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Artist Katherine Wassink discusses several of her fiber art works at her home in Elizabeth City, Wednesday, May 12. 

Whether it is the eye-dazzling waves at the Outer Banks or the inspiring views of nature on the Dismal Swamp, Katherine Wassink has been capturing the beauty of the region's waters and rivers in her fiber art for nearly two decades.

“I love the texture and intensity of color” of fiber art, Wassink said.

Wassink, whose work is primarily needle felted, said when she first started registering for art shows in the area 15 years ago organizers were unfamiliar with the technique. That's because so few artists here were using it.

Wassink said she made it her quest to get fiber recognized as an art medium in the area. Now, 15 years later, Wassink's art has earned more than 55 awards at art shows.

With her love of art and her sewing background, it was only natural Wassink was drawn to the art form. Wassink had sewn many of her own clothes in the past and earned awards as a winner of the American Sewing Guild contest in 2003 and 2005.

Originally from Buckingham County in Virginia, Wassink grew up as the daughter of a home economics teacher. After earning her bachelor’s degree in art history from William & Mary, she worked for the education division of Simplicity Patterns, a New York City-based manufacturer of sewing pattern guides. During her three years with the company, she spent a lot of time on the road, traveling to different cities every few weeks.

Wassink later moved to the area to take a teaching position at College of The Albemarle. She and her husband, William, a physician originally from the Netherlands, lived in Camden for more than three decades before the couple moved to Elizabeth City.

Wassink recalls fondly a conversation she had about one of her works with her husband before he passed away in 2018. As a young man, Dr. Wassink had worked as a ship’s doctor, so upon seeing her work that depicted the sea, he told her “your spray is going in the wrong direction.”

The conversation is memorable because Wassink said it's important to her to get every detail in her works correct — from the correct direction of the sun's light on the water to the direction of the water's spray.

Wassink said she begins a work by finding a source she wants to depict and taking a photograph. She then uses the photograph as a reference.

Each work includes one defining feature: water.

“Everything I have done has water,” said Wassink. “I do what is in my environment.” 

One of her pieces features a big wave breaking. Another features a colorful Dismal Swamp that make it “The Not So Dismal Swamp.”

Wassink likes to work in the finished room over her garage. She puts on soft classical music as she sits down to work.

“I can get totally absorbed in a piece,” she said. “It’s thought provoking for me.” 

Wassink's pieces are all fiber. “There is no glue and no paint," she said.

Wassink said she starts with a base fabric and uses a barb needle to push fibers through. She then repeats the process until she's created an extraordinary piece of art.

Wassink said it is critical to plan a piece and think it through before starting, because once she starts needle felting it is difficult to remove the fibers and start again.

“Once it is there, it is there,” she said.

Wassink never changes the color of her fiber, so it is important to find quality fibers with the colors she envisions for the piece. She uses a variety of fibers, including wool from sheep and goats, Angora, and vegetable fibers like bamboo.

Some fibers she uses are new and others are recycled. She recalls, for example, using her husband’s neckties.

“He didn’t like to wear them, so he wasn’t upset,” Wassink said.

Wassink said she is continually looking for fibers with distinct color and a reflective quality so “the light hitting them will create interest in a piece.”

Most pieces take her six weeks to create. 

“My pieces look like an oil painting from a distance,” she said. 

Because they're made of fiber, Wassink said her works "have a wonderful tactile quality." However, because people often want to touch fiber art, Wassink has found it necessary to frame her works under glass. That preserves the fabric from being altered by the natural oils on the human hand.

Wassink’s works are currently available at The Museum Gift Shop at Museum of the Albemarle and Coastal Purl in Elizabeth City.