URBANA – Rachel Suntop is often asked whether her last name is real. It is, and it's perfect for a fiber artist and milliner who turns out extremely original and powerful hats, some inspired by other cultures.
Two headdresses that Suntop made in 2006 while in Washington, D.C., were inspired by Mongolian headdress, and two by native Alaskan head wear. She made those while she was an intern at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, and they are now part of its permanent collection.
"They're not exact copies," she said. "It's hard to get extremely accurate because some materials are not available."
Her one-of-a-kind hats also have been featured in two runway shows, both in 2004 in Chicago: "Crowning Glory" and "Promise Land." Her artwork – not just hats – has been part of wearable-art shows in Cambridge, Mass.; Minneapolis; and Vancouver, British Columbia; and has been featured in magazines and juried into exhibitions.
Hats, though, are her strong suit. They have always fascinated her.
"They're very personal," she said. "They are real indicators of people's identity – not all the time. Lots of hats of the world are head covers that identify people. They're part of costumes that can transform people. They can be very dramatic. They usually draw a lot of attention, and they can be quite powerful."
In her art hats, the artist uses diverse materials such as wool, fabric, yarn, beads, feathers, horse hair, fish skin that resembles leather, lava beads, shells and found objects. Suntop also makes scarves, mixed-media sculptures and jewelry, and more commercial hats that are reversible.
Some of her more recent projects, all inspired by two trips to Iceland, are part of "Prior to Plastic," a three-artist exhibition that closes today at the Springer Cultural Center in Champaign.
Jenny Southlynn, an artist, teacher and former professor, calls Suntop's work potent.
"Her work is so wildly eccentric. I just love it. Her hats are so whimsical. The materials she uses – she has this incredibly rich sense of potential of the given material. When she weaves them together in a hat, it's pretty potent. Her work is so intelligent and inquisitive. It pushes the envelope. I think she's a first-rate artist."
Southlynn, who has known Suntop since she moved here with her family 23 years ago, said she has been creative from the get-go.
In that regard, the 29-year-old Suntop was nurtured by her mother, Bea Nettles, an artist and professor in the University of Illinois School of Art and Design. Rachel's father, Lionel Suntop, owned Exhibits, a custom-framing and art supply store in Champaign.
Nettles taught her daughter how to use a sewing machine when she was just 5, and Suntop began knitting when she was 6. Like most artists, Suntop remembers always wanting to be an artist. In her youth, and as a student at Urbana High School, she took all the art classes that she could, both in and outside school.
Suntop especially loved the tactile media of textiles and ceramics and obtained from the UI a bachelor's of fine arts degree in ceramics, with high honors. While a junior, she spent a semester studying textile design at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. She has a master's degree in textile design from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
To support herself now, the Champaign resident does custom alterations at Magic Needle in Urbana. She also sells her wearable art via the juried Illinois Artisan Program, at its four shops statewide, and at Wind Water and Light, a gift shop and gallery in Champaign. Her work also is available at upscale gift and museum shops in cities such as Reykjavik, Iceland; Seward, Alaska; New York; Dallas; Chicago; and Portland, Ore.
As an artist, Suntop hopes to eventually see solo exhibitions of her hats and multimedia sculptures and to travel more and do more artist residencies. She has had one in Iceland and another in Hawaii.
"They really inspire me to create new bodies of work," she said.
While at the Red Cinder Creativity Center in Hawaii, she made a series of imaginary mixed-media flowers and plants that comment on the lush growth of the state and how fragile and threatened it is along with the traditions and culture of native Hawaiians.
She is now focusing on making hats and multimedia sculptures inspired by Iceland, where she had an artist's residency in 2005 at the Hafnarborg Cultural Center. She visited Iceland again this past summer for a week before spending three weeks in Scandinavia.
"They have absolutely amazing textiles, and the sense of design and the art that comes out of those countries are really amazing to me," she said.
Iceland is like another planet, though. "There are no trees. It's very unforgiving, very stark," Suntop said. "It's not a particularly welcoming place in terms of the landscape, but the people were very nice." She hopes to return.
While in Iceland, she took nearly 1,000 photos. She picked the best for her book, "Cool Light: An Icelandic Voyage," that offers for $25 a copy via her Web site at www.rsuntop.com. People also may read it online.
Suntop first became interested in Iceland in the late '90s as a result of listening to music by Bjork and other natives of the Atlantic island just southeast of Greenland. She began reading about it and became determined to travel there.
Even though Iceland and Hawaii might seem vastly different to people, Suntop sees similarities between them.
"They're both isolated islands and volcanic," she said. "Hawaii is a lot more lush. Iceland in some places is very green and lush. The big island of Hawaii has some snow-capped mountains, and people actually ski there."