Monster mash: Sunnyland artist sews critters, creatures
March 1, 2023 at 5:55 a.m.
A handwritten sign above Bellingham artist Sue Burke's desk in her home studio reads: “Do what you can, with what you have, with where you are.”
“That's my saying for this year,” Burke said while sitting on a day bed surrounded by an array of the critters and creatures she creates from upcycled wool and a variety of other fabrics. “Don't be hard on yourself, just look around and see what you can do.”
Burke appears to be taking her own advice. Under the moniker of HappyCrowLucky (formerly Art Shadow Workshop), she utilizes her 1970s-era Bernina electronic sewing machine as well as her own hand-stitching to repurpose various materials into one-of-a-kind dolls. In her well-lit Sunnyland studio, wide-eyed frogs share space with cute-as-a-button pigs, dapper dogs, crows, gap-toothed monsters with wild hair and zippers for mouths, and unidentifiable amalgamations which beg for closer inspection. Each creation gets its own bespoke set of clothes.
Burke is 69 years old, but she's been making dolls off and on since she was in college, where she was an art student for a couple of years and dabbled in drawing, painting and stained glass (among other creative pursuits). She had taught herself to sew as kid — her mother had a sewing machine and let her use it — but it wasn't until she was a broke student that she had the idea to make her niece a doll for Christmas. She cut up an old pink coat she didn't like and worked her magic. It didn't have quite the effect she was hoping for.
“It became like a joke in my family for the next 20 years, how hideous this doll was,” Burke said, laughing. “My niece cried when she opened it.”
These days, it's safe to say those who purchase Burke's creations through her Etsy store or at the Pacific Arts Market every December don't feel the same way her relatives did. Some of her customers have collections of the dolls and will send her pictures of where they live in their houses, and she reports more adults get them for themselves than for kids.
Recently, she received a text from a woman whose friend had commissioned a cat pillow from Burke whose markings resembled the woman's pet who had died. The woman loved the gift, and was hoping Burke could do the same thing for the family dog, which had also passed away.
“Stuff like that is very heartwarming,” Burke said, adding the woman's text included a picture of a young girl holding the cat pillow.
In addition to the dolls, Burke uses scraps from various projects to make mobiles, birds on a string and catnip mice and toys using “super-strong” catnip she grows herself. She and her husband don't have cats themselves — Burke is kind of allergic, and their small rescue dog Buddy has a reputation as a feline-chaser — but she said it's become a tradition to make the treats for her customers.
The bigger works are much more time-consuming, Burke noted, as she never makes a doll from start to finish. Instead, she makes the bodies first, then the facial features, then the clothes. Next, she hand-stitches personal touches, such as adding embroidery to the dolls' shoes, affixing a heart on a shirt or adding rosy cheeks to a grinning frog. With each creation running around $50–$60, the cost doesn't necessarily reflect the hours she puts into each work of art.
“I don't do it for the money, I do it because it's fun,” Burke said. “People say their little personalities come out. They just emerge. And some people like the very strange things I make. I'll be so ambivalent about something, I don't even want to put it out there, but someone will just love it.”
Before she retired from the county's health department, Burke said she didn't sew nearly as much as she does now. But when she did, it was incredibly therapeutic. She used her artistic talents as a way to work through personal issues, and found that in addition to enjoying the process of making the dolls, she also loves the upcycling nature of her craft.
Much of the fabric Burke uses is found at thrift stores, but she said it's getting harder to find wool, which she brings home and throws in a hot wash or puts in a big canner in boiling water to over-dye it — a “witchy” process that dyes the wool a different color. It's tedious, she said, but worth the effort.
When she's not working on her creations, photographing them to put on her Etsy shop or selling them at the Pacific Arts Market, Burke said the dolls are kept bundled up in bags in the studio closet to keep them dust-free and in pristine condition. But when one sells, she's happy to bid it farewell.
“Sending them out in the world is like confetti,” she said. “You never know where it's going to end up.”
Find Sue Burke's upcycled fiber goods at HappyCrowLucky.etsy.com.