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In 2013, North Branford resident Rebekah DeVivo was in the running to be a contestant on TV’s American Idol when a rare spinal tumor detoured that dream. Her long period of recovery led to discovering a passion for another form of artistic expression, felting. DeVivo’s unique take on the ancient textile art is on display at Northford’s Edward Smith Library during the month of March. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Blending dyes and types of fibers add to felting that's framed as art by Rebekah DeVivo. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
This wall hanging by DeVivo includes a 'resist' pattern revealing a sea glass and shell center. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
DeVivo points out intact silk cocoons used as part of the construct in this felted wall hanging. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Detail of sea glass revealed by 'resist' method in felting on a piece by Rebekah DeVivo. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
This closeup shows a seashell (lower left) embedded among the natural fibers making up a felting piece by artisit Rebekah DeVivo. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Natural fibers and textures invite touch in this wall hanging by felting artist Rebekah DeVivo. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
DeVivo used several techniques to creating this felted artpiece depicting a night sky over roiling waters crashing against shore. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
This seemingly delicate couture shawl actually has a sturdy felting foundation; here, DeVivo shows the reverse of the garment. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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In 2013, Rebekah DeVivo’s voice launched her to Hollywood to compete in television’s American Idol. But when her journey was detoured by a battle with a rare spinal tumor that took years to overcome, she kept her faith, and found a new creative outlet in one of the world’s oldest art forms—felting.
During the month of March, many of Rebekah’s felting creations are on display in an exhibit that’s woven among the stacks and spaces on both floors of the Edward Smith Library in Northford.
The North Branford resident, who still sings with a Christian rock band at Fellowship Church in Middletown, is excited to bring felting, in many forms, into view in her community.
“I do some craft show business, where I have the liberty to be able to do a demonstration, and I’ve also been in some art shows, but I’m usually the only felter there,” says Rebekah. “I get a lot of interest, but it’s hard to explain to people what it is. They love it, but they don’t understand it yet.”
Known as an ancient form of textile art—predating weaving and spinning—felting practiced by today’s artists like Rebekah produces fine art pieces using age-old techniques embellished with a modern sensibility and style. At its most basic level, known as wet felting, the artist creates unique piece of fabric by hand-binding, wetting, rolling, and rubbing individual fibers and hairs, such as alpaca fiber or sheep wool roving, until they combine.
Rebekah’s pieces at the Smith Library draw the eye to discover the many materials making up her colorful scenes and designs (she also creates her own dyes). Some of her works are framed behind glass like paintings. Other pieces of her three-dimensional art invite exploration by touch, including several nature-inspired wall hangings and an extravagant, couture-level women’s wrap.
The Road to American Idol and Beyond
Growing up in Branford until the age of 10, and then in North Branford through high school (she’s a North Branford High School Class of 2004 member), Rebekah sang in choirs, musicals, and school programs and kept on singing into her 20s. In late 2012, when she was 26, Rebekah was in Disneyworld and decided to try out for the theme park’s American Idol Experience. Under her then-married name, Rebekah DiVivo-Ostro, she went on to win among her competitive group at Disneyworld, and received a coveted golden ticket reference as a vocalist recommended to try out for TV’s American Idol. Rebekah went to New York City to try for a spot on the show and won the judges’ vote to put her through to the show’s next rounds in Hollywood.
Even as she was shared the news with her family and began planning her trip to Hollywood, Rebekah’s body was telling her something was wrong, and she knew it. In fact, she had been experiencing fatigue and back pain for a few years, she says.
“My family really wanted me to do American Idol, and I loved singing. So I thought maybe it would be a good fit, and I went out there. But I wasn’t feeling good, which I think is what was kind of holding me back from wanting to do it at that particular time in my life,” she says.
Prior to heading off to Hollywood, she decided to go in for some thorough medical testing, hoping to be put on the path to health with a possible treatment. Rebekah underwent MRI, CAT, and PET scans as well as bloodwork and other types of testing. A tumor found on her spine called for a biopsy.
“When I was in Hollywood, I actually got the call telling me how sick I was,” says Rebekah, who was attending American Idol’s “Hollyweek” tryouts in Los Angeles.
Prior to the call, she sang her way through Hollyweek’s solo round, winning her way onto the next round, known as group. By then, feeling “flu-like” and exhausted, Rebecca says she gave it her all during the group round, but failed to make the cut.
