Pinwheel Farm lies quiet but for bird songs, the rustling of a llama in its pen and the not-so-distant wail of a train whistle.
Yet Rickie Bridges, standing next to heaps of freshly sheared sheep's wool, is talking up a storm.
His words start in his fingers, travel into his hands and up his arms until his entire body is engaged in conversation.
Then interpreter Carrie McGoldrick breaks the aural silence.
"My hands are so important for me as far as my livelihood and my communication," she says, eyeing Bridges' gestures. "So I find that it's really important to do crafts that focus on using my hands."
Bridges is deaf -- has been since birth. So life's richest experiences often come to the 48-year-old fiber artist courtesy of his hands, which he uses both to communicate and create art.
Since the end of May, he's been driving from his home in Kansas City, Mo. -- where he's a student at the Kansas City Art Institute -- to the North Lawrence farm of Natalya Lowther to learn how the wool he uses in his artwork gets from the sheep to the shelf.
"I'm giving him opportunities to learn about kind of the grunt work that comes before the creative part," says Lowther, who has 25 sheep and two llamas. "And then I've also provided him with a lot of wool from what we've worked on here, and he's done a lot of creative work on his own outside of the farm environment."
Evidence of this sits on nearby tables in the form of two wool panels that incorporate colorful designs inspired by nature and an owl Bridges created by experimenting with new techniques imparted by Lowther.
Bridges takes a break from picking straw out of clouds of wool on Lowther's front porch to explain that the bird is the first three-dimensional wool piece he's ever created.
"It took me about three hours to make this. It's all wool from Natalya's sheep, and I thought it really came out wonderfully," he says. "I brought it this morning to show Natalya, and she liked it as well."
Bridges created all three works using different forms of felting, which, Lowther says, most people are familiar with whether they know it or not.
"It's a process of permanently bonding the wool fibers together," she says. "Anyone that has run their favorite wool sweater through the washing machine by mistake knows how to make felt and knows how strong and irreversible it is."
Bridges does just about everything short of feeding and shearing the animals at the farm. He helps Lowther rid the wool of debris, wash it to get rid of oils that complicate the dyeing process, dye it, card it and make felt samples.
Most importantly, Bridges says, he's learned to appreciate that not all sheep are alike.
"If you touch them, you'll find that their wool is very different. Some are hard; some are soft," he says. "And if you mix them up together, it's very hard to tell. It could create a problem."
Bridges works at the farm two days a week and then attends the Saturday morning Farmer's Market with Lowther, who sells produce there.
He's developed a penchant for wool straight from the pelt.
"I bought wool from stores in the past, but I really prefer to work with the more natural wool," he says. "So that's my goal is getting more involved in understanding what is involved in the process of using the wool to make different products."
|Kansas City Art Institute student Rickie Bridges, 48, has spent the summer learning how to process wool at the North Lawrence sheep farm of Natalya Lowther. You may have seen Bridges with Lowther Saturday mornings at the Farmer's Market, where Lowther peddles produce from Pinwheel Farm and Bridges has been sitting in to learn how to sell goods at market.Though Bridges' internship wraps up Wednesday, you can meet him today at South Park, where he and Lowther will be demonstrating the technique of wool spinning as part of 2004 Kansas Chautauqua activities. They'll be there from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.To learn more about the natural wool and other products Lowther offers at her farm, call her at 841-4540.|
Bridges recently witnessed the shearing process -- or spectacle, in this case. Lowther's llama didn't take kindly to the haircut.
"Boy he was spitting everywhere when we were trying to shear him," Bridges recalls.
On a recent afternoon, Lowther simmered a pot of osage orange wood chips in a pot and then dipped a mesh bag full of llama wool into the concoction.
"I haven't done much dyeing with llama wool, so this is kind of experimental," Lowther says.
The wool immediately turns a pale yellow hue.
"That will become much brighter over time, almost as bright as his shirt," she says, gesturing toward Bridges.
There's a pause while McGoldrick uses sign language to repeat Lowther's comment. Then Bridges smiles and agrees: "Yes, similar to my shirt color."
Bridges looks right at home at Pinwheel Farm in his denim overalls and heavy boots. Thick hoop earrings dangle from his ears, and two strands of hair wrapped in colorful thread and beads hang a bit longer than the rest of his coarse locks.
He's a tall, hefty bear of a man; but when he talks about his art, he's all heart.
"I think art should ... be something that is visual, something that your eyes see, not necessarily that you can hear," he says. "It's something that will tell the world a story, something different. As far as creating and what drives people to create art, it doesn't really matter if you're hearing or deaf. We're all equal on the same level as far as that's concerned."
Bridges plans to take what he's learned from Lowther and share it with instructors and fellow students at the art institute, where he has a 3.7 grade-point average and has been on the honor roll for three years. He plans to graduate next spring.
Bridges, whose internship ends Wednesday, has been Lowther's first adult intern, though children of all ages have taken classes and workshops at her farm.
"Part of the mission of the farm is education -- to make agriculture accessible to people of all ages and abilities," she says.
And it turns out that labors of love -- Lowther with her farming, teaching and crafting; Bridges with his learning and artmaking -- transcend language.
"Natalya is such a wonderful woman, and she explains everything so well," Bridges says. "The two of us just communicate on our own without an interpreter."