It started with a llama. Well, technically, it started with goats. Marilee Feldman didn’t own the goats, but she, along with her partner of 14 years, Nelson Baethke, owned the farmland the goats called home.
The couple aren’t farmers – she’s a professor at Kirkwood Community College and he’s a system engineer at Communications Engineering Company – but they always wanted to live on a farm. They made that dream a reality in 2009 and a year later, they had goats living on their land.
Because they were at work every day, Feldman knew they needed a guard animal of some kind. The goats’ owner purchased a llama at a sale in Kalona. Feldman reimbursed him, taking full ownership of a llama she named Annie. The goats had their guard animal, and Feldman had the beginning of a new life – only she didn’t know it yet.
“I noticed a change in me when Annie came to live with us,” she recalled. “Work can get really stressful and life can be really stressful, but when I was around her, I was calm.”
Three years later, in 2013, Feldman added an alpaca to the mix: Alfie. He was more skittish than Annie, not one to hold still for snuggles, but the feel of his fiber in Feldman’s hands gave her that same feeling of calmness.
Feldman wasn’t a fiber artist, but a business professor – a business professor with a passion for animals. If she was going to add more to her herd, which Feldman wanted to do, then she knew she had to figure out a purpose for the abundance of llama and alpaca fiber at her disposal. Fate intervened during a trip to Australia. Feldman visited an evening market in Melbourne and met an alpaca fiber artist. The artist shared her some of her felted crafts and encouraged Feldman to watch YouTube videos for more information.
Feldman took her advice, teaching herself the art of fiber crafts by video. She started with felted soap, using the homemade soap she purchased from Daisy May Essentials at the Cedar Rapids Farmers Market. She gave a bar to owner Cindy Snyder and asked her to try it. Snyder did, then asked Feldman to make more that she could sell at her booth.
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Feldman was in business, but not the kind of business one might think. The signage on her studio says Alpaca Fiber Arts LLC and unique hand-crafted items are Feldman’s product, but it’s never been about the commerce side of things for her.
“It’s really about my passion for the animals and my love for the fiber,” Feldman said. “The business has to be there to support my passion.”
Everything she makes selling her products she uses to care for her animals, which now include 15 alpacas, one Warilla (a llama/alpaca cross) and Annie the llama. Annie is the oldest of the bunch at 18 years. The two youngest alpacas, De and Megs, are only six months old. Their presence in her life led to the discovery of an artistic side Feldman didn’t know she had.
“In teaching, I have an opportunity to be as creative as I want to be,” Feldman says. “I also get to nurture my students and watch them grow. I always had that passion for innovation, but I didn’t realize I could apply that to my work with the fiber.”
Once she did, the only thing holding her back was time. And space. Feldman works out of a studio on the farm, partially constructed with the wood from the old barn that once stood on the farmland. The chicken coop serves as storage for the animals’ fibers. Feldman moved into her studio in January of 2017. Before that, she worked out of her garage with only a space heater for warmth.
“If it was too cold, I’d run out, grab what I need, and go inside the house,” she said. “There was fiber all over the place!”
As an artist, Feldman lets her feeling drive her creations. While there are some items people expect to find at her booth at the Iowa City Farmers Market – felted soaps, cat nip toys and dryer balls -- she also accepts a few commissions. But when she has the time and the creativity is flowing, she’s open to new possibilities, exploring what she can make with the fiber from the animals she loves.
Because she’s so passionate about the animals in her care, she’s opened the farm to anyone who wants to visit and learn more about alpacas. She also teaches classes out of her studio, with recent attendees including a Girl Scout troop completing the requirements for their textile badge.
“My world has opened up so much because of these animals,” Feldman says.
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With retirement from Kirkwood on the horizon, Feldman expects her creativity and passion will increase even more. Whether or not the number of alpacas she owns does, too, remains to be seen.
Quotes about passion
“Follow your passion; it will lead you to your purpose.” – Oprah Winfrey
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” -- Harriet Tubman
“Never underestimate the power of passion.” – Eve Sawyer
“If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.” – T.D. Jakes
Books about passion
“Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” by Brene Brown
“The Renaissance Soul: How to Make Your Passions Your Life — A Creative and Practical Guide” by Margaret Lobenstine
“Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams” by Barbara Sher
“The Passion Manifesto: Escape the Rat Race, Uncover Your Passion and Design a Career and Life You Love” by Thibaut Meurisse