Tuesday, August 2, 2016

I-DOLL-atry: Part One

If a doll is a still image of ourselves reflected in the eyes of society and a puppet is the moving image, which muse do I serve in my quest to represent all members of the human family in the best possible light?

Limbé Dolls pour homme collection 2013


Still from "Worth Her Salt" 2015
or puppets?

I’ve been grappling with this question for the better part of a year so last month I attended the National Institute of American Doll Artists conference in Old Towne Alexandria, VA hoping to clarify my artistic direction.

I discovered NIADA while researching art dolls so that I would have something intelligent to say about the doll artists I encountered at my first doll show back in 2011.  I immediately added attending one of NIADA’s annual conferences to my bucket list and five years later I have finally realized that dream.  NIADA has a commitment to promoting the highest quality in art dolls.  One way the organization achieves this goal is through the NIADA doll making school, which precedes the annual NIADA conferences.  So I not only registered for the 2016 conference, I also signed up to take two classes in the doll-making school.

The first class I took was Connie Smith’s articulated cloth bodies. 

Tools and materials

Connie Smith joined NIADA almost 20 years ago so she was sharing techniques she has developed over a lifetime of doll making.  Despite her compelling artistic vision and her highly developed artistic skills, her path to NIADA membership was not easy.  She applied and was rejected three times because at that time NIADA did not recognize anthropomorphic figures as dolls.  Fortunately E.J. Taylor and Lisa Lichtenfels appreciated Connie’s work enough to push for a change in the by laws and on her fourth try NIADA embraced Connie as a member artist.

Connie was an excellent teacher.  Not only was she highly knowledgeable about her craft and about art dolls in general, she was very patient with us and willingly demonstrated and explained techniques in terms that each person could understand.  Although she offered pre-sculpted heads and limbs for sale, Connie very generously provided each person in the class with a set of hands, legs, and a frog head. 

Further, she provided detailed instruction sheets that clearly outlined each step of the construction process illustrated with color photos.  The best thing about the class, however, was the way that Connie’s warm spirit quickly turned it into a small community where the accumulated wisdom of the students added as much to the experience as Connie’s own anecdotes about doll-making and life in general.

Ready to stuff

Some of the conversations were very profound since Lisa Lichtenfels’ battle with breast cancer has shaken the whole NIADA community.  One woman in the class shared her experience as a breast cancer survivor.  Others talked about caring for elderly parents.  Yet there were more joyous stories as well.  One military wife told how her husband pulled rank to be present at the birth of their first child in 1971 when fathers were still routinely barred from the delivery room.  Another brought a book she has published about the doll collection three generations of her family have assembled through their travels. 

After two days of assiduous hand stitching, everyone managed to assemble an anthropomorphic frog.  Mine looks like he he’s been pumping iron and popping steroids because I used a knit fabric.

Ready to assemble

Perhaps that's why, when he went a-courting Miss Mousie immediately said "yes!"

With a needle in my hand I can do almost anything but when it comes to pens, pencils, and paintbrushes, I have much less confidence so Donna May Robinson-Pellittieri’s class on painting doll faces was much more challenging. 

Fortunately Donna May was a very well organized teacher.  She gave us detailed explanations of facial proportions and provided models she had painted to help illustrate the concepts.  Donna May has worked as a surgical nurse specializing in eye surgeries so her intricate knowledge of the structures that comprise the eye enables her to render eyes with special skill.  We practiced painting eyes, lips, and noses before attempting a full face. 

My practice eye

My nose was a disaster but the finished face isn’t too bad.

Click here to check out Donna May's creations on Etsy.

Besides offering a wide variety of classes during the doll-making school, NIADA also nurtures budding doll artists through critique sessions.  I signed up for a critique and was matched with Heather Maciak and Catherine Mather.  Several of the friends I met at the doll-making school and the conference were aiming to apply for membership as NIADA artists so the critiques seemed much more daunting to them but I knew I was such a neophyte that anything the NIADA artists could tell me would be useful.  Once we established that I was not aiming for a fine art aesthetic, my reviewers were very encouraging and appreciative of my video work.  Overall the session helped me clarify my own identity and direction as an artist. 

Zombie doll I presented for my critique

I recognized that I create my figures as vehicles for storytelling rather than as art objects in and of themselves so they fall more in the realm of puppetry.  Still I will always love dolls and I hope to attend another NIADA conference in the near future.

Stayed tuned for more i-DOLL-atrous adoration of NIADA artists' dolls exhibited at the conference!


  1. Thanks so much for sharing your NIADA experience with us. Olde Town was a place I spent much of my childhood. That is the place I miss the most. Your class projects turned out really nice. By the way, I realized after our last email conversation that it wasn't the NIADA that I became a member of. I remember doing some things with them, but I don't ever remember submitting work.

  2. The bodybuilder frog doll is awesome! A doll making class sounds really cool - I've dabbled a bit in wooden dolls and would love to try making an articulated soft cloth doll at some point, but having someone sharing their knowledge would really help. I'll have to look if there's anything like that available in my country.

  3. Paulette, it was a delight to meet you and I'm so grateful for the great energy you brought to our class in Alexandria! Thank you for this lovely blog post! I hope you'll come join us again in Nashville TN next year! xo, Connie

  4. Thank you for being with us and sharing your positive experience!

  5. Thank you for coming to the NIADA conference. We love having visiting artists

  6. Paulette, I enjoyed meeting you so much at the conference, and I am fascinated by your work. You have an intelligent, creative, interesting way of presenting your ideas, and a wry sense of humour that ties it all together. You might feel that you fall more into the realm of puppetry than doll making, but don't forget that one of our most inspiring members, Ronnie Burkett, is a puppeteer extraordinaire! Sign up for his Facebook page, and google his work. I hope you'll come to NIADA again, and thanks for this beautiful blog!

  7. Thank everyone for the encouraging comments and the warm welcome at NIADA.