Rebekah returned to New York to undergo surgery for what was diagnosed an aggressive osteoblastoma (a bone tumor).
“The only thing that they can do for that is surgery. There’s no treatment they have for it; there’s no chemotherapy for it. Some radiation works, but might not shrink it completely. So the plan was surgery, and if we don’t get it all out, radiation,” she says, adding the experience also strengthened her faith.
“It made me grow closer to God. When I was in the hospital and going in for the operation, I prayed and I just felt this incredible peace. I had such fear before. It was just amazing, and I’m so grateful for that. My go-to was God, and he provided. I woke up to hear the tumor was out,” says Rebekah.
The surgery successfully removed all of the tumor, but Rebekah’s road to recovery was just beginning.
“I was pretty much bed-ridden in my room for three or four months without being able to walk,” she recounts. “I went from that to being in a wheelchair; and then, about a year and half into it, I was using a walker. I had that for about two years and then I moved from using a walker to a cane, and I had that up until about last year. And now I use the cane once in a while if I need it. Sometimes it’s a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting.”
During her long recuperation post-surgery, Rebekah focused on recovering her mobility, but also wanted something to do with her down-time.
“About a year after I was sick, I was just starting to use the walker, and I didn’t know what to do with my time,” she says. “I always loved crafts. So I started painting and tried crocheting and knitting, but nothing was sticking.”
One night, Rebekah says, “I Googled ‘Top 10 Weirdest Crafts,’” and found her next artistic calling.
“There was a video of a Russian woman felting. I saw her lay out this fluffy thing, and she was pulling the fibers from it [and] she would throw them in the air, and they would float down, and she had this beautiful design,” says Rebekah. “And then, she added soap and water, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is she doing—she’s ruining it!’ I almost couldn’t watch it anymore! And she started rubbing it together. I was thinking, ‘What is this going to turn out to be?’ And in the end, all of it became a solid material. And I was like, ‘What is this sorcery?’ That was it.”
Rebekah was instantly hooked, but couldn’t find much more online information to support her interest in learning how to felt. So she found her own way.
“Back then, you couldn’t find anything on felting that was available for free. You had to either take a class in a different country or somewhere like Washington state—anything tangible was so far away. I found just one or two websites that had written tutorials,” she says, adding, “but with felting, its very hard to follow written instructions, especially if you’ve never done it before, because of the lingo. You have no idea what they’re talking about!”
She taught herself the language of felting by watching the Russian artist’s videos and matching up written tutorials to the actions on the screen.
“I was obsessed,” says Rebekah, laughing. “I think I did three or four months of just solid research on felting before I went out and bought anything.”
From that point to this day, Rebekah has become passionate about the unique art form. She started out making mainly garments, such as scarves and wraps, before moving toward creating three-dimensional art pieces such as wall hangings and frameable artwork.
In a home she shares with three generations of family, including her mom, North Branford native Susan Ellis, and her grandmother, Aloha Moiser, Rebekah works on pieces in her studio that take many hours to complete.
“The layout alone can take anywhere from three days to weeks, depending on how I’m feeling and how intricate and how many layers I want there to be,” she says.
She uses many types of fibers, from the finest wool to silk cocoons, which she will sometimes soak and tease out as threads, and sometimes incorporate as a natural form within the felted art. She also often adds in pieces of yarn, fabric, natural embellishments such as stones or shells, and even some man-made items, like buttons.
As she’s felting in items like shells, pebbles, or wood into her pieces, Rebekah is also deciding whether to use a felting technique called “resist,” where items are first cocooned in felt, then the felt is cut open to reveal what’s inside. Sometimes she leaves the objects completely covered as dimensional shapes in the piece. Both types of techniques are on display among her pieces at the Smith Library.
Rebekah mainly works with basic welt felting and Nuno felting, she notes.
“In Nuno felting, you’re taking wet felting and a fabric like silk, and mixing it with the fiber. When you’re felting, the fibers go through the weave of the fabric and then attach to the backside. It felts together; it almost acts like a weave in itself. And that’s why I love felting—the possibilities are endless.”
The Edward Smith Library, located at 3 Old Post Road, Northford, presents a free exhibit of felting works on display by North Branford artist Rebekah DeVivo during the month of March. For more information about DeVivo’s artwork, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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