On becoming….

Like so many other doll makers, Juliana from Fröken Skicklig has left a mark in my life. I am writing this post to add to the conversation about becoming a doll artist, crafter, artist, creator in one's own right. I feel prompted to do this after reading Fabiola from Fig and Me's article about copyright (I started by commenting on her blog, then realized that what I have to say would probably over-extend my welcome as a commentator (grin)…) Putting it all down here has made it even more wordy… 

Many years ago I used to keep a massive amount of magazine clippings with visual ideas and craft instructions. I had lugged a stack of 3-ring binder's from my home country of Switzerland all the way over to Canada. They provided me with a safety net of ideas and inspiration. One day a very dear friend of mine said: "Oh, I don't keep anything like that, I have my own ideas." That comment has stayed with me even though I sadly lost touch with the friend. I make the main part of my living as a visual artist, mixed-media fine art. The style that I have is very unique and is born out of taking many snippets of inspiration from many different sources and combining them into a soul language that is all my own. (if you are curious about my art, her is a link to my studio blog and a link to my website.)

Since the Olive Sparrow blog is about my dolls, I would like to share with you on how I became a doll maker. Sharing this journey highlights inspiration, research & development and authenticity in ones work.

Back in Switzerland in the 80's I used to make dolls, based on patterns sold in the craft store and inspired by what many people around me created. These dolls where very "traditional" swiss dolls and not meant to be originals. However, these patterns thought me a lot about making dolls, I learned to work extremely fine handstitches on the doll-jersey (of which the best quality is manufactured in Switzerland (Laib-yala). I must have made upwards of fifty dolls from one pattern. A few of my aunts wanted to have some and payed me for creating them. There were also many of them made and given away as gifts. 

In Switzerland, during my upbringing in the 70's and 80's, individualism and creativity was not an encouraged notion. One did not want to stick out. One was not to be so proud as to think that one could create something that could be called art. I spent eight years attending needlework and handwork classes. But by gosh and golly, not to learn art or express myself, but to be able to mend my future husbands' and children's socks and underwear. It all had to be practical and lead us to becoming good housewives. 

In 1987 I arrived in Canada. I lived in the suburbs of Windsor Ontario for one year as a nanny with two little boys. I sewed and knitted my year away. There was a lack of knitting books that I could understand with my very limited english, so I had to improvise and make up my own patterns. During that year I had met a man that was 20 (grin) years older than me and an artist. In my youthful innocence I thought he was the one for life. Well, he wasn't, but what he did for my life was show me that I had a hand and mind for creating. He introduced me to the world of craft shows and the possibility of making a living creating with my hands.

It was in 1988 w while visiting Switzerland I purchased a book with instructions on making Waldorfdolls. A grand business plan was next that had me conquer the North American toy market with these amazing pedagogical creatures. I was going to teach everyone why these dolls where so much better than plastic ones. I got as far as starting one doll head from the instructions in the book. Lacking sheep's wool, I used polyfill. Actually, it wasn't even a whole head, just the inside ball, because I got stuck with how the head was to be bound off.

Fast forward to 2007/2008 (the time until then had me study and graduate from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 1999, set up my fine art practice and quietly knit away). My son was now attending the local Waldorf School. The first newsletter we received after joining, had an ad for parents wanting to learn to make Waldorf Dolls. Immediately, I knew that I wanted to finally finish that started doll. I arrived at the first lesson with the almost 20 year old head and quietly put it aside when I got a chance to work with real sheep's wool. My teacher April was amazing, like me, she had a superior eye for detail and understood that each doll is a soul entering our world. I purchased materials from her to make two dolls right off, one for my son and one for my niece for Christmas. My son's doll was entirely hand sewn, whereas the other body was sewn with the machine. Creating these two dolls re-opened my desire to add another element to my art practice – working with textiles, making something 3-D, creating not art, but craft, using all my skills, making "babies" (because we don't want to have more children – a conscious, environmental decision), feeding my soul, playing with dolls, putting some other eggs into my basket of earning a living with my hands.

I was going to take a year to make dolls, then open an etsy shop and sell them. I created the Olive Sparrow with that in mind. A dear friend Rima from Undine Jewellery planed on hosting a new craft show with items for mothers and children and I could sell the dolls there in September 2008. However, in March of that year, my niece brought me her doll after playing with her for only a few months and the poor little soul had a hole in the fabric over her nose. I was in shock. There was no way that I could possibly sell dolls that didn't last. I knew that I would have to spend some time with R&D before I would dare to make them for sale.

A whole year went by, a year where I spent countless hours on the internet looking up doll makers, doll suppliers, doll-making books, sheep wool suppliers, costing out supplies to be shipped to me from Europe, but not making dolls. I also contacted a number of doll makers, namely:

Verena from Mein PuppenkindGudrun from Gunikat-WaldorfpuppenSanne from AllerleipuppenIris from Rosenrot-BlumenkinderJuliane from Fröken SkickligJudith from FilzlotteAngela from WichtelpuppeMaria from Mariengold

and asked for some input from them. I was particularly interested in all the mohair wigs that European doll makers seemed to make, yet after purchasing instructions from Maria from Mariengold and some local mohair, I had no success. It was only through the generosity of the above kind souls that I learned about Wollknoll's doll hair mohair. 

I ordered every book that I could find on making dolls to study different techniques and see if I could pick up little hints and tricks that others generously shared. There are many patterns and I know that I did not like the traditional sew-up foot because in a shoe it looked more like a hoof than a foot. Also, I did not like a seam down the middle of my dolls' legs. Other patterns made the dolls very skinny, whereas I like my babies to be of a more substantial nature. There is still half a dozen single legs downstairs in my sewing area, all stemming from the development of my current foot and leg pattern. One doll maker had a photo of a bum on her doll. This intrigued me and I decided to work on a pattern where my dolls had a "seat".

Of course, looking at that much information and images from all the books and blogs and websites make it hard to not pick up elements from here and there. Yet I have my own astethic, a personal vision of what I would like a doll to look like, artistic expression would be another word for it. This is fed by subconcious pictures of what left an impression on me during my research time, it is also fed by working with paints and colours in my paintings, by a life-long love for textiles, sewing, knitting, spinning. 

There are times when I teach workshops about my art practice, but I don't ever teach on how to make "my" art. I teach techniques, creative thinking, the finding of one's personal symbols, because I believe that at the end of the day the only way to be truly successful as an artist one has to create authentic work. Oh, I've been violated by people stealing my work, my ideas, my creations, but I also know, that I will come up with new ideas and that I can do better than I have done in the past. There are choices, choices to share because we don't want to see a skill die, to share for financial gain, or not to share and only to make for ourselves.

Before the prevalence of the Internet, during wholesale showes I used to participate in, there was a clear code of conduct, i.e. if you had an exhibitor's batch, you could only enter the booth of another exhibitor if you where invited in. Ideas still got stolen, we often just wouldn't find out about it because we were not connected. It is hard to imagine, but the internet is still very much in its infancy (main-population usage is what, about 10 years?), and hope that as we mature with it, there will be other acceptable codes of conduct established and hopefully enforced. A blog that can be read and accessed by anybody is a great sales tool, however, it is also an invitation to the world to "common' into our booth and have a look around", without knowing if it is a buyer or an exhibitor.

As a closing note, I find "Creative Authenticity" by Ian Roberts to be a wonderful read for working on our own creative voice.

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