I have dolls. Being a girl in the South, you grew up with dolls and there were some that you played with and some that you just looked at. My mom has some china porcelain dolls that her grandmother brought over from Germany when she came and those were the “look at” dolls. They lived in the cedar chest. My mother is 94, and they’re still in the cedar chest at her home and she brings them out any time one of the three girls visit her. It’s like “the bringing out of the dolls,” but you can’t really touch them, you can only look at them. I had the obligatory Barbies and those were “play with” dolls and then there were just the rag dolls, the Raggedy Ann dolls. I had an Aunt Esther who made Raggedy Anns. Until I was 20-something I thought she had invented them. So Raggedy Anns you got to cuddle when you were sick.
So there have always been all different kinds, and they always had unspoken rules about them. Now what I do is I “liberate them.” I find dolls in second-hand stores. People give me their dolls. If they’re the ones that come in that plastic thing and they have the long, curly hair and flippy eyelashes and impossible dresses and stuff, the first thing I do is cut all their hair off until it’s like Schindler’s List short and then I take their eyelashes off and take their little clothes off. They’re just liberated. They have more personality than they ever did when they were first put in those little boxes. And then I take their arms off. I rearrange their legs. I take one leg from another doll and then put it on somebody else. Or replace the leg completely with a piece of furniture: a furniture leg or a wheel. Sometimes I take their arms apart with a cloth body and insert teeth or barbed wire or something and then put a coat hanger on the back, a wooden coat hanger or whatever, and those are the angels. It’s funny because a lot of times people think I’m referring to Christ when they see these dolls that are obviously angels. Their arms are spread out and their feet kind of just go together naturally. Mostly it’s atheists who think that. It’s kind of funny.
When people ask me what I do with art, I tell them I rip the heads off of baby dolls and then they either want to talk to me or they don’t. People are either drawn to them or repulsed by them (dolls in general—the scary-eyed dolls). Someone always has a story like, “That used to terrify me when my sister played with this doll and it would just stare at me.”
I’ve had people give me dolls that had bad memories for them and they don’t want to throw them away but they just don’t want to bury them. They’ve heard that I make art with dolls so they give them to me. The dolls have their own personalities. It’s a good starting point for me with my artwork. I do found object art, so it’s a departure.
It’s all relative now but I think it was a few years ago, maybe a decade ago, that I had just come back from an unusually painful trip back home. I’m from Alabama. I’m almost 56, so I was in my mid-forties. A lot of memories had been stirred up. I was saying to myself, I’m an adult now. I’m ok. I’m an adult. I have distance. I have all my healing powers and healing tools and it’s up to me if I incorporate this back in my life.
So I took this doll that I have and I took her hair and cut all of it off. I took her clothes off. I took her eyelashes off and I started manipulating her so she would be just an angel and I hadn’t yet taken her body apart—I had puppies at the time and one of the puppies got her when I was gone to get iced tea and “helped me” with my artwork and tore her little leg off. At first I thought it was a horrible accident, but it ended up being a happy accident because as I was putting it back together, I thought well … the porcelain part of her foot had been broken so I had a jawbone from some kind of animal that I put that in there instead. Then I was sewing it together with wire and I had some beads and buttons with it. The other leg I ended up tearing completely off and putting in a wheel with a piece of wood. I don’t remember what it’s called. It goes with furniture normally. And then at the heart, I had a little heart that I had found that was rusted and I opened up her breast where her heart would be and I put it in there, then sewed around that and put an army man on top of it to protect her. I had some acupuncture needles so I just started armoring her up so that she could choose where her tender parts still were, but she could also choose to protect her heart. And then the coat hanger thing happened. And I put her up on the wall. I did it in a kind of frenzy because I didn’t think I was going to keep it. It probably took three or four hours and then I put her up on the wall. My family really liked it a lot and encouraged me to keep doing these dolls hanging on the wall. On her body was the word “fly.” The reason for that is because I found these little cards from the first grade or kindergarten where you trace over the words and I pinned that to her and she was “fly” and I had another one that was named “dream.” She had some of my wedding dress on her.
It was surprisingly therapeutic. Thank goodness for therapy or we would all be artists. I had this one counselor/therapist who had us tear up phone books while we were telling our story of rape, rage, insecurity, or nightmares and I filled up a big room with torn up telephone books. I was in Florida at the time and those are good-sized telephone books. It’s that tearing up thing and telling the story at the same time that worked the magic because then after you do that, you can walk away from it. I feel that especially when I’m working with the dolls—it’s funny because if I’m in a good part of my life, it’s not that easy. It’s not that immediate. I incorporate doll heads and whimsical things with kind of a sense of humor, but it’s not as edgy.
I have one doll that’s called “Look Homeward Angel,” and she’s bound up. She has wings from the Bali dolls and her whole body and the wings are wrapped up in bubble wrap and then barbed wire and then silk thread and the poem that goes with her is: Look homeward angel, though none will know your name there. It’s not where we can really reinvent ourselves, just represent ourselves to our past in a more protected and wisened way.
