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Four Box Dolls

What brought me here today:

I’ve always felt that as an artist, I’m in constant danger of becoming pretentious. The artwork that I create is deeply meaningful for me. Creating it has allowed me to work through my own mental and emotional difficulties. Seeing it as a finished product brings me a certain degree of pride in accomplishment as well.

What is deeply meaningful for me personally, isn’t in any way deep or meaningful to people who are not me. The very things that make my artwork meaningful for me may in fact, be weirdly off-putting to people. I understand that. Added to this is the fact that not all of my references are incredibly clear. Many being self-referential. So, if you don’t actually know me personally, meaning may be lost.

Past experience:

After high school, I attended art school and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications. At the time, visual communications was the fancier way of saying ‘graphic design’. In addition to my core courses in graphic design and related subjects like typography, I took a lot of lithography, etching and woodcut courses. It was here that I crossed paths with art students who were not in the graphic design program.

I remember the critiques being very different in the fine art studio courses than in my graphic design courses. In the graphics courses, we were far more blunt with our opinions and observations. Maybe it was to get us used to what could occur when working in our chosen profession. By the time we were in our senior year of the program, most of us had fairly thick skins when it came to hearing critique. Having a fellow student say, “Yeah. That fucking colour sucks. You need something different. Try something NOT yellow.” didn’t really phase me much.

The group/class critiques in the fine arts courses that I took were much different. There would be times in which I simply kept my mouth shut for fear of being far too blunt and straight forward regarding a fellow students artwork. I think the meanest thing that I ever said in a critique, under my breath, so just a fellow student could hear me was, “Shoot the artist. Burn the work.” In my own defense, the artwork was an absolute mess and the student had little to no efficacy in the field of art making.

One excruciating critique:

I remember the etching critique that broke me. There was a student in the course whose work was not interesting to me at all. His drawing style was confusing and messy. The compositions were oddly cropped. I got the feeling that he was attempting to hide his inability to draw hands with some of his cropping. His prints were smudgy and poorly executed. He had this one set of etchings in which he drew himself again and again, wearing some kind of goggles.

This student spent the better part of an hour talking about his work to the class and the instructor. There wasn’t a whole lot of back and forth. He didn’t take many questions from the class or the instructor. Preferring to kind of monologue his way through the critique. As a woman who is chock full of opinions, this was absolutely excruciating for me to sit through.

Added to the aforementioned pain of holding my tongue, partially by my own good senses, and the student monologuing about his artwork, was the fact that I thought that all of the students monologuing was just a half-assed art-speak batch of complete pretentiousness. He seemed as though he thought he was the smartest, most talented and deepest person in the entire room. And he needed us all to know it.

Reality check:

I didn’t know this student well at all. We may have exchanged two dozen words in all of the printmaking courses we were in together. He had his own personal battles and issues that he could have been wrestling with, and his artwork was the way in which he was working through it. I have to admit, I have no idea. And at the time, I didn’t care to inquire any further than those two dozen words to find out.

This critique made such a deep impression on me. I decided that I never wanted to sound as pretentious as I thought he did. Especially regarding my artwork. I was young and stupid and I own-up to that. My thoughts regarding my fellow student were painfully ignorant. And I cringe inwardly in embarrassment when I think of how inconsiderate I was.

Present day:

Reality check aside, that critique and all of the self-aggrandizing artistic pretentiousness left a mark on me. It honestly made me hesitant to actually talk about the thoughts, reasons and meanings contained in my own artwork. For many years, I could ignore this, because as a graphic designer and illustrator, the whole reason I was creating a design or illustration was to sell groceries, or illustrate a point. These weren’t personal. The artwork I was creating was for a purpose that existed outside of my own creative needs.

I have an easy time discussing the techniques and materials I use to create my artwork. That part is easy. It relates to being an art teacher. I’m well practiced at breaking down a lesson steps, techniques and materials for my students and fellow art teachers. It’s very academic and leaves out my personal artistic expression.

Four Box Dolls:

I’ve been thinking a lot about how people will perceive the Four Box Dolls. As I originally conceived them, they would be four completely separate and individual pieces of artwork. As I worked on them, they became a single piece containing four parts. The design of the boxes is a nod to mass produced dolls. I wanted to create the types of dolls that I wanted and needed as a child, but didn’t have. Once again, my artwork continues to be a message to the child I was in the 70’s.

As I continued working on the Four Box Dolls, the dolls themselves began to tell me who they were. DAMN! That sounds SO pretentious! But it’s the truth. I’ve talked at length perviously about how the artwork more or less decides what it’s going to be. I’m just the person with the hands that makes it happen. Each of the dolls began reminding me of who I was when I was so much younger. Who I thought I might want to be when I became an adult.

What’s in a name?

The names of each individual doll gives away part of that explanation. 5, Ten, (Ancient Egyptian Number 15) and 20. Each of the dolls contained within those specific boxes are meant to represent me, at least in part, at that age. Placing each of the dolls inside boxes meant to mimic mass produced dolls for me shows how I didn’t always see myself represented in the world around me.

The ways in which each of the dolls will be presented in the final form, behind plastic, sealed-off as a part of my past also carries meaning. I’m not completely committed to the permanent attachment of the plastic on these pieces. As I’ve demonstrated, not everything in my past has been boxed up, sealed-off and put away never to be seen again. Sometimes we want to get things out and play around with them from time to time.


I add details to my artwork that I know will not necessarily be seen by the viewer. The way in which I designed the boxes for these dolls, they can be hung up on a wall. If that’s how the piece is displayed, the back won’t be seen. Prior to adding the dolls names onto the panels of appliqué and embroidery work, I thought that I would just add a panel of felt, so that the box would have a bit of a buffer against any wall it might be hung on.

I think that I hide details, and add details in strange spots within my artwork because I don’t feel like most people really see the things that they look at. There is always more than meets the eye if you stop and take the time to really look at any given thing. This includes my artwork. There are references that I make within my artwork, like with the doll 5, that encompass not only a specific doll I played with as a child, but the television shows like this one, and this one, that helped to shape the person that I am today. And then, relate to the name of a song by the Australian band Architecture in Helsinki.

Some people will never look anyway:

There are some people who see that I make dolls and make the assumption that I make toys for children. Or that the pieces of artwork that I create are somehow childish and lack any kind of real meaning. Perhaps they even think that I’m weird and childish for making dolls. Yeah. I’ve met some of these people. For whatever reason, they don’t want or need to look closer at my work to see it for what it really is. Or how they as the viewer can relate to my work and create more and different meanings.

It’s an ongoing process:

If you’ve made it this far into this blog post, then you understand that talking about the meaning of my artwork is still something that I’m working hard at getting better at. I still feel as though I’m being insanely pretentious in the way in which I talk about the meanings behind my artwork. Hopefully writing posts like this will help me to get better at it.

I also know that creating artwork with odd, conflicting or strange personal meanings isn’t always conducive to actually selling it to a wide array of customers. This requires finding a very small and specific customer base. It would be super-neat if I found them one day in the future.

So, now what?

My usual answer is to go and make more art. This instance is no different. I’m going to go make more art. Well, work on art that I’ve already started. You can see more of the progress on the Four Box Dolls here. I post photos daily.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you again next Friday.