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Giant, Stuffed Rabbits and Foxes Offer Lens on Humanity: Ryan Lytle's Fabric Art

Ryan Lytle (1987), whose work is part of the current Perrel Gallery exhibit, is a sculptor born and raised in Hampton Roads. He earned a bachelor's degree in Studio Art from Christopher Newport University and his MFA from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His work has recently been featured in several exhibits, including the 2020 Virginia Artist Juried Exhibition at the Charles H. Taylor Art Center in Hampton, and “Felt: Fiber Transformed," a group show at The Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, NJ. 

The Norfolk Academy exhibit, “Putting 2 & 2 Together" (which also includes work by local artist Sam Hundley), was curated by Upper School Art Teacher Betsy DiJulio, and it has fascinated students, faculty, and staff. Lytle recently answered questions about his artistic roots and vision, which began--it may not surprise you to learn--with a collection of stuffed animals that he had as a child!

What is the source of your fascination with rabbits and foxes? Did you love these animals in childhood too?

I have always been interested in animals as subject matter for my work, but it wasn’t until I got to grad school that I began to focus on rabbits. When I was a child, I loved stuffed animals and had an extensive collection. When I began more seriously making art as I got older, I found the visual language of stuffed animals and my attachment to them resurfacing in my work. When I became interested in predator/prey relationships the rabbit seemed like an ideal representative of prey animals. They have a lot of diverse and interesting predators for subject matter. I became interested in foxes because they have a rich history in folklore and they play the role of both predator and prey, which give them a diverse application when creating work.

The colors you use are so vibrant. What is the inspiration for your color scheme?

Color can be a great tool to help push concepts and draw the viewer in. Personally, I love using loud, bright, and vibrant colors. I like color schemes that abandon realism and reinforce the stylistic choices made in depicting the animals and their poses. I find that when the color and design starts from a more illustrative place that it opens up the creativity of the interpretation.

There is an element of personification in the works--one is reminded of human behaviors and psychology. How much are you thinking about people and human behavior as you create?

Human behavior is a driving concept for all my work. Humans tend to project themselves onto things, especially if those things can return our gaze. I think there is a reassurance in seeing animal behaviors reflect our own. I like using animals to represent human behaviors because animals are loaded with symbolism and archetypes that are useful in representing our feeling and emotions.

Could you describe a bit about the needle felting process to create these soft sculptures? What is inside them? How do you create the shapes?

My sculpture construction starts with wire armatures and sometimes wood for extra support if needed. From there I stuff the smaller pieces with poly-fil and for the larger pieces I wrap the frame with heavy quilt batting. They are then tied with yarn to make sure everything conforms to the frame. All of this creates a surface that I can sew fabric onto or directly needle felt into. Needle felting works by using a barbed needle to compress and entangle the fibers of the wool into a solid form. Needle felting allows me to “paint” color and patterns on the surface and build up layers to create details in the works.

Could you touch on any themes or topics that preoccupy you and recur in your art?

Currently, I am interested in creating a series of installations based on foxes and their roles in folklore and mythology. Foxes are known for their meddling in human, animal, and spiritual worlds. As tricksters they manipulate the normal order of the world and create strange and unusual situations. Tricksters rebel against authority, poke fun at the overly serious, create convoluted schemes that may or may not work, and play with the laws of the universe. They exist to question, to cause us to question and not accept things blindly. The stories of the fox and of tricksters are often cautionary tales reflecting the concerns of society at the time. I believe that visual artists have a lot in common with the trickster, we present connections and points of view through manipulation of materials. We create illusions to present the world as we see it or to communicate ideas and messages.

To explore more about Ryan Lytle and his many creations, visit his website ryanlytle.com.

“Plumage" by Ryan Lytle features bold colors and felted technique that are signature features of his fabric sculptures. His work is part of the current exhibit in the Perrel Gallery, which is open to students, faculty, and staff.

“A Fox in Hare's Clothing," an enormous sculpture at the center of the gallery, has attracted much attention from students and faculty alike!  

“Delirium Nocturnal" by Ryan Lytle.

“Enceladus Rabbit" by Ryan Lytle.

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