Haley Nocik studied at Sante Fe University of Art and Design, concentrating on oil painting. But she dropped out to do animal-conservation work in South America, before abruptly transitioning into a career as a self-taught “faux taxidermist.” Now, living back in her native Asheville, she uses felted wool as a medium — and encounters some wide-ranging emotional reactions.
Are you surprised at where you’ve ended up?
Oh, yeah. I came back from Argentina and my mom was doing these needle-felted Christmas-tree-ornament Santa heads. I helped her and loved it.
And snowmen. I didn’t want to make an entire animal body, because I’m lazy. So I just did the head. I started doing little pins and buttons of animal heads and sold out at my first [craft] show.
Do you get mixed reactions?
It’s definitely a social experiment. When they walk by my booth, some [people] are like, “That’s just not right!” Others crack up, and others are like, “Awww … that’s so cute!” On Instagram this guy said, “This is really messed up.” Then his friends commented to him, “You know the animals aren’t real, right?”
I guess that’s a compliment to your artistry.
People come over to my house and their dogs go crazy and jump up on the wall and try to attack them.
Yikes. Who buys faux taxidermy?
About half of my clients are mothers. They usually show me the colors [they want] before they paint the [baby’s] nursery. It’s really nice. And can be a little hard, honestly.
Like working with brides planning a wedding?
Exactly. That’s why I don’t do pet portraits anymore. I had one client who didn’t like the representation after I went back and forth making changes on a 3-inch replica of her whole dog. She e-mailed just a photo of the breed, not even the same dog. I told her, “It can’t look exactly like your dog, that’s not possible.”
I was also dealing with a lot of deceased pets. One lady asked me to do a full-sized replica of her cat. She sent me her cat’s ashes to put inside of it, so it was a cat urn.
Was she happy with the results?
Very happy! She put a collar on it and moves it around to a different spot in the house every day. And the animals look so good together that the more you have, the more interesting it becomes. A woman in Japan orders a piece every two months and has a huge wall of them.
What’s the basic process?
I use unspun, pre-dyed fiber, and the technique is called punching. You use a barbed needle, grab the fiber and tangle it to make a giant knot, kind of like a dreadlock. The more you punch in one area, the more it will condense.
I salvage the eyes from stuffed animals. My assistant goes to Goodwill and gets the best eyes. Then she gouges them, and its so gory and creepy I don’t have the heart to do it. Some of them I rescue and save.
You have closets full of stuffed animals?
Oh yeah. It’s easy to hoard wool, too. It’s such a soft, nice medium to touch and look at.
Do you study animal anatomy?
I have a background in animal rehabilitation. But I research every animal, looking at muscular-skeletal structure and sketching. I like to get it right. That’s the fun part for me.
You’re transitioning away from craft shows, so what’s next?
I want to do larger pieces and gallery work, like installations. I’m also working with my friend to make a broad-spectrum video-game sci-fi film. The props and characters would be my creations. I’ve done some articulated pieces that move.
Maybe I’ll put LED lights inside some. If you backlight bunny ears, you can see right through them.
Haley Nocik, Asheville, haleynocik.com and on Instagram: @nocik. Her work is available downtown at Horse and Hero (14 Patton Ave., horseandhero.com) and at both Baked Pie Company locations (50 N. Merrimon Ave., Asheville, and 4 Long Shoals Road, Arden; bakedpiecompany.com). For more information, see haleynocik.com.