The 51-year-old Anniston resident transforms delicate ivory doilies into works of art. Sowell dyes, paints and stains intricately crocheted doilies, making each one unlike the next.
“Painting is a way of making old things new again,” Sowell said.
As a teenager, Sowell, a Missouri native, began collecting odd items — dresses, textiles, glassware and doilies — that she sometimes refers to as “old things.” By the time she moved to Anniston in 2008, Sowell said she had quite a collection of doilies.
It was around the same time that Sowell — a draftsman, turned technical illustrator, turned technical writer — found herself out of work as the Great Recession set in.
Disillusioned by unemployment, Sowell turned to art as a creative outlet.
She first imagined the concept of her doily art while experimenting with tie-dying, a technique she learned as a girl at a “hippie camp” in the 1960s. Thumbing through her collection of “old things” one day, she began to imagine what it would be like to add color to the aging doilies.
After selecting a doily, Sowell often begins her work by dying each piece. Then she adds color — with water color paint, sharpies, oil pastels or any medium that the dollies will absorb.
“I generally have to work with whatever medium works best with that doily,” Sowell said.
The center and all the distinguishable parts of each piece are painted in their own hue, and not every doily is cut out for color. Some look best just framed on a wall in their original color, she said.
“If you actually saw the doilies, they would scream at you, ‘Do this to me’,” Sowell said, who prefers vibrant colors to muted hues. “Some of them are so delicate that you don’t want to overwhelm them with a lot of color, and some are so bold that they need color.”
Her favorite pieces, she said, are usually the doilies that begin with a distinguishable butterfly pattern woven into their web of thread.
Sowell said she’s made more than 30 pieces of doily art. Now people send her doilies, often donating them to her on a whim.
In the corner of Sowell’s home that serves as a makeshift studio sits an old drafting table, now covered in the tools of her craft. A vintage box mailed from a northern city contains petite doily rounds. Another pile of vintage crochet is from a collection given to her in Tybee Island, Ga., from a woman who voluntarily donated her family doilies, which Sowell said date back to the 1800s.
“I have always loved things that are old,” Sowell said. “My goal is to just make them new again.”
Some of her finished doilies look a bit like a round butterfly wing, and many look quite unlike the ivory doilies that once commonly rested on sofa arms and end tables.
Each one is paired with a complementary mat and framed. Many find homes on the walls of Sowell’s two-bedroom apartment.
Some have been given away, and at least one — a pastel piece currently in the works — was commissioned.
The doilies recently made their public debut at a fall exhibit at the Anniston Yoga Center on Nobel Street.
Sowell’s doily art may be gaining recognition, but she doesn’t see the notoriety as the highlight of her life as a doily artist. The sometimes writer, sometimes collector, sometimes painter sees it as a beginning.
“I’m just getting started,” Sowell said.
Staff Writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.