Creativity Talks: Cathaleen Curtiss, Storytelling in Felt

Cathaleen.NYC.I first met Cathaleen Curtiss at a programming class during my first few days working at America Online in 1997. We were being taught how to post content using AOL’s bespoke publishing system, Rainman. She was the company’s new Director of Photography, and would grow, and eventually run, a staff of 60 photo editors, setting the visual tone of the service.
Cathaleen had been a staff photographer and assignment editor at the Washington Times, had won numerous regional and national photography awards, and had been named the White House News Photographers Association Photographer of the Year in 1990. Plus, despite being a woman executive in a male-dominated cadre of the powerful, she was always friendly and very approachable.
Later on, I would learn she was also the single mother of two girls ,and was commuting to Dulles, Virginia–every day–from ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (a 2.5 hour commute each way)! I’m not sure how she not just survived, but thrived at AOL. But she did, and she outlasted many of her colleagues.
After the merger with Time Warner, she moved to AOL-Time Warner in New York City, to become the new company’s Vice President Global Photography. She managed a multi-million dollar budget with a combined global staff of over 80 visual content editors based in Virginia, New York, California and India. They created the visual content for all of AOL Media’s U.S. and global portals, including AOL News, TMZ, Road Runner, PopEater, StyleList and others.
She is now the Director of Photography at the Buffalo News, and continues to photograph the world, as well as making felt storyboards.

I wondered, how does Cathaleen have time for her “outlet,” creating felt story boards? How did she learn to make these flat, fiber worlds often used as early learning aides? What called her to felt story boards in the first place?

TH: Let me start by asking you how long you’ve been making your felt story boards? How did you first get the idea to make them?

CC: The first story board was for our granddaughter Sloane. She wanted an Old McDonald birthday. So, I set to work to make her a barn.
I first made a paper model, seeing how things would fit together. The paper model looked good, but because I wanted it to be able to travel, it would have to fold flat multiple times. I didn’t think the paper would hold up.

I also considered the fact that Sloane was 2 years old, and she needed the barn to be soft.
So I decided to make the barn out of cloth, but found it was not sturdy enough. Then I switched to making the barn out of felt, which was heavier.
Once I got the barn done, I started to add all the extra things. Fences, animals, and the farmer and his wife. When the barn is buttoned together it forms a little square building that carries everything inside, and has a handle. When it is unfolded, it is a 3-D  scene.
I hand stitch all my creations, and when I started Sloane’s project, the only thread I had was my mother’s embroidery thread, and that was special to me.

“The tactile nature of the flannel board pieces invites children to “feel” each story component. And because the story is being “told” instead of read, there is
more time to reflect on the behaviors and interactions of the characters.”

I made finger puppets of all the animals so Sloane’s parents could interact with her. Those creatures are visible in the barn.

Count the hay bales, find the owl…

Then I made the barn into games:  find the three pigeons; how many bales of hay? Can you find the mice? Each barn I’ve made has hidden games and things in them…

Which lead to making felt food.


My daughter was a first grade teacher and wanted felt food to help her a class learn about money and having a business. Her students wanted to open their own restaurant.  I made them lots of different foods: Sushi, tacos, pizza, vegetables, donuts, little cakes, steaks, and salmon. The list goes on and on…

TH: Of course, a visual storyteller such as yourself would be attracted to the storytelling possibilities of a flannel board! Who do you think of as your “audience” for the felt boards?

CC: So about my felt boards… I hope this doesn’t sound selfish, but my first audience is me. I challenge myself to think through how to do something. Sometimes I look at something and think, “I could make that in felt.” Like a steak: on one side it is raw, and on the other side it is cooked. I imagine a child pretending to grill it, and presenting it cooked, on a plate with vegetables.

Each project just forms as I go.   My brain thinks, “What if it were a search game? What else lives in a barn? How would a child carry it? What if it needed to travel?”

I think of a story or place and think how can I make that?  For me, it is the figuring out how to make something. Once I make one, I rarely do it again. That seems boring or duplicative to me. I love the challenge of creating something new.

Sometimes it is just the fun of knowing some child is going to take my projects and use their imaginations. And that makes me so happy!

“Flannel boards aid in the teaching of visual literacy – learning to look and construct meaning from objects. Children use personal connections to enable
the decoding of visual representations of their experiences.
They will recognize a picture of a cat, drawn by different illustrators as a “symbol”
for a cat, and know that it is not a cat, but represents one.
Later they learn that letters represent ideas when assembled into words.”
–Debbie Sternklar for Storytime Skills workshop UHLS/MVLS


TH: Which of your storyboards have pleased you the most? Why?

CC: Oh, that is tough! I recently did a race track for my step-grandson.  It is a little garage that unfolds into a race track, complete with fans, a pit stop, etc.  It was more work than I expected but that’s because I kept coming up with ideas to add to it.  It fits his match box cars.  One of the scenes has his dad’s race car up on a lift to be repaired. And his birth date shows up as the price on the gas pump. Like the barn, it can fold flat or be carried by the handle.

TH: When, oh when, do you have the time to make the boards? How long does a felt board and all the little pieces take to assemble? What do you feel as you make the boards?

CC: The time needed depends on the project and how many additions I add to it as I go.  A package of sushi can take a few minutes, a farm or race track can take weeks.  But I do them in small increments while watching the news or sitting outside.  I cannot just sit still.  I need to be doing something with my hands. If I’m not out making images, and I’m not gardening, I’m likely stitching. IMG_4743

I also often stitch at high stress points in my life because it helps me to sit, breath and just interact with something rather than letting my mind run away.

TH: Finally, do any artists or craftspeople inspire your felt work?

CC: Not really…  When I’m looking for inspiration, I try to think of things from my experiences.  Sometimes I google things, like, for example, a vintage gas pump to get an idea of how to make something. You can see how that turned out in the racetrack garage project.

TH: Thank you, Cathaleen! You are a professional photographer and an avid iPhoneographer. I’m going to chase you down sometime to interview you about your A Photo A Day project….

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