Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I-DOLL-atry: Part Two

In addition to the regular show and auction, this year’s NIADA conference included a show at the Principle Gallery on King Street in Alexandria, VA.  Viewing the works in this setting underscored the fact that dolls can be fine art objects and left me questioning the historical factors that have kept women artists in general and doll artists in particular from receiving the recognition and remuneration they deserve.  Amanda Vickery’s excellent three-part BBC documentary on “The Story of Women and Art” traced the difficulties women faced in gaining access to training, the struggles they encountered in developing a creative practice with themes and materials that could be included in the realm of fine art, and the lingering impact these disadvantages have imposed on the value of women’s art in the marketplace.  The NIADA member artists featured in the gallery show and the show and auction inspire my iDollatry as examples of women artists who have forged a way to share their creative gifts with the world. 

For centuries women lacked access to education and professional art training because they were only expected to become wives and mothers.  In her famous essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” Alice Walker reflects on the psychic cost lack of outlets for creative expression exacted:  "For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not "Saints," but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release."  Yet Walker also recognizes that women found many ways to express their creativity in their domestic lives, citing her mother’s gardens as an example.  

Cindee Moyer received formal training as an Art major in college, but she also developed craft skills associated with traditional home making.  Both are evident in her work:

Quiet Beauty  
I strive to project an inner peace within each doll as well as outer beauty.  In other words, it's important that when I look at my art that it is pleasing to the eye but I also want it to 'feel' soothing in a way. With so many things going on in my life, the creative process becomes calming and I hope that is reflected in my work. -- Cindee Moyer

Although women of lesser economic means had no opportunities for formal art study, some upper class women received art training to add to their accomplishments and make them more eligible as wives.  Other women benefitted as the daughters of professional artists who trained them.  In neither case were they expected to become professional artists themselves, however.  Marlaine Verhelst’s figurative sculpture of a girl “Waiting for a Prince” provides a humorous glimpse at the absurdity of limiting women’s aspirations to marriage.

Waiting for a Prince  
My figures are independent, introverted and (mostly) intelligent. They are meant to make people smile. In my opinion not only the faces give expression, but the hands as well. My guide is to keep it simple and don't stick to conventions. -- Marlaine Verhelst

The aesthetic standards of the fine art establishment required knowledge of anatomy that could only be acquired from life-drawing classes.  For centuries, the strictures of modesty dictated that women could not attend such classes and that even if they had the means to study privately, demonstrating detailed knowledge of male anatomy damned a woman as impure.  As recently as the 1990s Lisa Lichtenfels’ nude soft sculptures have provoked controversy despite her flawless anatomical knowledge gained from working as a medical illustrator in a morgue.


Working with fabric has been a liberating experience because it is intimate, responsive, and informing, and it allows me to pursue my primary interest, which is the nature of personality and character, and the study of the face as a medium of primary communication.  In this, nylon is the most delicately nuanced material I’ve yet discovered; and it has a special gift for creating the illusion of living flesh. -- Lisa Lichtenfels

Although women certainly had intimate knowledge of female anatomy, the fine art establishment placed the highest value on heroic representations of historical events such as wars in which women typically figured only in minor roles.  Thus the ability to paint or sculpt nude female forms would not necessarily have enabled a woman to depict epic battles.  Catherine Mather’s intimate rendering of a female figure in Art Nouveau boudoir style nevertheless has the compelling presence of a silent screen goddess like Theda Bara.

I enjoy observing the human form and translating it into figurative art, I gain great self satisfaction in making each detail as perfect as my ability allows. It is very rewarding to support myself by working with my hands, controlling the process and take something from a thought, and then turn a piece of clay into a human form. -- Catherine Mather

In earlier times, the women who were most successful as fine artists were either privately wealthy and did not need to exhibit or sell their works to earn a living or they worked for wealthy patrons who only displayed their works in domestic spaces.  Thus it was harder for women artists to build a public reputation because their works were not widely viewed.  Fortunately NIADA artists’ works are well-represented in museums, institutional collections, and numerous publications (http://www.niada.org/publications/).  With her masterful skill at miniatures like the mermaid below, small wonder Stephanie Blythe’s work been included in the Musée des art décoratifs in Paris.

