If you love to sculpt, as well as paint and sew, if you work with wood, clay, fabrics, feathers and anything else your magpie eye can find, if you secretly channel fashionistas and wig stylists, if you’re fascinated with the human face and its myriad nuances and if you’re blessed with a wild imagination that sends the brains of other people spinning in astonishment — then you might have what it takes to be an art doll artist.
“Dolls?” you protest. “I don’t want to make toys for kids!” And there you’d be right on — art dolls, or mixed media figurative art pieces, are definitely not for kids. These exquisitely crafted figures, gorgeously detailed, excruciatingly labor intense, are not meant to be cuddled. They are, however, loved intensely by their creators and their collectors. Art dolls are exploding in popularity across the country — and Asheville, with the Southern Highland Craft Guild imprimatur, is one of its most vital hubs.
The Asheville mixed media doll club, Go Figure Dolls, is presenting the work of 14 of its members in the Storybook Characters exhibit in the children’s department at the downtown Pack Library. What’s amazing about the exhibit is its wide range of art styles, despite the fact that all the artists are women. For millennia, “women’s work” has been related to stitchery and fabric — and today’s art dolls can be seen as the latest incarnations of women’s timeless creative energies.
Three of the exhibiting artists share a surprising number of similarities — not in their style — but in the arc of their artistic lives. Each is classically trained in art, but felt creatively confined until work with mixed media figures allowed her creativity to soar. Each had a mentor or serendipitous event that dramatically shifted her artistic focus, and each has gone through a major life event that is reflected in her work. Uncannily, each has a connection, in varying degrees, to Russia.
Lesley Keeble claims her studio in her home in Montford is “about as big as a closet.” On a visit to Russia, she was amazed to see the cramped spaces that the artists there had to work in. She became convinced that “wonderful things can come of out of really small spaces.” Lesley’s mixed media figures (she won’t call them dolls) are examples of exquisite craftsmanship, with unforgettable faces and color combinations that take your breath away. You can look at her pieces from any angle and find something new to admire.
Lesley works “in an intuitive way,” always starting with the heads — hand-colored faces on silk fabric over natural stone clay — then pulls fabric of different colors. She trained as a jeweler and had much experience with textiles before venturing into mixed media figures. Lesley found a mentor in Akira Blount, a world-famous dollmaker from Tennessee, who uses bits of nature in her work. She saw Lesley’s unique bent and encouraged her.
But it was breast cancer that had the greatest effect on Lesley’s recent work. The disease slowed her down for a while and now her work, known for its humor, is “becoming more and more about the ideas of sadness and loss,” attracting a different kind of admiration. For the Storybook Characters exhibit, Lesley chose her favorite childhood book, 1947 Newberry award-winner, Miss Hickory, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey. Creating a 3-dimensional figure of this beloved character, a doll made of apple tree twigs and a hickory nut head, was “the most fun of anything I’ve ever made.”
When Karen Hawkins was a child, she couldn’t read or spell well.
Faced with failing 6th grade, she was sent to summer school. “All the confidence of this child had been drilled out of her,” her mother was told. But the summer school turned out to be a godsend — it was weeks of art, dancing and music. Karen thrived. From then on she became a student who focused on creativity. After her college training, she taught art in middle school for 30 years. In 2008, she retired. Freed from the endless demands of children, she finally had time for her own art. She turned a room in her house in Leicester into a spacious, sunny studio — and got to work.
She’s made almost 40 dolls, mostly in the fantasy style, gaining her inspiration “from legend and lore.” Her figures, usually dressed in the earth tones and jewel tones Karen loves, are so lifelike you expect an elf to alight on your shoulder or hear the roar of a grumpy troll. She uses an air-dry product for their faces and forms their meticulous costumes from snippets of treasures that find their way into her workshop — a family heirloom of old lace, a piece of fur, a patch of Tartan plaid. Her characters are quirky (“Everybody’s got a little bad in them”). Her mischievous butterfly doll has striped socks — and a black eye. Her bony-legged fairy Violet is a gravity-challenged-sprite, exactly what fairies should not be. In Karen’s care, such a creature becomes any person out of sync with what others think she should be.
Janice MacDonald’s studio is the tiniest of the three artists — it’s a tabletop in her home in Glen Alpine, and she’s perfectly happy with it. Widowed while living in Louisiana, Janice revived her sculpting to fill the empty house. “It was my therapy,” she says. ‘Women have to create,” she adds. “We have a need to be creative.”
When Janice moved to Asheville to be with her three children and six grandkids, she met the late sculptor/artist Vadim Bora, who had emigrated from Russia. She convinced him to take her on as a private student. Under Bora’s tutelage, as well as that from sculptor Malcolm Wolff, Janice found the guidance she needed to take her work to a new level
Janice makes historical figures, “hard” not “fabricy,” with a distinctive bronze cast, and often incorporates found pieces. She begins with the armature to catch the figure’s movement. Her inspiration is her long life, especially time spent in the rural south.
“I’m a southern person from top to bottom.” she says. “I don’t need to talk to my figures because I’m inside them.”
“Southern girls will go anywhere, “she says, referring to Swamp Girl, that she made three years ago, wanting to make something delicate. “How many girls do you know that can climb up a tree, wearing a bonnet and a long skirt, perch over the water — not falling off — and still look so Victorian and cool as a cucumber? Not many.” Why not put a boy in the tree? “He didn’t wear a flowing skirt!”