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 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 wanted to report on the little Wish Fish I made for my friend who has Lupus. She was in pretty bad shape and spent over a month in the hospital. I don’t believe the fish itself had anything to do with her healing. It was her own determination and fate that saw her through, but the fish, commissioned by a mutual friend, gave her a feeling of love and inclusion. She knew we cared about her and wanted her to keep swimming with us in this mysterious ocean of life. She’s back at work now and her fish is at her desk!
I made my first Strongheart medicine doll a few years ago when my dear friend was having romantic trouble. I wanted to remind her that her heart was strong and would always be able to bounce back from whatever breaks it endured. I made it wild and whimsical but very durable with button feet and felt arms. She was enchanted by it, but when she was mad she was able to whack it or toss it across the room and have some catharsis.
Since then, I’ve made a series of them, following the same basic design, but each different as the hearts they are made to help. Here is the latest one I made for my young doll maker friend, from start to finish.
STRONG HEART STORY
Sometimes we all feel that our hearts are weak and easily broken. I believe the heart is strong and will always lead you back to a place of contentment and happiness. There is a bit of whimsy, wildness and adventure coursing through every human heart. So it’s only natural to sometimes get into situations that are uncomfortable and even painful.
This Strongheart Doll was made to remind you of the heart’s true nature. It’s a one of a kind unbreakable work of art – shake it up, squeeze it tight or throw it across the room. When you’re ready to hold it close again, it’ll be there for you – strong and happy and ready for the next adventure.