Large Mermaid  

I have always been drawn to small things. I think because I was always the smallest one in my class. As a child I would spend hours in the woods playing with fairies and fashioning little plates and cups from tiny acorns. I like making things in miniature because it draws you into my world and can be intimate and mesmerizing. I enjoy including intricate detail so that living with my work is contemplative and a constant discovery. The diminutive size also enables the viewer the opportunity to hold some of them in the palm of their hand for a closer, more intimate look. -- Stephanie Blythe

Since opportunities to exhibit their work and build their reputations were limited, works by women artists rarely commanded the prices that works by their male peers drew at auction.  Tatiana Baeva, an accomplished Russian artist lists “Manami” at $6,000.  How much would a comparable bronze or marble sculpture command if it were not labeled as a doll?


Once in school we’ve had writing assignment ‘What I would like to do when I grow up’. I wrote I would like to work at a doll factory painting doll faces and eyes. I believed with slight differences in brush strokes the facial expression of the doll could magically change. -- Tatiana Baeva

Creative Practice
The Western world imposes a sharp divide between fine art (created for purely aesthetic purposes) and craft objects (created for functional use).  While women did not gain opportunities to train as fine artists until the late 19th century, women of all classes developed skills in a multitude of artisanal crafts as part of their daily home-making activities.  Although skill in design and execution could add high aesthetic value to women’s artisanal production, their works were not recognized as fine art because of the materials they used, the purpose for which the works were created, and the themes they represented.  For example in 1770, one year after it was established, the Royal Academy in England banned all needlework from its exhibitions, effectively excluding the majority of women artists.

Donna May Robinson Pellittieri paints oil portraits with meticulous attention to the subtleties of facial expression like the Old Masters, yet instead of framing her works, she incorporates them into cloth dolls.

I cannot imagine my life without dollmaking, no other art form combines so many creative endeavors that I truly love, painting, fashion design, patterndrafting, hairstyling and color harmonizing. My hope is for others to be touched by these visual elements that I love, but by the humor my characters evoke as well. --  Donna May Robinson Pellittieri

Today doll artists may have trouble gaining recognition as fine artists because they are working with materials that were traditionally not accepted as suitable for fine art objects.  Many dolls fall into the realm of fiber arts, a form that is still struggling to distinguish itself from its roots in textile handicrafts.  Neva Waldt’s figurative sculpture “Gladys Never Eats Alone” is an amusing portrait of a mature woman seated on a park bench who has turned her brown paper lunch bag into a puppet.  The fact that the materials Waldt used are fiber products in no way diminishes the artistry of the piece. 

Gladys Never Eats Alone

I had a friend once tell me that a creative person will implode if they do not create.  I thoroughly agree.  For me, the process is the reward.  I have sewn since I was 5 and have always been fascinated with turning the fabrics into 3 dimensional forms, whether it was clothing, costumes or soft sculpture.  In 2003, I begin focusing this fascination on sculpting figures in cloth and eventually included other mediums, such as papier-mache.  With the help of colors, textures, detail and gesture, my artdolls come to life, each with a humorous story to tell. -- Neva Waldt

Gladys may be enjoying a second childhood but the notion that dolls are merely children’s toys is another reason art dolls often aren’t appreciated as figurative sculpture.  In the popular mind playing with dolls serves to prepare girls for motherhood so parents who give their sons dolls or boys who choose to play with dolls still face censure for transgressing gender norms.  Art dolls may represent children but they are not playthings.  Instead dolls like Agnes hauntingly evoke the character’s interior world.  As a painter, Nina Tugarina always preferred portraiture so the detail she incorporates into her three dimensional portraits through costume, hairstyle, and delicately sculpted facial features evokes distinct personalities rather than the bland sweetness of mass produced baby dolls. 


Most of my works depict children.  I feel emotionally attached to children and they are always a source of my inspiration.  I begin each doll by sculpting a head.  When I begin I have a very rough idea and as I work, the head tells me what it wants to be.  Capturing a character is the most challenging and most rewarding part of the process.  I make dolls because I love them like a mother loves her children. -- Nina Tugarina 

Where doll artists succeed in creating high quality figurative sculptures however, the realism of representation may actually disconcert viewers.  Thus some audiences are resistant to dolls whether they are presented as playthings or as fine art objects.  Researchers have identified a phenomenon called “the uncanny valley” which describes responses to robots and other figures that achieve a highly realistic representation of humanness.  There is a point at which the realism of the figure causes cognitive dissonance in viewers – they know the figure is not human but it looks so real they can hardly believe their eyes.  The realism of Diane Keeler’s work approaches the threshold of the uncanny valley but as a doll lover I found Jade enchanting.


