On Dolls

I feel disconnected from being an artist after the rupture of Christmas. I have been worrying that May will bring a great hike to the rent of my studio, which contributes to stalling about starting anything. And it is so cold. Not to mention that the finished goddess is so enormous she fills almost my whole small studio leaving no room for anything new. My plan has been to make two more large triple goddesses. I have some small versions evolving but the final forms and materials are still brewing.

But, I am having an exhibition. It will be in the gallery space at Waterstone's in Gower St from the end of April and I am planning to combine showing my art works with some reading recommendations. These will include some of the green spine Viragos which have brought me into being and other books about creativity and psychoanalysis, and dolls. i think. I am hoping that selecting books will help me develop the sequence of the show. I was a bookseller for so many years that you can't underestimate the pleasure of getting to curate my own dump bin!

Curating my own show on the other hand is overwhelming. How to do it? I am thinking of focusing on the dolls, which means I need to think properly about what they mean to me. To go deeper into my own limitation.

I have uploaded "The Doll Dossier" onto my website homepage - that is texts and images I have collected over the years on the theme of dolls and transitional objects. I have given a few copies to friends and displayed it at Open Studios. It is not exhaustive - just images that resonate for me. I have added to it as I have written this and new links emerge.

Childhood Dolls and Toys

I was a very "dolly" little girl - my dolls were immaculately turned out and arranged very decorously in my bedroom. This in contrast to my sister's dishevelled gang of grubby half dressed babies. Interesting that she, more slapdash doll mother took actual motherhood in her stride while I am childless.

I have been thinking about my own dolls - or "my people" - which included soft animal toys, hard and soft dolls. i remember arranging them all on my pillow and lying stifled under the blanket below them, my head stabbed with a hard foot; they were set for a comfortable night's sleep even if I was going to be sleepless then suffocated.

I can't quite remember what it was like to play with my toys but I do remember failing to play with them. At about 11 my bedroom was redecorated and I had a proper space for my Sindy house - but then I couldn't enter that world any more. I started making elaborate possessions for them instead, clothes, food, a sewing box (replica of my mum's), but there was no life in my relationship with them. Play became about arranging, not engaging. One of my collected quotes is from I Capture the Castle - motherless Cassandra habitually converses with a dressmaker's dummy who she makes speak back with a maternal voice. But then, around the time that the midsummer rites start to fail, and she moves from a world of childhood to adulthood, the dummy ceases to function.

“And then a different voice spoke in my head, a bitter, sarcastic voice – my own at its very nastiest. It said “you’ve sunk pretty low my girl, clasping a dressmaker’s dummy. And aren’t you a bit old for this Miss Blossom nonsense?”

Then for the first time in my life I began to wonder how I “did” Miss Blossom (…)

The next second her breast was as hard as a board and smelt of dust and old glue and I knew she was gone forever.”

Are dolls babies or mothers?

My most important toys when i was very little were Teddy and Bobby - when i was about 7, Teddy (hitherto gender neutral/male) became Edwina (a girl), she was married to Bobby and he got to wear the knitted trousers. which is a good job because he became inexplicably elongated - they started off the same size. That was quite satisfying though because he was the man and men are taller than women. Maybe I stretched him? Then when i was in my early teens, Edwina became Teddy (male) again - I think I decided it was cooler to have a boy teddy. Influence of Aloysius trailed by Anthony Andrews perhaps? I don't think Teddy and Bobby were gay though, their relationship faded into vagueness. My mum often repeated that of course she loved my sister and I "both the same" and I always announced that about Teddy and Bobby. But I didn't - Teddy was my teddy and Bobby was a bit weird. But I had to lie, even to myself.

Some time - perhaps when Teddy became Edwina, I remember holding him/her and she felt too small - suddenly without life. My soothing object shifted at around that time to a home made Paddington - more satisfying in hugging scale to my bigger arms.

Then there were "Tiny Tears" and the other hard baby dolls. There was Louise who was a big walking doll. she had to go to "the doll's hospital" several times when her eye fell in. Then Sindys and Pippas with their hourglass bodies and preposterous prettiness . Bouffy hair, big eyes, impossible femininity. Babies, girls, women. And then a doll latency phase.

Adult Dolls

I started making my own dolls (as an adult) in a time of trouble after a relationship breakdown. I think they were an attempt to deal with the shame of rejection and humiliation that I couldn't possibly put out there in words.

There was also an element of transgression - it was a realm of making which I didn't associate with that deadly word "art" - and this allowed me to explore ideas that were personal and to experiment with materials and use some of the craft techniques I had mastered and enjoyed as a child but had banished from my adult practice - embroidery, sewing, narrative elements.

I was also attending courses on aspects of psychoanalysis - responding particularly to the work of Winnicott and Melanie Klein. Winnicott's ideas about transitional objects were very exciting - something which is an overlap of me and you, of internal and external realities, which is created or chosen for oneself, and the reality of which should not be challenged.

From Klein I discovered a world of innate aggression - rage, hate and fear of retaliation. I probably took the idea of "internal objects" too concretely but it led to my making effigies of the people whose betrayal obsessed me and staging their presence and relationships in spatial terms.

My dolls in chronological order:

Ambivalence Doll

When a relationship ended I struggled to process the intense feelings of hatred and jealousy towards the interloping and finally victorious other woman.

I felt that I remembered this feeling of displacement and wondered if it related to sibling rivalry. When my little sister was born I was given a doll to be my baby. Of all my dolls this “Nicola” was abused and punished. I drew appendix operation scars on her cloth body and when I had to start to wear glasses (aged 6) I scribed biro glasses around her eyes too.

