A little over three years ago, I was standing in the hallway of a local high school, surrounded by my own artwork (mostly dolls) having a strange conversation with a potential customer, while trying to wrangle her enthusiastic, sticky-fingered daughter away from touching the handmade cloth dolls that covered my booth.
“Yeah…your dolls are really, reeealy great….” she said, “but, I’m an adult. What would I want with a doll? I mean, what would I do with it?”
Okay. Ignoring the fact that you daughter would like to have one of my dolls, you are talking to the adult to actually made the dolls that you are insinuating an adult would want nothing to do with. I know, you may think I am reading too much into what she said, but there was more said, and the body language and over all attitude that went along with her comments to me were dismissive and condescending.
In a recent post, I stated that I am the audience and that I create the artwork that I want to create, regardless of whether people want it, like it or buy it. This is still true. I can take criticism. I think the reason why I have been thinking about this particular incident is because I’m stuck on the part about why would an adult want a doll? Which to me then wraps around to the question, why do I make dolls? Why dolls?
I cannot remember a time in my life that I was not fascinated by dolls. They permeate my childhood memories. My first loves were the original Fisher-Price Little People, then Flatsie Dolls (I called them ‘Bitsies’, because they were small).
A close friend of the family had antique dolls and her mother had a larger collection and had kind of doll hospital, where she created clothing for them and made repairs to them. My mother says that once, when I was very little (maybe a little under three years old) we visited her house. I had a habit of getting very quiet when I was doing bad things, so when I couldn’t be heard, I was looked for. I was found looking (not touching, they were in cases) at all of the dolls on display. I have a fuzzy memory of the room with the cases of dolls. The dolls were amazing.
I still remember the name of my favourite doll when I was little (around age 5). Her name was Cindy (Audrey in the advert). She was a Fisher-Price doll and I adored her. She eventually got sisters Julie and Sally (Jenny and Mary respectively from advert) from the same line of dolls, and later, an older sister named Amanda.
Along with dolls, I had stuffed animals. Ellie (the elephant, yes, I know, not very imaginative on the name there), Bernie the bear, Meepie the mouse.
The Fisher-Price Little People gave me a love of not only dolls, but dollhouses. During my childhood, I had several dollhouses. One made by my Grandfather Harold and one that I made myself, along with lots and lots of shoebox houses.
I fell in love with paper dolls when I was around 7 or 8. I loved a series called the Ginghams. I think I have written about this particular set of paper dolls before in this blog. Paper dolls are something that I associate with spending time at my Grandmother Elizabeth’s house when I was little. My Grandmother Elizabeth and Grandfather Russell lived in the same town that I grew up in. Sometimes my younger brother Kurt and I would go over for the day. There was a Kmart just a few blocks from their house. We would walk over and Grandma would get yarn (she crocheted and knitted) and Kurt and I would each get an inexpensive toy or a candy. They had a great selection of paper dolls and that’s what I usually chose. The most expensive ones were $1.50, cheap even by 1970’s pricing. I loved the Ginghams because in addition to getting the dolls and the clothing, you got a ‘room’ that could be set up like a little theatre. Grandma had coloured pencils, paper and scissors, so sometimes I would trace the clothing and make my own designs. Katie was not a popular name when I was little, so having a paper doll that had my name, spelled the same way, and she was the ‘artist’ of the group made me love them Gingham line even more.
I started to make cloth dolls I was little. The first doll that I made was called Marilyn. I made her when I was visiting my Grandmother Wilma during the summer. I had a drawer in the upstairs bedroom that had cloth, yarn, embroidery thread and some notions that I was allowed to use. She had a big square quilted sewing box that sat under her sewing machine in the dining room that I was allowed to use the contents of if I asked. There was a decorated tin box of buttons to sift through as well. I can remember sitting in front of the Zenith television and cutting out that doll. I used yellow variegated embroidery thread for the hair. I wrapped it around a book to create the wig. I added braids. I was upset that the neck wouldn’t stay up after I finished the hair. I remember choosing a tiny, pale green rickrack for the edging of the dress. It took me forever to sew down, but I loved how it looked. My own dresses and tops had similar decorative elements. I put pockets on her dress and made her a little handkerchief with an embroidered ‘M’ on it.
I had an assignment during my teacher education study at university in which the instructor asked us to think about what we liked to do when we were children. What activities gave us the greatest amount of satisfaction and contentment? We were then to create a piece of artwork about those experiences. I made a doll. We presented our work to the class and the instructor and answered questions posed by them. It was the first time I had ever shown my dolls to anyone I was attending school with. I had not idea what kinds of reactions I would receive.
Every artist, no matter what their chosen medium, gets at least a little anxious when showing people what they have created. The artist is opening themselves up and showing people the most vulnerable parts of their psyche. Not knowing how it may be received is a little nerve wracking at times. Will they like it? Will they laugh? Will they think I’m weird? Or will they say nothing at all? I developed a fairly thick skin with regard to my illustration and design work. I told myself that was work for hire and while it was still an expression of my own personal creative aesthetic, I didn’t hold it so dear that I couldn’t take criticism and/or make changes that a client or boss requested.
What I am starting to figure out is that my doll work comes from a much more emotional part of my psyche and is attached to so much of the happiness of my youth that when I have a potential customer say “What would I do with a doll? I’m an adult!” as I stand there, a grown woman, who designs, creates and yes, still plays with dolls, I can’t help but feel somehow…there really isn’t a better word for it, wounded. My heart actually squeezes tight a little.
To some, a doll is seen as nothing more than a child’s toy. Something that they will eventually grow out of. Something to be put away when more grown up priorities take precedence. I know that if I wanted to be taken more seriously by other artists and by people in general, I would put away my childish dolls, pack up my fabrics, threads and stuffing and pick up a paint brush and make ‘real’ art. Art that could hang in a gallery and hang in your living room, over your couch. I wouldn’t ever have the deep, intrinsic connection to brush and canvas that I have with dolls and sewing. I am the audience. Dolls make me happy. Making dolls makes me even happier. So, I will make dolls.