I have often wondered if there is some deep intellectual and spiritual reason for making dolls.  The simple truth is that I cannot imagine doing anything else.  It has become my life’s focus.  I have found joy, passion and a never-ending challenge in this art form.  I am a self-taught artist, which I’m very proud of…Realism has been my goal.  I hope people can appreciate the serenity and romance in my sculptures, but above all, I want them to appreciate the quality of my work. -- Diane Keeler

While women’s socio-economic disempowerment heavily influences the context for the creation and appreciation of art dolls, the dolls themselves can be emblems of great feminine power representing ancient goddesses, saints, or legendary sheroes.  Many religious traditions have used statues and paintings to focus attention on attributes of the divine.  Veneration, regarding such images with reverence and respect, is a mode of contemplation that enables devotees to experience the presence of spirit more immediately. 

Veneration of a religious image might include bowing, making a sacred gesture like the sign of the cross, lighting candles or incense before the figure, or presenting offerings of fruit, flowers, or money.  Further, a religious figure might be elaborately painted or adorned to show the devotees’ gratitude for divine blessings.  Some religious statues were even automata with hidden mechanisms that made them weep.  Catholic Church officials have been deeply skeptical of weeping statues while Protestant iconoclasts physically attacked religious statues during the Reformation and stripped their own churches of figurative art.  Thus art dolls also risk provoking the prohibition against worshipping “pagan idols” that is a defining tenet of monotheistic Abrahamic religions. 

Ima Naroditskaya’s “Beginning” evokes the biblical story of Adam and Eve, which is often interpreted as justification for the subjugation of women.  Eve, the temptress who lured Adam to taste the forbidden fruit, was condemned to bear children in pain for her transgression.  I found that the powerful use of planes, angles, and negative space in this sculpture left room to contemplate Eve from a different point of view that inspired iDollatry on my part.


My dolls are inspired by heroes from films, literary characters and impressions from my travels as well as my friends and acquaintances.  I also find inspiration in the works of artists like Degas, Bernini, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, Vermeer and Klimt, to mention just a few!  In the language of my dolls I try to reflect my impression, attitudes and thoughts about everything that surrounds me.  -- Ima Naroditskaya

Throughout history privileged women have been notable patronesses of the arts but most women did not have much discretionary wealth to spend on fine artworks.  Even those who married or were born into wealthy families often did not have control over funds to purchase artworks or decorate their homes according to their own aesthetic taste.  It is only since WWII that women have entered the workforce and developed professional careers in large enough numbers to constitute a market of collectors who could support any form of “women’s art.”  Yet we are in a potentially exciting time.  According to the 2014 National Association of Realtors Profile of Homebuyers and Sellers, single women now make up 23% of first-time home buyers and 16% of repeat buyers.  Indeed, single women homebuyers out number single male homebuyers two to one.  Thus more and more women are in a position to put their own aesthetic stamp on the spaces they inhabit.  This means that women can buy art that pleases them to decorate not only their homes but also their businesses since the rate of woman-owned businesses in the U.S. grew by 45% between 2007 and 2016 to an estimated 11.3 million firms (“The 2016 State ofWomen-Owned Businesses Report” accessed 083016).

As Annie Wahl signals in a series of polymer clay figures titled “Selfies,” women are now empowered to contemplate and venerate their own creative spirit.


There’s no great mystery or deep meaning to what I do. I sculpt dolls for the pure joy of creating and having fun. In return they have taken me on this blissful journey meeting other doll artists, organizations, events and people whom I would not have had the opportunity to meet. I can appreciate my dolls for that gift they continue to give me.  -- Annie Wahl


The dozen art dolls showcased here are just the tip of the iceberg.  I was not able to capture good photos of many other figures I iDOLLized but you can get a more representative taste of contemporary doll art in:

500 Handmade Dolls:  Modern Explorations of the Human Form.  Asheville:  Lark Books, 2007.

A Bientôt


  1. Thanks very much for this fascinating article and the introduction to several great artists, as well as to the NIADA. I always learn from your posts, and enjoy them.

  2. The are truly works of art too. Each one is unique and beautiful at the same time.