When visiting that place I felt like a kid in a toy store, wandering through the piles of wool, many of a kind I had not even known before. The store had started the first Felting School in the World, and I took several workshops there, not yet focussed on a clear goal.
But with a grant from the Calgary Arts Development for felt master classes in Southern France, my felting destiny was picking up speed and got clearer: Haute Couture! France is the perfect country for this.
I started my fibre art business in 2017, In 2018 I was invited to exhibit at one of the country’s most prestigious art/craft exhibitions, “Salon Resonances” —just a year and a half after I had started felting again!
Then came newspaper articles, invitations to exhibit at “Faubourg des Createurs” two consecutive years. It was unreal….the response in Europe made me dizzy with excitement. It happened so fast!
For “Salon Resonances”, the jury had asked me to create boots and animal heads. I had found another wonderful family-run enterprise in Austria, selling 80 colours of “Bergschaf” (“Mountain Sheep”) wool. I achieved the most stunning results by using this wool for the over-the-knee riding boots I made and for the inner layer of my animal heads.
Now at the age of 61, I feel like I am approaching new horizons. “Aufbruchsstimmung!” (atmosphere of departure, spirit of optimism). It is almost a paradox, living in a pandemic crisis that is shaking up the whole world, freshly divorced and with my grown up children in Canada and Switzerland, I found refuge, warmth, and my destiny. I have a deep satisfaction knowing that this is what I want to do (at least until the next film!)
I love big challenges; mental and physical challenges, so I am aiming for more ambitious felt projects than ever. I like to “Think Big” and work towards that.
I have been intrigued for decades by one of the most important post war artists of my home country, Joesph Beuys. I had been bewitched by his “fat and felt” installations in museums, not knowing what felt had meant to him, a former WW2 pilot who was shot down in the endless Russian tundra. Nomads who found him, embalmed his injured body with fat and wrapped him in felt. Felt became a metaphor for survival for him. I, too, have experienced the healing power of felt. Wool is an element of protection, warmth and shelter. But it is also an authority, that cannot be overwritten. It can be demanding, very demanding. Like a good friend, that knows you, that knows you can do more.
With the creation of animal heads, I am reconnecting with my theatre years and with the tremendous physical effort that felting requires, and I am reconnecting to my times in the great outdoors.
I am always nervous before a new creation as I am before a long, multi-day ski excursion or an ice climb … but the reward after having moved out of my comfort zone is empowering and deeply satisfying.
With the creation of animal heads I had begun working with raw unprocessed wool, right from the sheep. The scent of this raw fleece turns my atelier, (or my work space —I often work outside on a farm’s property in the local mountains, the Vosges, a French equivalent to the Back Forest) into a sheep barn. It’s earthy, it’s intense, it’s dirty, and it’s physically demanding.
When it comes to creating interior pieces in raw wool, I love to work with “Norske Spelsau”, a Norwegian breed, and I buy the fleeces from a shepherd in Northern Germany who looks after 1,000 animals. The curls are long and soft, come in all possible natural colours, and have a magic gloss that I have not seen anywhere else. I have found sea sand and pieces of heather in the wool, like a little greeting from the land I grew up.
I love the extremes and I have felted Haute Couture with raw wool, and yes, I have felted “Heidschnucken” raw wool on silk. Heidschnucken is a sheep breed from the heathery south of my home town Hamburg, used for landscaping. Normally this wool is thrown away, because of its lack of “quality”. I get the most pristine “Heidschnucken” fleeces from the Black Forest now, and for me the quality lies in the drama and the wildness this wool transmits. This is what I am looking for.
A gorgeous scene of the Vosges.
Tell us about creating during Covid?
When Covid-19 hit France in March 2020, I was preparing to fly back to Canada. I found myself in one of the hardest locked-down countries in the world, allowed to escape for exercise only once a day, within one km, and one hour from the living space. We were Police-controlled and huge fines were handed out. I escaped a few times into the nearest forest and found myself in a lush green paradise.
