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A Cut Above: Illustrator Sam Sidney attracts a strong following with her colorful felt creations

A Cut Above: Illustrator Sam Sidney attracts a strong following with her colorful felt creations
August 2021

Find out how her pandemic project led to hundreds of commissions

The artist committed to saying ”yes“ to every opportunity that came her way last year. 

From Frida Kahlo and Prince to swimsuits and Oreos, Sam Sidney’s Technicolor felt artwork must be among the most joyful creative endeavors to come out of the pandemic.

Begun as a series of art projects to keep her four kids busy during the spring 2020 lock-down, Sidney’s signature felt creations have earned her a massive fan base. Since she posted the first one—a simple self-portrait—on Instagram in April 2020, she’s been contacted for more than 700 commissions, including one of Jerry Garcia for Bravo TV host Andy Cohen.

The New York native has always thought of herself as an artist from the time she was a child. “I remember going to summer camp when I was maybe eight, and thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll have to explain to everyone that I’m an artist,’” she says, laughing. “It was just always part of my identity.”

After graduating with an art degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, Sidney moved back to the city to pursue her passion and soon attained a level of success she never expected. “I was doing these large sculptures with vintage high heels and got picked up by a gallery in TriBeCa,” she says. “That led to a review in The New Yorker and then a show at the Chanel store in SoHo, and it all kind of snowballed.”

(Left to right) All the Felts - Seeking to entertain her children and channel her creativity during the pandemic, art teacher Sam Sidney began using colorful felt cutouts to create intricate celebrity portraits, such as fashion icon Iris Apfel; Artist Sam Sidney creates colorful felt portraits of icons, such as this work-in-progress of comedian Joan Rivers.

As exciting as it was, all the attention (not to mention the pressure) didn’t feel right at the time—so Sidney went to NYU to get a master’s in art education. When she and her husband moved to Charleston in 2007 and started their family, she was teaching art classes and working as an illustrator.

Then came the pandemic and a box of felt. Now, she’s working on upcoming shows in New York and Los Angeles, and her art is on display at Charleston Artist Collective. Here, she opens up about the joy of diving into something new.

How it All Began: When the lock-down started, I decided the kids and I were going to do an art project every day, and I’d post it on Instagram. One day, I went to the garage and took out this small box of felt that I probably hadn’t opened in 10 years, and we made collages. Later that night, I was looking at it and thought, ‘I want to do a self-portrait.’ So I did and posted it, and everyone went crazy for it.

Additional felt portraits by Sidney of Queen Elizabeth, The Notorious B.I.G., and Dolly Parton.

Yes Year: My first commission came from a high school friend who asked me to make nine famous musicians. After that, the requests kept coming. I’d recently read about someone who said “yes” to every creative opportunity that came to them for an entire year, and I decided I’d do the same—so I didn’t say “no” to anyone! That turned into more than 700 commissions in the past year. At one point I had a list of 150 pieces that I had to complete. That’s when I did have to start turning people down. I’m at about 40 now, which means I can work on those and still have time to work on pieces for shows, as well.

Creative Process: When I’m doing people, I always start with two colors to make the face, with a line down the middle. I do that because when I made my first piece, the self-portrait, I didn’t have a piece of felt that was big enough for the face so I used two colors. I build from the bottom up, and it’s very methodical: Their chin goes like this, the face shape is like this. If I don’t like it, if I don’t think it’s good, I literally chop it up and start over.

Sidney’s June pop-up with Marysia‘s swim trunk show at Charleston Artist Collective.

Second Chance: This felt work feels organic to me, unlike when I was in New York and showing in those galleries. It was such weird timing—I was only 22, and I’d just moved to the city, and all I wanted to do was hang out with my friends. I was given this incredible opportunity, and I sort of dropped the ball. It never felt like it was meant to be. Now, I feel like I’m in a place I love, a house I love, with all our kids, and this art feels on-brand with myself. It’s colorful and happy.