I got to deliver my latest commission to my friend Mary yesterday. She liked the pose of the Survivor Doll, but she wanted something more in line with her own story, a story of recovery — so this is Recovery. Mary is a skilled needleworker. I imagined her covering herself, protecting herself with her own craft. Arts and crafts are a major part of how we save ourselves and how we recreate ourselves.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to make this doll and think about how hard it is to re-invent ourselves. But in that struggle, there is so much beauty.
She is a cloth doll over a wire armature. Her hair is made from lamb and alpaca wool and silver thread. Her dress is hand knitted from a linen, silk and rayon blend yarn.
The object in her hand is a symbol of the vision it takes to imagine a better life for oneself. I was lucky to find a silver origami crane charm as a focal point for her. Her heart is symbolized by a smooth red glass fragment secured with silver wire and a locked locket. She protects her heart and moves forward.
If you are interested in commissioning an art or medicine doll, please contact me.
I haven’t posted much on my latest project because I was making a commission that was also a gift and I didn’t want the recipient to see it ahead of time. Now the commission’s been delivered and I’m free to show my latest.
This piece was commissioned by a friend who loved my Survivor Doll:
Her best sister friend had recently lost a sister. She wanted something that spoke to the spirit of sisterhood. She gave me lots of time to mull over it, but I was still late delivering it. I think, though, it came out pretty good. Some of the delays had to do with my recent move and an incredibly busy schedule for the holidays and afterward. Other delays were had to do with the nature of cloth doll making.
I was inspired to make a mortal and an immortal doll.
The pale doll represents the immortal sister and the spirit of sisterhood that stays with us even when we’re isolated from our sisters. Some of us become unable to communicate with our sisters, whether they are sisters of choice or from our family. But I tried to represent how the longing for a close sisterly companion is a universal and constant thing.
The immortal sister has a heart made with a light fabric imprinted with a gold metallic crane, the bird that represents longevity. That fabric is also strewn between them and the mortal sister holds a scrap of it close to her heart. Her heart is dark with metallic gold decorations and waves. It isn’t possible for us to be so light-hearted left here on earth.
The beads represent the energy and love that remains a constant gift from the immortal sister. I began working with bead structures on the Survivor doll out of some need to return to something elemental. I remember making models of molecules and things in school and it seemed visually necessary to me to show something magic and energetic and undefinable — in words — to be in the hands of those who survive.
When I imagined the dolls, I wanted the mortal’s gaze to be fixed on the magic structure in her hand. That’s where the cloth dollmaking related delays came in. My first doll body was chewed up my sewing machine and I had to send my sewing machine to the shop. I hand sewed another. I have used this type of fabric many times, but this particular shade seems to be a weaker weave. I painted the face and the paint on the eyebrows merged into one big blob. I make the heads and bodies from the same piece of fabric (it makes the neck stronger) so I had to sew another one. This one tore as soon as I started to needle sculpt the nose.
I began to suspect there was a lot of mortal discomfort in this fabric. I was very attached to the color scheme, so I tried once more and everything went well until I positioned the dolls. I used a dowel for the spine armature, just as I did for the immortal doll. She did exactly what I wanted, but the mortal one just would not let me position her head — I may have over stuffed her. I tried to adjust it with a few stitches and that fragile fabric threatened to give, so I left it alone.
Now I think that she’s too preoccupied to see what’s right in her hand. The beads that flow from her hand have a little teardrop prism at the end. The beads from the immortal doll have a heart-shaped prism at the end.
I stitched to the base two pieces of rice paper. The one in the front says “Love is the mystery and the energy.” The one in back says, “My sister is always with me.”
Here’s a slide show of the work from start to finish. Enjoy!
I don’t have a picture of the first Bird Woman I made. It was made from a metallic gold and yellow print. I had been struggling with the adjustments to a brace for my nerve damaged leg and drop-foot. This was the second of 4 times I’ve tried different braces and haven’t been able to cope with the pain of wearing them.
I always go into these physical therapy programs with a great deal of hope and try very hard to work through the pain but what happens is I start to walk less. It doesn’t make any sense to me to walk “better” but walk less. Eventually I go back to my own galumphing stumbly limp. I always go through low periods and depression when I have to make these adjustments. I had to start using a cane in my 30s and stop riding my bicycle. I had to start using a quad cane because a cane just falls with you and a quad cane actually helps stabilize you. Then the walker for long distances. Sigh.
