“A way of making us whole”: the fiber art of Erika Cleveland

“Gaia and Ernst”

For 40 years, the Torpedo Factory has been a haven for fiber artists—and this spring, we were pleased to welcome Erika Cleveland, whose intriguing work intertwines an uncommon technique, spiritual subject matter, and larger concerns with healing in every sense of the term.

Cleveland is a practitioner of needle felting, a medium that’s relatively new to the larger art world: An artist starts with a bundle of wool fibers, jabbing them repeatedly by hand with a special barbed needle until the fibers entangle and cohere to create dense, shapeable forms. Cleveland uses this technique, believed to have been pioneered in the 1980s, to create what she calls transformative healing dolls—a concept that resulted from her experiments with myriad means of expression.

“My first medium was acrylic painting,” the artist explains. “I pained landscapes and figures, sometimes dreamlike and imaginative. Then I made prints: monotypes, dry-point, woodcuts, and some silkscreen—but with the doll-making, I feel I have found my true medium.”


Combining human qualities with aspects of gods and goddesses from mystic traditions of various faiths, Cleveland’s dolls represent what she calls “the dilemma that humans face as spiritual beings living in physical bodies.” Cleveland is fascinated by change and transformation, and she creates dolls to offer visual and sensual pleasure as well as moments of surprise and joy, all of which are healthy for heart and soul alike.

“I believe that dolls can be healing on many levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual,” she says. “There is something about the way the doll reflects us back to ourselves that serves as a mirror of who we are. I don’t mean this in a magical sense, but more as a way of making us whole.”

Now that she’s been at the Torpedo Factory for several weeks, Cleveland is impressed by the unexpected ways visitors react to her work.

“I am always gratified to discover how quickly they open up into deep conversations triggered by what they see,” she says. “People tell me about their own experiences as artists and creators, or about their personal lives. One woman from Texas who was moved by my work told me about an encounter she had with a dove that came into her garden and stayed during a particularly challenging time in her life. Someone else saw my ‘Herman trying to hold it together’ doll and said it would be perfect for a friend whose name is Herman and has a lot on his plate. One woman from another country who didn’t speak any English saw one of my dolls and just burst into laughter and couldn’t stop! From hand gestures and facial expressions, I was able to get that she thought one of the dolls who holds her shed skin in front of her was throwing something on the ground. I didn’t mind; it’s fun to spark a reaction.”

Talisman doll “Rhea”

Cleveland gladly takes commissions to make dolls that address the future owner’s specific need for hope and inspiration during times of challenge or change, but she insists that the very act of creation can be healthy and restorative, too.

“I’m interested not just in creating these dolls myself, but also in teaching others to make their own,” she says. “It’s meaningful to have a doll made for you, but there is something in making the doll for yourself that can go much deeper.”

Cleveland’s dolls are a natural outgrowth of her training as an art therapist, but the artist herself is at her happiest when ideas she dwells on, or the life events she’s trying to understand, grow beyond her own experiences to have broader, more universal appeal.

“Creating the doll is a way of connecting to the world of myth and metaphor,” she says. “I like to incorporate symbols from nature and from the mythologies of different cultures to link the personal to the universal. We all live in two worlds: We have our daily, human lives, with all their challenges and struggles and triumphs, but at the same time we all are connected to something deeper, something we can call God or Spirit or Nature. I want my dolls to remind people of that connection.”


Cleveland is forever exploring new ways to augment her art. In addition to experimenting with dolls made out of paper, recycled materials, or the roots and branches of trees, she seeks inspiration in collage and drawing, and she’s currently learning appliqué, surface work, and quilting. New techniques enhance each doll with texture and character, and Cleveland knows that new life lessons abound in even the tiniest detail.

“We live in a world where things are fast, where things are done for us, manufactured for us, so that we really need reminders to quiet down and be still,” she says. “There is always more to learn.”

Meet Erika Cleveland at the Torpedo Factory throughout the summer! During the final week of June 2014, she’ll be in studio 337; from August 8, 2014, through the end of the month, you’ll find her in studio 317. Learn more about her work at transformativehealingdolls.com.

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