I made this reversible, 3 faced “ambivalence” doll in memory of poor Nicola.

She is very heavy - full of sand. I used to pass her around at dinner parties. Make other people feel the burden of her. Oh dear I think I was mad.

Medusa Doll

I haven't featured her on my website because she remains unfinished. See Doll Dossier for images. The doll is very crude, I made a pattern by drawing around my own body. She is a doll of rage - a Mr Rochester's mad wife in a slashed padded cell. Her body (womb) is slashed too. The piece is a convergence of myself and my enemy - my shadow projected on the side of the box with a stream of consciousness embroidered text which I am now embarrassed by. I was thinking of the May Sarton poem - quoted in the previous blog.

Mourning Pod

This features a miniaturised version of the Medusa figure, A marionette (reference to Lady Purple?); her madness is latent; she appears as temptress, impossible to resist. Lascivious Bertha Mason, not knowing the just deserts awaiting her in Thornfield attic! The man reaches out a hand, enchanted. The containing body of the sculpture has its arms sucked inside out, trapped, forced to hold the entranced couple, the excluded third of the triangle. Not even seen by the others.

Skeleton Bride Woman

Animal aspect dolls

Snake woman, spider woman, snail woman - in Jungian terms needing to get in touch with something instinctual? Earth bound creatures.

Abstract Dolls

Recently I have made many more stylized dolls. Perhaps inspired by the austere abstractness of a Cycladic figurine. They are all versions of the same "starfish" pattern. Limbs connected by a gusset heart. To me they are definitely female. They are small - about 30cm high. I often carry them around with me to stitch while commuting or travelling.

Elemental Dolls

Not quite sure what these are yet - fire, earth, air... Are they about managing destructive feelings, getting in touch with materials, meditating on seasonal change? Risking failure?Hoping for rebirth? Wondering what happens on the other side?

I have a couple of Overwintering Dolls - "Earth" has been buried since the Autumn Solstice and will be exhumed on March 23rd, the Spring Equinox. "Air" is gently mildewing on the a bench in the garden. She is lovely and rich with hints of red and green on wet days but in the cold late days of January she is stiff and grey.

Overwintering - Earth

I don't like pretty, prissy dolls, neither do I like self consciously weird ones. Dolls have to have some investment of authentic energy. They are linked to transgression and mischief too - there are a proliferation of rude dolls in my work: Sheela na gigs and Baubo displaying themselves - aggressively or in saucy fun.

I am quite depressed by my Foundling Forms project. I am trying to be tolerant and self forgiving - but they are very Januaryish. Dreary and predictable and more occasional than daily. I am not posting them online - I am going to keep them private for now. Maybe I am clearing away husks, burning rubble, making space for spring growth? But forms also emerge from writing and linking. I am wondering about my depression this month and the deadness of all my made objects. There is something about materials - the spark of life in the sculpture comes for me from the surprise of the difference between the finished form and what I conceived - gravity's drag, an unexpected bulge or flare, the light on the surface of different fabrics. The inner chuckle.

Other thing this month:

I have finished Marina Abramovic's biography which is wonderful. I keep picturing her face in The Artist Is Present; full of pain, greyish, large pores, sweating. Her eyes are closed and then they open, coming into focus on each new supplicant. I see an eye suddenly opening in the moist clay wall of a subterranean cave. Sibyl of Cumae, Pythia at Delphi.

Abramovic does not augur the future but instead creates a deep present. If you have the courage. I would love to sit opposite her but couldn't bear to be witnessed by the crowds and cameras. Hall of mirrors - she sees me, I see her, I am seen by others, she sees herself seeing me, being seen by others... She refers to herself as three Marina's - spirtual, warrior and woman (always triples). In so many fairy tales the hero or heroine has a task of sorting out minute things - peas and lentils, wheat and chaff. Sorting for their life. And there is usually a magical helper, an animal indebted by a kind deed or, in the case of Vasilisa the Beautiful - a doll in her pocket who labours while the heroine sleeps. In the Abramovic method there is no magic - the people who go to her as a mentor spend hours sorting and separating their own piles of grain.

I was off work with a heavy cold and watched various YouTube interviews with Abramovic. Then I watched Eat, Pray Love; I enjoyed the audio version of Big Magic. Then I watched Legally Blonde - deeply silly but very enjoyable. I am trying not to censor my cultural cravings!

I finished Fates and the Furies by Lauren Groff. And - I love Dick by Chris Krauss - I found that heavy going apart from a patch in the middle where she writes about art. I don't think I am cool enough for Chris Krauss.

At my Goldsmith's Art Therapist Peer group "Art Therapist Collective" - we spoke about Transactional Therapy - considering one's transactions with others in relation to a trio of selves in each of us (parent, child and adult). It is so interesting to notice how those aspects in oneself connect or conflict with the same aspects in others. How the child in me hears or sees the parent in you - and without a conscious effort to summon a rational adult into being, our relationship spirals out of control. It gets very complicated when these selves connect and cross intergenerationally.

I was thinking about this in relation to my cuddly toys - the internal proscription (parent) that one "should" love one's children equally, at odds with my awareness that I didn't (adult) and subsequent feeling of failure (child)?! So - as the only available book on Transactional Analysis in the library, I am reading "I am OK - You're Ok by Thomas A Harris. I feel as much need to conceal the cover of this one as I took pleasure in revealing the Chris Krauss!

Featured Posts
Recent Posts