But when I work through the adjustment, I get this kind of soaring feeling. “Hey I can live with this!” I had been making art dolls for about half a year and decided to make a doll that told a narrative about learning to limp. I imagined myself caught between forms – I was not walking well anymore, but one day I’d be free and fly off this planet. I was becoming a bird, but I couldn’t quite fly and I couldn’t quite sing yet. I was caught in this absurd place with a beauty all its own.
I used embroidery stitches of red and blue on the outside of the body and used the Indian shisha stitch to attach stones to the nerve damaged parts of my body. I knitted lacy wings that weren’t strong enough to fly and a closed beak not yet ready to sing. It looked a lot like this one, made shortly after in all white. I made these wings out of sheer fabric.
I was preparing my first solo art show in the lobby of Memphis TheaterWorks. I was afraid this doll was too personal to show, but I also needed it to fill up space – that piece was about 3’ by 4’. Friends and family urged me to put in the show and I did.
At the opening, a woman kept coming back to it and looking at it so intently, I went over and told her the story of why I made it, what the embroidery and stones meant, why the wings were so frail and how I was trying to use mythological and whimsical interpretations of my struggle with a weakening body.
She listened patiently then looked me in the eye and said, “No, that’s not what this doll is about.” She then proceeded to tell me that the doll was about her struggles as a single Black mother who had to finish high school and while raising a child, who tried to make a better life for her self and her son, who never quite fit in her family and community. The stitches show how her battles in life left scars, but the gold in the fabric and the stones show how she had become strong and beautiful, even if people laughed at her.
My jaw dropped. I am mostly a self taught artist and never really expected people to respond to my work. It was only the great urging of friends that got me to show it publicly. And this wonderful woman gave me the gift of a completely different interpretation of my work. She validated my flight of fancy.
The doll was not for sale, but she convinced me it belonged to her. “You can make another one for you,” she said. She gave me a generous price for it, but had to pay in installments. My impulse was to let her have it for a lower price, but she didn’t want it for a lower price, she wanted it to have a high value in her life, at least as high as the other things she had to make payments on.
Since then I’ve made a series of birds. Each time I think, ‘I’m keeping this one for myself,’ and each time, they fly off to another home. Some were made on commission so I knew they were going. But when I make one for myself, they always want to be shown and they always make a connection with someone. I love how the personal becomes universal. I love that my birds who can’t quite walk right and don’t have strong wings still make their way in the world.
I don’t have a really good image of the first tree person I made, only this scan from a from a group art show catalog. I made it after I had an encounter with a veteran who had lost his legs. He was a social misfit and often homeless. When I met him, he lived in a boarding house housed mostly by drug addicts and alcoholic men. He had some paranoia and had no faith in the medical system. He had a tremendous amount of faith in himself, though. He made his way about on a pallet he’d fitted out with wheels. “I was a tall man once. War did this to me. I’m not going to sit in a chair and pretend they didn’t take my legs.”
He had a sinewy hard torso that ended abruptly. He knotted the legs of his trousers around his groin, the fabric of the empty pant legs padding his simple launch pad. His arms were like oak limbs and his hand were huge. He’d been scooting around on the wheeled pallet for decades when I met him. His hands had grown into magnificent sculptures of the callous world through which he made his solitary way.
I didn’t get to know him well. I don’t know if anyone did. He repelled any efforts I made to understand or connect and my own life was busy. His strong image and deep rooted emotions stuck with me. I had just started using dolls as a medium for communicating about bodies in transition and this was the result. My cloth sculpting skills were not as developed then but I still think this piece had a lot of power.
This other tree person I made only a few years ago. It’s based both on the myth of Daphne who was turned into a tree to preserve her virginity and individuality, and the myth that the spirits of the trees roam freely and in beauty until their trees are cut down.
I used these as a metaphor for the strong, spirited women I have known who have quadriplegia. It’s such a nightmare to think of loosing all body movement, but these women had managed to find the power to organize complicated lives and let their spirits take root and reach toward the sky.
When the movie star Christopher Reeve became quadriplegic, one of the comments he made as he recovered, was that for the first time he’d learned to “just be.” There’s so much power in that. Almost all cultures use trees as a metaphor for wisdom. How wise can the stilled body become? As we learn to exist in these transformed physical states, what fruits and leaves of wisdom will we sprout and share?