Dolls are not animated, but they can be witness to what goes on in our lives whether we’re children or adults or in a room where nothing else is supposed to be going on. There are so many dolls that I get from people that you can see the tear stains on them or that someone’s cut their hair or that it’s matted. Just a different kind of care that they’ve been through. They may have been left out in the yard. They have their own life. They mirror what the child’s gone through and they survive. I mean, the plastic can break or the porcelain can shatter, but there is still that essence. At what point is that no longer a doll? At what point did that child lose her childhood? It’s such an interpretive part of them. And then when people give them to me, they tell me their story. It’s like they can lay it to rest. They can tear up that phone book and leave it in that room and go on.
This is what my mother is like: My mom is always doing something nice for other people. In Arkansas, we drove quite a while to get to the school where she was a librarian. We’d go down these country roads on the way and there was this one house that was totally ramshackle, but my mom would go in and take the woman food to eat even though my mom is a horrible cook. She hates to cook. So I always felt sorry for that lady. I would just sit out in the car because my mother would say, “You know, you don’t go in.” But now I know that the woman was a hoarder, kind of like I am. So you go up these rickety stairs and this huge porch where a couple of dogs are and you go in. It’s one of those shotgun houses. In the parlor looking up she had all these baby dolls hanging like they were hanging with a noose kind of thing from their necks all along the crown molding and it was baby doll after baby doll after baby doll after baby doll. Before I walked in my mother looked in and said, “She has a lot of dolls and it would be impolite to comment on them.” That was all the preparation I had. I think I was in 6th grade. I walked in and it was amazing. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, and this big woman comes out and says, “Oh, you like my baby dolls!” And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And she started telling me about, “This one I had before and this one I got from the trailer.” They were all hanging and their little necks were crooked and they were looking down. But then you had to be careful where you stepped because there was so much stuff on the floor, so it was a challenge to keep walking around with her and listening to the story of these hanging baby dolls and then not stepping on whatever was on the floor. Meanwhile my mother was just acting like it was all very normal and it would be rude to comment on them. So, I didn’t.
The first time I got married, my parents disowned me. They were afraid I wasn’t going to graduate from college. So they took everything back, anything that I had gotten from my home. I was living alone at the time. I put it all in a U-Haul and met them at a motel, and they took all the stuff back. I proved them wrong though because I got married in February and I graduated in May. And so there was a lot of resentment until a couple of years ago, even though my mom and I get along famously now. She always says she’s “lived long enough to be a nice person.”
When she gave me my grandmother’s doll she said, “I’ll give it to you on one condition. That you don’t make any artwork out it. You just need to appreciate her for what she is.”
My great-grandmother had a general store so it was one of those cloth dolls, but she also had a porcelain head and real hair, wispy, red hair and a cloth body. My grandmother had drawn a little heart on her.
Unfortunately, my mother had someone make her new clothes, so now our conversation—my mom is still in Alabama—goes like, “Hi. How’re you doing? How’s the weather?”
“Do you have that doll under glass yet?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, you know, that’s really an heirloom. I wouldn’t have sent it out there if I would’ve thought you weren’t going to take care of it.”
“It’s on a bed in a bedroom that we don’t use and it’s fine.”
That’s where my sewing room is. So the next phone call is,
“Hi. How are you doing? Do you have that doll under glass yet?”
So now, it’s, “Hi. I don’t have that doll under glass. How’re you doing?”
It’s like she’s saying, “Okay, I give this to you free and clear,” but not. “You have to take care of it the way I want you to take care of it.”
Someone gave me a stuffed cougar, like a “Charlie the Cougar.” It’s up high. On a high shelf. The doll my mother gave me, my grandmother’s doll, is sitting on the lap of Charlie Cougar. And she’s very happy. How protected can you get? A taxidermy cougar!
But back to the Barbie dolls: It’s kind of funny because when you think about Barbie dolls you think about the Barbie bathroom. The Barbie bathroom is the employee men’s bathroom in the library at the community college where I work. People have such a reaction. When we started it, people said, “Oh, no one really looks like that.” You know, a normal reaction to Barbie in general. And it’s a sex symbol. That really destroyed me when I was younger. I thought I had to be blonde and skinny. So in this bathroom, which is filled with Barbies and images of Barbies, people are always adding to it. I mean, after all, most of us are librarians and we work in the “information” field. We have a couple of Barbies who are getting down lesbian types by the toilet paper. We have all these newspaper articles and stuff about Barbies that are up on the walls in there. And every once in a while there will be a librarian or two who say, “Okay, we’ve had enough of the Barbie bathroom. We’re going to get rid of it.” But no, I have students I tell about it because they are researching that era or about the company Mattel or about Barbies. And I say, “Oh, would you like to see our Barbie bathroom?” It’s a good thing to have. It’s a good relief. Sometimes it goes over “appropriate” workplace décor. But there’s only one man here, so now it’s the Barbie bathroom. Shorthand for “I have to go to the bathroom” is “I need to go see Barbie,” and you can say that in front of any student or to your coworkers and they know where you are or you can say, “I need to go talk to Barbie.”
Sometimes we all need to talk to Barbie.