So I spent a good part of today looking for a picture of me from when I was about five or six with my first doll. Well not the first one that I owned but let’s say, the first one that made an impact on me and that I remember clearly. The photo is from sometime in the 70’s. It’s of my older sister and I sitting on the front porch of our family’s house in Napa. My sister is skinny and bright eyed and I’m a little chubby; not fat but “huggable” (oh Jenny she’s so huggable and sweet) when I would have preferred “oh Jenny she’s so pretty” but I digress. Under my yellow and white (if memory serves me well) dress you can see a little more than a jolly roll of baby fat but a hard odd lumpy shape. I think I am so clever and I’m fooling everyone with my pregnant belly. I don’t know if it is normal for a six year old to pretend they are pregnant, but my mom may have been pregnant with one of our brood of five at the time so maybe that’s what little girls do, pretend they’ve been knocked up. The dolly that is stuffed underneath my dress is the before mentioned ‘first doll’. I received her for Christmas and was so overjoyed when I unwrapped her and she fell into my embrace. My parents asked me what is her name and without a wink I exclaimed, Witch! My parents dreaded stares and likely small gasps were completely unknown to me as I was a kid and only saw my first child before me. They had both been raised Catholic and I am quite certain they were befuddled and aghast at the spontaneous name choice for my new little dolly.
So as you can see I haven’t found that picture yet. I put in a call to the keeper of the family pictures, the grand dame of all things Alcantara, my Mom, and she said she would ‘look into it’ Well I don’t have time to wait so here in it’s place is another of my sister and I, she with her cute fluffy white bear and me with my baby Witch. I think we look like those scary sisters from The Shining. HAHA
I have loved lots of dollies in my lifetime. One other Christmas my sister and I both got ‘Baby Alive’. Her commercial jingle was ‘baby alive soft and sweet, she can drink , she can eat” and she came with diapers, a bottle and baby food. Her mouth moved in a chewing sucking motion and you could feed your little baby and change her shitty drawers!! What fun!! We loved our dollies and they were much more fun to change then our real baby sister, because when you fed baby alive peach smelling food her poop smelled ‘peachy keen’ unlike really real baby stinky poop that lived in the other room. WE loved our baby alives all through the winter and spring and when summer came we were so excited to take them swimming in the family doughboy pool .We of course disregarded our mothers warning that “baby alive can’t go swimming”. Mom was right, baby alive can’t swim! in fact if you take baby alive in the pool her insides rust and brown stuff comes out of all her holes and she can’t eat drink or crap anymore and she becomes baby dead…so there we were with two dead babies on our hands. I can’t remember what we did with them. I know they didn’t get buried in the graveyard at the side of the house where we and the neighborhood kids would hold funerals complete with a director and mourners and flower lined caskets for any dead bird or bee what we found….I think they must have just been added to the heap of over loved stuffed animals and dolls and then snuck into the garbage by our mom when we weren’t looking.
I loved Raggedy Ann to I don’t have a picture of any of my raggedy Ann dolls but I found this obviously over loved doll pic online. I still have the broken Christmas ornament Raggedy Ann doll that I painted as a kid that I just can’t part with. Back in the first issue of Hi Fructose magazine, where a couple of my dolls were featured, Annie Owens wrote “Raggedy Ann better step up her game because Jennybird’s reanimated dollies are about to tear her screen printed heart out.” She couldn’t possible know how much I loved that line!! And what a huge compliment it was!
So I had plenty of toys as a kid but there were 5 children in my family so the gifts had to be spread around. I had enough but I didn’t have tons of dolls. I think that is why the ones I had were always so dear to me. When I was 11 I met my friend Sheri Debow. She shared my love of dolls and stuffed cute things and we would make dolls together and little sculpted animals. She had lots and lots of dolls. When we were teenagers she had this shelf that ran the entire way around the top of her room and it was crammed with dolls and stuffed animals. I lusted after that hoard.
Dolls have a life about them, maybe because they are made in the form of tiny versions of us. Maybe it’s the stare that they possess even when the eyes are just a few stitches of thread… I think that is why so many people have a fear of dolls, they do carry a power within them at least a power to put some people on notice. Beyond their physical appearance Dolls can be a vessel and they can take whatever you pour into them, whatever your intention is. Maybe that is where Voodoo dolls came into play. Because they possess what you give them, Dolls can be friendly and kind and love you right back or put you at ill ease and just stare down at you from the shelf.
According to Wikipedia Archaeological evidence places dolls as foremost candidate for oldest known toy, having been found in Egyptian tombs which date to as early as 2000 BCE. In Egypt, as well as Greece and Rome, it was common to find them in the graves of children. Most were made of wood, although pottery dolls were buried with children from wealthier families. Dolls with movable limbs and removable clothing date back to 200 BCE.
In my teen years I got into painting and that became my preferred method of expression so I ‘put the dolls on the shelf ‘. While in my early 20’s in art school, I had a great painting professor named Franklin Williams at the San Francisco Art Institute. His paintings were really interesting but the thing that impressed me so much about him I learned early on in my first class with him. He was showing the student slides of his work and talking about his process when he began to tell us about his relationship with his mother and father. He had a very strong bond with them and when his mother took ill he moved home for the final months of her life to be close to her and help her. When she died he took her clothing and lovingly and carefully removed the very thread holding her garments together and used it in his mixed media work. I think all the hairs stood upon my arms when he talked about that and I have never forgotten that or his influence to this day.
image courtesy of Artbusiness.com
So without getting too far afield I took that inspiration and began to revisit working with fabric and did a small exploration in soft sculptural work. I don’t have too many pieces left but here is a fabric pussy I made as well as my return to dolls in the form of this birthing bunny doll. In my painting I was doing a lot of work related to sexuality and my personal struggle to be ok with not taking the path of having a baby. I ultimately decided that my art would be my creation for this life time, but a lot of my work at that time was dealing with this topic.
After the art school short stint with soft sculpture, the dolls went back on the shelf until around 2002 when I made a series of a simple style dolls called Sideshow Sweeties seen below. I made 10 of each and they all had poems that went with them. At some point I want to redo a few of these in my current elaborate doll style and make a picture story book with them.
The dolls that I make now are typically characters from my paintings. I only do between 8-12 dolls per year so collectors gotta get ‘em while they’re hot! Here are some of my favorites.
My childhood friend artist Sheri Debow is the queen of dolls. I just know what I like and don’t like, but she knows so much about dolls and has collected hundreds I dare say thousands in her life thus far.
me in Sheri’s crazy doll room with one of her more scary life like dolls
Sheri is awesome to go to garage and estate sales with because she knows what’s what. …and this girl doesn’t just collect dolls she makes stunningly beautiful ones. The doll pile below are some of her beauties and you can check out more on her blog at the link below.
She and I were both just in an amazing doll show at the Poets Gallery in New Orleans with some other fantastic Doll artists all brought together by the Amazing Christy Kane! You can click the link below to see all the dolls from the show.
And like I said earlier, painting is my true love. But I still occasionally take a cue from that pregnant six year old and a Dolly slips out from beneath my dress.
Poets Gallery facebook Album of available dolls-
Franklin Williams- http://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/fwilliams
Interesting Blog post about puppets and dolls- http://gothicteasociety.blogspot.com/2009/05/marionettes.html