Meet two Lake Minnetonka-area residents, both University of Minnesota alums, who after long, successful careers, have turned their attention to creating wearable textile art sold coast to coast. Their imaginative techniques make each piece utterly unique.
“Even as a child, I loved art. I loved making things, creating things that had no template,” says Minnetonka-based artist Gayle Hallin. She can still go into great detail, recalling a time she rallied her elementary classmates to create a handmade pillow in the likeness of their favorite teacher, complete with her signature red hair and freckles. Her friends scribbled their signatures on the back and it became a thoughtful, whimsical year-end gift, with Hallin as the happy mastermind.
Hallin went on to major in nursing at the University of Minnesota, and then earn a master’s degree in public health. She built a successful health care career, finding ways to weave her creative instincts into clinical work by improving programs and building new collaborations. After she retired as clinical director for UnitedHealth Group, she suddenly had extra time to devote to her art. “It’s cathartic—I love making things. I enjoy the process of creating,” says Hallin. “Both here and in my career, I always wanted to do things that were of value to people.”
So she began experimenting with techniques and media, doing whatever seemed interesting. She painted on a regular basis, got into photography and fiber arts, and even launched a website to showcase her work. But when she discovered the nuno felting technique—the name is derived from the Japanese word for “cloth”—she was really hooked. Pretty soon Hallin had total strangers offering to buy garments right off of her back. She held a few house and trunk shows with her felted pieces, and, to her surprise, sold every single piece.
While her scarves and shawls are beautiful and versatile, it’s the nuno technique that’s perhaps most interesting. To begin the long, intensely physical process, Hallin lays bubble wrap on a table and layers very fine mesh silk on top of it. (Stores don’t carry it, so she buys it online). She then lays individual fibers of silk and Merino wool in different designs on top, by hand. On top of that goes a layer of netting and a sprinkle of soapy water until it’s like an artsy, colorful, tabletop lasagna. She then winds the whole thing around a pool noodle (it’s like cannoli at this point) and ties it in place with nylons. The whole form is rolled across the table again and again, in varying intensities, with Hallin sometimes putting her whole weight on top of it. It’s like a type of “art yoga” that crushes the fibers and melds them together in an unpredictable, layered way.
“The agitation forces the fibers into the silk,” Hallin says. “It turns out like a stained glass effect—there’s lots of texture and design. I’ve always liked organic—and a bit imaginative—forms. I often have no idea how it will come together.”
After sourcing the materials, Hallin spends hours on each piece, trying to focus on the person who has ordered or will eventually wear the garment. “I infuse my thoughts, my best wishes, into my work—it’s kind of a spiritual thing,” Hallin says. On that note, she’s come to love the opportunity to sell her work directly to clients at national trade shows and local art events. That way she can interact with buyers—and other artists—and stay engaged and inspired by her work.
While Hallin and her husband travel to shows across the country, most are juried and acceptance isn’t guaranteed. Check Hallin’s website for upcoming events and opportunities to buy her work.
“It starts from the time you’re born, I guess,” Susan Bradley says of the creative instincts she’s had her whole life. Growing up in Hudson, Wis., in the 1950s, she was surrounded by the Mad Men-esque women’s fashion of the day. She wanted to get that look without the hefty budget it would take to achieve high-end style the conventional way.
“I had to sew to get the clothing like where my inspiration came from,” says Bradley. Her mom got her started on a sewing machine, and they’d travel to St. Paul to stock up on trendy fabrics. After college, where she majored in interior design but took all the art history classes she could squeeze in, she spent 38 years as a flight attendant, keeping a foot in the design world the entire time. “I feel like I’ve been designing my whole life,” she says.
As Bradley traveled the world with the airline, she was exposed to global high fashion and began to connect travel to her artistic whims and creative instincts.
“Pretty soon, I was at the top of the [flight attendant] list. I used my seniority to pick and choose two-day and three-day layover trips. I flew them for a reason,” Bradley says. Between flights, she’d spend her time in international cities stockpiling interesting fabrics she could mix and match for garments when she was home in Wayzata. “I had this wonderful skill—sewing—and I just started buying up old kimonos.”
Eventually she was selling pieces in a co-op with other artists, and now, in “retirement,” works from a studio in the trendy Northrop King building in Northeast Minneapolis. Bradley still travels, but instead of staffing flights and stealing away to peruse fabrics, her trips are all about selling her work at elite trade and crafting shows. In addition to repurposing kimonos, she’s added neoprene (think scuba gear) to the mix in recent years.
“I was a lifeguard for years.
I live on the lake, and I’m a total water person,” says Bradley, who sources the durable material from a dive shop in Long Lake. She adds industrial mesh to create ruffles and architectural elements. But as whimsical as the designs are, there’s a distinct purpose behind them. Bradley hopes her pieces are unique and statement-making, but also versatile and complementary to compact travel wardrobes, like the ones she’s gotten so good at putting together over the years. Many Susan Bradley pieces are reversible, so jet setters can get two or more on-the-road looks from one piece.
“They’re globally inspired, tailored and put together, but easy to throw in a suitcase,” Bradley says. One of Bradley’s repeat clients, from Atlanta, buys up Bradley’s reversible jackets for long days spent in airports on her frequent work trips. One of her favorite jackets has classic black Chinese brocade on one side with a colorful ceremonial kimono fabric on the reverse. Huge special-request pockets give the client’s well-loved passport a soft place to land. In a way, Bradley’s life work has come full-circle, and now she’s married her artistic eye and travel sensibilities to create useful, fashionable pieces. Says Bradley, with a laugh, “It’s bizarre—if you live long enough and pursue something long enough, these things happen!”
Bradley’s studio is open the first Thursday of each month, 5 to 9 p.m., or find her at the annual Art-a-Whirl or Art Attack events. Northrup King Building.