Gwen Handler makes things from the sheep's wool she raises on Hill Farm.
A selection of Carroll County artists will open their studio doors to the public this December as part of the 11th annual Studio Arts Tour. To help commemorate the event, now entering its second decade, the Times will feature profiles of participating artists biweekly in Life and Times.
Despite a shared home and passion for creation, Gwen Handler and Larry Fisher create works in drastically different media, with Handler creating knitted and wool objects while Fisher crafts his work out of wood. Unlike many artists who have to resupply at art stores, Handler and Fisher merely have to walk outside at their home, Hill Farm, to restock on materials for their work.
Hill Farm is home to Norwegian Fjord Ponies, Leicester Longwool sheep, birds, dogs, cats, chicken as well as inspiration for Handler and Fisher.
Handler said the two of them have lived there for 35 years, a mere fraction of the 200-year history of the farm. She said she came to farming through her interest in knitting, a lifelong passion going back five generations in her family. To gain an added appreciation for knitting, she said she took a spinning class — the process in which wool is spun into strands to be knitted — at the Smithsonian back in 1975.
Handler's knitted work starts its life as the wool on her flock of about 20 Leicester Longwool sheep, a critically rare breed of sheep with a distinct silky and lustrous wool.
"Knitting for me is a meditation," Handler said. "I'm a very busy person, I've realized in my retirement. I always need to be doing two things at once, and knitting is something you can do while you're doing things like riding in a car."
One of the interesting things about the knitting community, Handler said, is just how global the techniques are. She said she can travel anywhere and talk to people who work in the fiber arts.
"In other countries, the sheep is like a survival kit," Handler said. "Here it's just a luxury and wool is an underused commodity. Thankfully there's been a neighborhood resurgence in wool and in sheep."
Due to that resurgence in interest, Handler said she has been able to get her wool spun more locally than she could just a decade or two ago. She used to have to send the raw wool to New Mexico to be processed, but now it can be done in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, or Randallstown.
"Most people just buy merino wool out of China," Handler said. "We have a special niche. We dye the fiber we raise. The colors and the way we treat it is different. We play to a different market."
While Handler creates her work from sheep that she has raised, Fisher's woodworking pieces often start life as found pieces of work, oftentimes created from wooden objects or structures he finds on the farm.
Fisher said he's been creating functional wooden objects, like bowls and cups, for about 40 years. He said his crafting was a natural extension of his work in construction.
"When I was younger, I did pottery for quite some time," Fisher said. "Woodturning is a bit like pottery; it's just not as plastic a material. You end up with the same kinds of shapes."
Fisher said he enjoys both the act of creation as well as having a final project. He said it's a joy to fool around with different shapes in the workshop trying to make an idea work.
"I love trying to come up with something new," Fisher said. "At the end of the day, it feels good to have something to show for it."