I also rediscovered my other old passion, dyeing with natural dyes. I picked the young dandelion for tender yellow and nettle for greens. I had dyed in Calgary many years ago, but it then became a total obsession. I got bewitched by Yellow, a colour I had always hated (being blonde, I had never worn it, I never used it for interiors, and I literally had no yellow around me). But in summer 2020, I dyed kilos of wool and silk in a dozen shades of the Colour of Light. I carded for days, ending up with tennis elbow!
In the Covid crisis, there is a lot of whining, complaining, and anger, but for me it was, and still is, a time of resetting my personal life and finding my true creative goal. It’s like an Artist’s Residency for me. I will, at some point, miss my several hour-long harvesting sessions, dyeing flowers like Chamomile, Golden Rod, Marigold, Saint- John’s-wort, Wild carrot, Common yarrow, and Dyer’s greenweed. And I’ll miss cooking like a witch with my dye pots; in a town that was so silent during lockdown that I felt like one of the last humans on Earth.
I always take the photos of my creations myself. I met with an American friend in front of the majestic cathedral in Strasbourg at 8 am on a Saturday and Sunday, during the lockdown, to photograph a huge Spelsau creation. It was a very special photo-shoot. Never ever have I experienced such a medieval atmosphere —we were in “The Great Empty”!
Recently, I received another recognition of my art: I was given a residency, in form of an atelier, in Strasbourg, France, to create an eight square-meter tapestry. I am still in the process of finishing this piece, entitled “Abundance of Light”.
I have also been invited to exhibit at a prestigious exhibition “Pieces d’ Exception” (“Exceptional Pieces”) in November and December 2021 in France. The jury asked me to felt an animal head and I chose to create a white moose head, like a hunting trophy, for the wall. The exhibition has been postponed due to the second lockdown France is facing right now.
It was in the Calgary foothills where I first had my unexpected encounters with wild moose while back country skiing and jogging. To suddenly have such a majestic animal within reach was truly an adrenalin rush!
A monastery high up in the Vosges, at Mt. Saint Odile.
What are your artistic plans for 2021?
As for plans for 2021, I hope to travel back to Canada, as soon as things have calmed down, to set up a new atelier in Vancouver, or Calgary perhaps. I’m considering starting to teach at a University for the Arts, (my lips are sealed for now!). I am also eager to create more and bigger pieces. Even if the day had 50 hours, the week 25 days, I would not be able to realize all the projects I have in mind —there are so many! I could be felting more Haute Couture, inspired by Alexander McQueen and Chanel, like a dress with a huge collar made out of flowers, created out of my naturally dyed wool and silk.
I’m also visualizing doing more work for interiors —creating bigger tapestries, with naturally hand dyed wool and silk— felting abstract, contemporary ‘‘paintings”, using the brush strokes of van Gogh and William Turner as inspiration.
I have developed my own technique of felting without soap to achieve a more “airy”, three-dimensional look. The tapestry “Bridal Veil,” entirely in white, was my first “breakthrough” using this technique. The piece looks like a marble mural, but it’s wool and silk.
I have the desire to dye grey and black! I am aware this is not an easy task. There are many mysteries of the famous “Burgundy Black” that was once used by Rubens.
I am going to felt a huge wall hanging, commissioned for a law office in downtown Calgary, in the German National Colours, Gold (yellow), red, and black (the lawyer has German roots).
I anticipate felting a huge tapestry that shows an arctic glacier calving into the sea, in the colours of white and different shades of blue. As for the blue, I am going to dye with Woad, the “Blue Gold”, that once brought prosperity to the South of France. It died out with the arrival of the Indigo from India. Meeting with Denise Lambert, an American living in France, was one of the highlights of my summer 2020 in Southern France. I am going to collaborate with Denise, the Queen of Woad, who brought the tradition back to France, in this project.
I will maintain my own piece of land, seeding and harvesting new dye plants. In my childhood, I had my own piece of my grandmother’s garden, my own flowers and vegetables. Even at a young age I already loved to dig my hands into the soil and get them dirty.
I never expected this passion for Nature to lead me on such a journey with felt!
Mechthild enjoying nature with her sons when they little.
Thank you, Mechthild for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it greatly. We hope 2021 treats you kindly.
One last image of Alsace