As an educator at Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Missouri, Dani Ives spent 10 years handling an eclectic crew of critters, including hedgehogs, chinchillas, snakes, rats, turtles, owls, and pigeons. Ives, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology, would tote the animals to schools, teaching students about their behavior and roles in nature.
Nowadays, instead of handling animals, the 34-year-old uses her biology background to realistically render their likenesses in needle-felted artwork, including commissioned pet portraits. Ives, who now lives in Rogers, Arkansas, calls her technique “painting with wool.” In the “half-and-half” pictures she posts on her Instagram page – half an animal’s digital portrait, half its felted image – it’s often difficult to tell which side is the photo.
Ives, who excelled in painting during high school but never thought of art as a career, learned about needle-felting from a zoo co-worker in 2011. The technique uses a needle with barbs on the end to repeatedly stab wool into a fabric base, pushing fibers into place.
Over the course of a couple years, Ives went from creating 3D figures like cacti to her current 2D work. Initially she felted her own canvases, but they were too soft. After noticing art presented in an embroidery hoop, it occurred to her to try that approach, using a felt (and later, linen) background.
“That’s when I was really able to hone details,” says Ives. “Artistically, what I’m drawn to is making things look like they do in real life.”
To achieve that goal, she always starts with the eyes, which she calls the key to the animal’s psyche. “Having spent so much time with animals makes me want to bring out their personalities. I also think my science background allows me to see things more accurately and portray those details in my art.”
For each piece, Ives uses dozens of shades of wool. Lighter-colored pets are particularly challenging, she says, and she might blend several shades of off-white, tan, and cream to create the fur. Her process is exacting, she says, but also forgiving. “If you put down a color you don’t like, you can pull it back up.”
By 2015, Ives had built her part-time hobby into a steady stream of pet portrait commissions, and she decided to leave the zoo to become a full-time artist. Her work – which has since expanded to include human portraits (not yet available for commission) and larger pieces, such as a 24-by-30-inch hippo portrait – has attracted an enviable number of fans. One time-lapse video she posted on Instagram last year, in which she is filling in a dog’s nose, topped 7 million hits.
With that kind of interest, it’s not surprising that her available commissions sell out in seconds. She also holds needle-felting workshops and sells online how-to courses. Her first hard-copy book – Painting With Wool: Sixteen Artful Projects to Needle Felt – was just published by Abrams.
As she adds to her body of work in a medium that is often perceived as more hobby than art, Ives hopes to elevate the technique. “I’d love to see fiber-art paintings in a show or museum, next to and competing with traditional paintings.”
True romance: Ives and her husband, Brandon, who both grew up in Mountain Home, Arkansas, met in preschool. They started dating in junior high, went to the same college, and married in 2008.
Love him tender: Ives’ favorite animal when she worked at Dickerson Park Zoo was a parrot named Elvis. “He would run his beak over my skin or my hair to groom me, and I would brush his little feathers.” Leaving him was especially difficult, but she later immortalized Elvis in a felted portrait.