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Wondrous Wee World

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor creates fabulous tiny tapestries for her award-winning children’s books.

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor

Salley Mavor’s children’s books are unlike any other, seeing as each page is truly brought to life with the incorporation of fabric artwork. Photo by Anthony DiSpezio

Salley Mavor’s studio is an alternate universe in miniature: seedpods become sleek Tom Thumb-sized boats, acorns morph into tiny hats, and wooden coat toggles serve as bedposts. Inhabiting these magical wee worlds are elfin figures who play, work, and romp through nature, all crafted by Mavor, ultimately to become illustrations in her children’s books. “I create these worlds,” Mavor says.

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor

Mavor’s attention to detail can be seen in small creations like this young boy and girl joined arm and arm. Photo by Anthony DiSpezio

It all begins in Wee Folk Studio, Mavor’s Falmouth workspace, where the designer builds three-dimensional tapestries, which she calls “fabric relief.” These tiny sets are then photographed and assembled to create Mavor’s books. Her most recent publication, Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), has been hailed as a book beloved by adults as well as children and is critically acclaimed: This year it won two prestigious national awards, the 2011 Golden Kite Award and the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature.

Mavor sews the background of each piece and the figures by hand, a painstaking process; Pocketful of Posies took three years just for those steps. But much of the power of her handiwork lies in the tiny bits and pieces—both natural and man-made—fabric, glass, metal, and other snippets and doo-dads. In Mavor’s hands, they become completely different things.

“Attaching the found objects, that’s when everything changes,” Mavor says. “That’s when the surprises come.” Before that phase, she draws thumbnail sketches of every illustration, which are eventually enlarged to book-sized sketches as work patterns. Then she gathers or makes her tiny objects and stitches the background of each illustration in needle and thread, applying fabric, fiber, and plant-dyed wool felt rendering beautiful, soft colors. She then applies the tiny decorative bits by hand with needle and thread. “I have all these puzzle pieces,” Mavor says. “There’s a lot of detailing and fine-tuning. I end up being very selective.”

The result is a lush, magical collection of illustrations that tell a story, or, in the case of Pocketful of Posies, classic nursery rhymes. “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary,” for instance, shows three girls in dresses that Mavor made from artificial flower petals, dancing under a tree that has a yarn trunk and is hung with silver jingle bells and green beads. One girl’s hat appears to be a fuzzy wool cloche; it is actually an acorn.

On the facing page in the book is “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” where a child with wings sits on a tree branch hung with tiny shells, surrounded by flies with heads of seed beads, embroidered bodies, and shiny ribbon wings, all crafted by Mavor. The tree branches that bend across both pages are actually poppy seed pods. On another page, “Little Boy Blue” is holding a horn, which is actually a cactus thorn. The cradle in “Hush-a-bye, Baby” is a walnut shell.

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor

Mavor sees her visions to life in Wee Folk Studio, where she cuts, molds, and delicately positions colored fabrics to create 3D images that jump off the page. Photo by Anthony DiSpezio

Before starting a new project, Mavor reads dozens of nursery rhymes. “If I get a strong image from the rhyme, I know I can do it,” she says. That imaginative thinking comes out strong and clear in her studio, an aerie on the second floor of her home, where plentiful windows give views of massive treetops.

The spacious workroom is so filled with charm and wonder, it could be around the corner from Santa’s Workshop. Shelves and glass cases are lined with Mavor’s special possessions, both the extraordinary and the simply sentimental. Her grandmother’s antique dolls share space with a bent tree trunk turned into a coat rack. Walls displaying old family photos and paintings by her mother, the late artist Mary Mavor, sweep around a glass dome that houses her grandfather’s stuffed bird collection.

Falmouth fabric artist Salley Mavor

The Woods Hole artist pairs her artistic talents with her love for nursery rhymes for books that children will love. Photo by Anthony DiSpezio

Tables are piled with little mountains of objects she finds on beaches and in the woods: stones, shells, beach glass, and far too many other things to count. Then there are the oddities, such as a little metal object that could become anything in the artist’s hands. “I don’t know where I got it,” Mavor says. “It’s just a beautiful object.” It is next to an old brass guitar capo, which Mavor already has ideas for. “I can just see it as part of a house or doorway,” she says. The studio’s wall color is a dreamy pink-orange, offset with green window frames. “The colors of these walls are very important to me,” Mavor says. “I wanted to feel like I was inside a cantaloupe.”

Mavor grew up in Woods Hole, with a scientist father and a stay-at-home mother who had a deep appreciation of art—and also was a prolific artist. “Creativity was the glue that held us together,” she says of her parents, brother, and sister. She still has the first book she made, when she was eight, called My Picture Book. Held together with yarn, the book is creative and funny, even wry. She remembers thinking about the project: “I wanted something real, not something that just looks real.” She still feels basically the same way. “I’m just in my world making stuff,” Mavor says. “Books are a way to express it.”

Just as she was close with her childhood family, she is nurtured by life with her husband, retired marine engineer Rob Goldsborough, and their two grown sons, Peter and Ian. After 35 years with her art, Mavor’s creative well continues to flow. Pocketful of Posies has found its audience, and one of her previous books, Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects (C&T Publishing) has sold 50,000 copies so far.

The commendations she won for Pocketful of Posies were very rewarding, Mavor says, but the accolades only go so far. “I’d continue doing this no matter what,” she says. She recalls her comments when she accepted the 2011 Golden Kite Award, which captures it all: “I used to feel like I was rowing upstream in a sea of watercolors, working so hard for recognition. Now I’m floating downstream with the current, seeing the possibilities.”

For more on Salley Mavor’s work, visit www.weefolkstudio.com or her blog, weefolk.wordpress.com, which includes the documentary “Rabbitat.” Pocketful of Posies: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes and Felt Wee Folk: Enchanting Projects are available at bookstores countrywide. “Pocketful of Posies Traveling Show,” an exhibit of the book’s 51 original illustrations, is touring the country and will be at Highfield Hall September-October 2013. She also will show her work at the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis November 9, 2013-January 26, 2014.

Mary Grauerholz is communications manager for the Cape Cod Foundation and a freelance writer.



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