I mentioned in my previous post that the last thing I looked at before bed was my treasured copy of ‘500 Handmade Dolls’. Usually I lust through this edition bemoaning my lack of skill and wishing that one day I too will have skills worthy enough to create something somewhere near these pieces of art. I am talking Art Dolls here – not toy dolls. There is story to this.
Just after I left school, I remember watching the Animated Tales version of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ then going to see an exhibition of these puppets at the soon-to-be-built Globe Theatre. I was smitten. Yet life, work, family and other doors (walked through and closed) meant this simply rested in my mind as one of those moments when you realise that someone somewhere else (in this case the puppets’ creators and animators, the Russian company: Soyuzmultifilm Studios in Moscow ) sees It as you do. It felt like an aesthetic twin maker existed. Someone who was able to create while I was able to observe. I don’t think that yearning ‘to be able to make something like that’ ever went away.
Then, while going through a very difficult part of life I heard the story of ‘Vasalisa the Beautiful’. It is a Russian Fairy Tale similar to Cinderella and it too holds a lot of symbolic meaning. It is full of potential psychological teaching. In it the doll given to Vasalisa by her mother saves her from the witch Baba Yaga by comforting her, offering her guidance and doing tasks, all from the hidden depths of Vasalisa’s pocket. The story struck a chord then and offered me much sustenance. What would Vasalisa’s doll look like? How would the Russian puppeteers envisage her?
Many years later this led to me finding myself on a short weekend course at Derby University called ‘The Healing Art of Doll’. I had never heard of Art Dolls before and what I discovered were dolls that bore closer resemblance to talismans, charms, metaphors in material. We explored what doll-making was and created our own Healing Doll, which we then used to narrate its own story. I found myself in the company of therapists, art doll makers, artists, psychologists, writers…I cringed at what my hands produced. I blindly believed that when I told the doll’s story I would be narrating something ‘of no great significance to me’. I assumed I was just following instructions. I was very wrong. I found it very scary what came up. I did my usual and stuffed this all into the back of my mind in the hope it would all go quiet again. I felt frustrated at the talent that surrounded me and the poverty of skill I felt in this company.
However, I did learn. I learnt about old old tales having psychological truths, I learnt of Clarissa Pinkola Estes and her work, I learnt of Jung and his work from a very skilled and wise Jungian Therapist who I met on the course and we immediately felt we had known each other even though we knew we didn’t. Both of us professionals, both learning, both finding much to talk about and share. I relish those moments when for a journey or a workshop, or a standing in a queue minute, you make a deep and profound connection with someone that surpasses what would otherwise be mundane small talk. Then your paths move on and you are both changed. I think this feeling is what Anthony Gormley hopes for when he says, in a recent interview by the Irish Times (6.1.16), ‘Sculpture is the most challenging and resilient of art forms. It is the greatest agent of change of all art forms.’
Bringing me back to the dolls. Normally, I perceive them as sculptures: soft, fibrous, clay, metal, natural-fibred, artifical, found or otherwise. But I decided to look through my book at what the artists had to do to the material with which they were working to effect change. I had a ‘folding and crumpling’ filter on. I found 6 artists in particular who use this surface manipulation in their work. I have recorded these observations in my sketchbook for fear of copyright infringement!
What was significant to me were the Traditional forms made by these artists: Helen Slwooko Carius who was a St Lawrence Is. Eskimo, and Dolly Spencer an Inupiat from Alaska (one of her dolls can be seen here). They used skins, hides and furs in a traditional manner for the clothing – and these materials are crumpled and creased further to the processes they undergo in changing from being part of an animal to a material to work with. This could bring up the whole argument about animal products, but I have a leather armchair, albeit a beaten up one, so I cannot make any comment on this without being accused of being a hypocrite or worse. Their work must influence Mary Ellen Frank – and my research reveals that Mary Ellen was indeed a student of Dolly Spencer!
Elisabeth Flueler uses crumpling in her paper wrapped forms that seems ethereal and iconic. For example, her work that is featured in the book, ‘Become or Pass’ is almost Egyptian in its stature and poise, the crumpled paper contrasting with the porcelain smooth figurine.
And to conclude…
…what serendipity: I had to take my children to a club this morning and found that being unable to deal with crowds I did my usual – struggle for half an hour, find a book shop, then hide in a museum if there is one. This found me in the Bentliff Art Gallery in Maidstone Museum. Their temporary exhibition that concludes on the 20th of this month was ‘The Magic of Masks and Puppets’! Sometimes the world is kind! The curator gave me permission to take photos for my sketchbook. Seeing these live, hot on the heels of my recent thinking, is a bonus and means I could see the effect of crumpling and pleating and folding on numerous fabrics from around the world in the context of my initial point of inspiration! Puppeteers work included: Ian Turbitt, the design studio that created the baby-on-the-ceiling for the film ‘Trainspotting’, The Rostove State Puppet Theatre Russia, Javanese Wayang Golek puppets, 18th Century ‘Ningyo Joruri’ from Japan, and my favourite Rajasthani Marionettes from North India donated in 1948 from the Haim Raj Puppet Company.
This picture won’t flout any discretions but it did feel a little odd looking up the skirt of the Rajasthani Marionette to get this picture. Why is this of interest? Because the figurines which are made of mango wood, wear skirts under their costume that denotes the number of puppeteers who have owned them!
Now to see how this feeds into the pot of inspiration and creation!
‘500 Handmade Dolls’, ed Valerie Van Arsdale Shrader, Lark Books, 2007, pgs,91, 266, 277, 294, 300, 316