February 7, 2023
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Life & Culture

Q&A: Ithaca College professor recreates ‘Star Wars’ with miniature felt figures

A little over a month ago, the needle-felted work of Jack Wang, associate professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, and his twin brother, Holman, was highlighted in a special, doodled version of the Google logo that was featured on the site’s homepage. On April 14, “Star Wars Epic Yarns,” the duo’s new board book series, will hit the shelves. “Epic Yarns” features illustrations of original needle-felt versions of iconic characters including Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Chewbacca. These books are a continuation of the work that the brothers displayed in their first felt-inspired series, “Cozy Classics.”

Staff Writer Emily Fedor spoke with Jack Wang about the origin of this unusual hobby, the inspiration behind “Epic Yarns” and all things felt related.

Emily Fedor: How did you first get involved in needle-felting?

Jack Wang: We wanted to come up with an illustrative technique that we thought would be original. My brother has a sister-in-law who does some needle-felting, so I gave him the idea to take pictures of needle-felted figures. We’ve always been artistic guys, but my brother and I taught ourselves to needle-felt expressly for the purpose of making our books.

EF: What made you want to design such a different kind of book?

JW: My brother and I both have kids, and after we both had our firstborn children, we were naturally reading a lot of these books that teach first words. We often found that the themes of a lot of these books, while they are of course important to children, just seemed to be all the same. I started thinking, “How could the board book genre be both interesting to children and adults, and how could we care about the art more?”

EF: Let’s talk about “Epic Yarns.” Where did the idea of tackling “Star Wars” come from?

JW: The way “Star Wars” came about is that my brother and I went to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and we met some folks from Chronicle. They really liked our concept — the 12 word, 12 illustration concept — and they said, “Well what other ideas might you have?” We knew Chronicle did other “Star Wars” books, and we were big fans since we were 5 years old. So we just aimed high and said, “What about ‘Star Wars?’”

EF: How did you go about getting permission to use the characters and the material?

JW: Fortunately, we could work through the publisher to negotiate rights. It did take a little while because Lucasfilm, even though it is a part of Disney, is sort of like a separate entity. They were afraid of opening the floodgates where Disney would make all kinds of really kid-ish “Star Wars” books. So they wanted to make sure that what we were doing was going to be cool, and that we could do justice to “Star Wars.”

EF: Did you feel any pressure in proving that you were worthy enough to make these books?

JW: When you’re reproducing “Star Wars,” people expect what they saw in the movie. It has to resemble what they have in their minds, and more over, “Star Wars” has the challenge of a really different kind of set. You have a whole different world you have to recreate faithfully — convincingly. So there was pressure there, and Lucas had to approve every image as we went along.

EF: Were there any challenges working with “Star Wars?”

JW: Just recreating the sets was probably the biggest challenge. We wanted to be true to the movies and even went to the Imperial Sand Dunes outside of Yuma, Arizona, which is where Lucas shot part of “Return of the Jedi.” We basically drove into a sand storm, and at the end, the set that we had brought was sort of in pieces because the wind was so strong.

EF: Were any felt figures harmed in the making of these books?

JW: R2-D2 got very dirty. For a second we thought, “Oh no. He’s destroyed,” because he was so filled with sand and dirt, but fortunately we were able to clean him with compressed air. These figures take anywhere from 20 to 60 hours to make. They’re sturdy on the one hand but easily damaged on the other.

EF: Do you think this medium will be able to reach a larger audience than just “Star Wars” fans?

JW: All the figures are kind of cute and approachable to any kid even if they don’t know “Star Wars.” I think for parents, even if they don’t know the story, the hope is that people can appreciate the craftsmanship. Even if “Star Wars” isn’t near and dear to their hearts, they can look at this and appreciate what it means to produce that image in felt and wool.

EF: Do you and Holman have any plans for the future?

JW: We have more “Cozy Classics” coming out, but we would love to do some other big franchises as well. “Lord of the Rings” would be pretty cool. “Star Wars” is very sci-fi and metallic and techy, but wool actually lends itself better to something more organic like “Lord of the Rings.” We have hopes for some new projects, and there may be something on the horizon.