Whimsical creatures leap from Jacquie Wheeler’s imagination and take shape as hand-stitched dolls with expressive faces and bodies adorned in vintage buttons.
The cast of characters grows weekly with names like Krampus, Tweet Peeps, Jack B. Nervous and Benedictine.
There are Russian mice, beetles with sweet grins, lambs and rabbits, crimson devils, fat snowmen, Christmas birds, playful spirits, baby chicks and royal yams made of cashmere and topped with fanciful crowns.
“Most of my characters just pop into my head,” Wheeler said. “I do everything myself, all hand stitching, never glue.”
Wheeler’s creations come to life in her home studio in League City. She began her creative business, Hand of Bela Peck, in 2008 when her daughter was in middle school.
Now her wares are available at Hendley Market, 2010 Strand in Galveston’s downtown and at online market Etsy, etsy.com/market/hand_of_bela_peck.
She also creates a dizzying array of pillows, pin cushions and history-based samplers.
Wheeler grew up in Norwich, Conn., a tiny town where her parents still live. She was raised in a house that was built in 1759 and, which her parents, also artists, patiently restored over time.
The house is near an area that was once used as a dumping ground in the 1800s, and it was a treasure trove of found objects for a young girl. The ongoing archeological finds delighted her. It was the beginning of a fascination with taking remnants of the past and recreating objects of wit and beauty.
“I grew up in a very creative home,” Wheeler said. “My father told stories in a way that ordinary animals took on unique identities. Living in an old house, winters were shared with field mice. My dad would carve duck decoys at the kitchen table to an audience of field mice waiting for Cheerios.”
Wheeler also was raised on Beatrix Potter stories. And she grew up playing in a large meadow of her own.
“I saw these characters every day,” she said. “I never doubted that animals had secret tea parties in the summer and ice danced in the winter.”
Handmade creatures were always a part of her life. When she was quite small, her grandmother made her a pink velveteen piglet that she took with her everywhere.
“He bears the scars of sibling rivalry and timeworn love, but I still have him,” she said
Wheeler’s artistry came naturally. When she was 5 years old, her mother taught her to sew. She began making clothes for her dolls and building petite furniture.
Her childhood was idyllic and like most of the neighborhood children, she played in the graveyard near the town. A favorite grave marker paid tribute to an 18th century sea captain named Bela Peck. At the top of the marker, a large hand holds a scroll.
Touching that hand in the dead of night was a test of fearlessness among generations of children, and something she accomplished more than once. When Wheeler mustered the courage to start her own business, the obvious name was “Hand of Bela Peck.’
“The first doll I created was a primitive angel,” Wheeler said. “I had seen some beautiful work in a magazine and I wanted to use fabric from my great-grandmother’s dress to make an angel. Her simplicity makes me laugh to this day.”
Some of Wheeler’s characters take as little as an hour to create while others take several days. Others span seasons.
Historical dolls and primitive cross-stitched samplers can take months to complete because each piece requires so much detailed hand stitching.
Over the past few years, her work has become more playful, and her stuffed characters are happier and more lighthearted, she said.
Wheeler is drawn to the vintage materials that she finds in resale shops and antique markets, she said. She’s always searching for high quality material and interesting flourishes to bring some new character into being.
“Choosing fabrics or vintage items is instinctual,” she said. “I know the right item by sight and confirm the choice with just one touch. I look for natural fibers without synthetics. Wool is my favorite. I love to throw them into the washing machine to make the fibers tighter and more workable.”
She gravitates toward vintage coats for their fine fabric and oversized buttons, she said.
“High-end designers use fabrics I wouldn’t want to pay top-dollar to use but at secondhand prices, I can give my characters some proper couture,” she said.
Still, she gathers inspiration from her life, from her creative community, and also from history and the lives of other women. She studied interpersonal communications, speech and history at Emerson College in Boston, where a favorite history professor, The Rev. John Coffee, brought historical characters to life in a dramatic fashion. He fueled an already keen interest in history.
“I love to go to small towns and local museums,” she said. “I’m interested in the handiwork of women from an earlier era. For example: the women who moved into the wilds of Texas; their needlework inspires me.”
Wheeler moved to Texas two years ago with her husband, Kevin, who works for Chevron Corp. He is an enthusiastic supporter of her work.
“Sometimes when my projects leak out from the studio he rolls his eyes, but really he’s my cheerleader and my best critic,” she said.
They have an 18-year-old daughter, Emily, who is now in college in San Antonio.
Wheeler’s new projects include a book, her first, and needlework samplers from real and imagined survivors of the 1900 Storm.
The book is called “Up-Cycle Nation,” and is based on the primitive tradition of “making do.”
“It’s a collection of simple crafts using thrift-store finds,” she said.
Inspiration for her projects comes from many places, she said.
“I think the characters choose me, not the other way around,” she said.