Welcome to Transformative Healing Dolls BLOG
Sharing the Joy...some moments from the recent Revisioning Flip Doll Reception at Artists and Makers Studios
Above is a photo of me with two of the installation team. To my right is Julie Haifley, whose flip doll, Forever Kiki is also to her right, and to my left, Jill Newman. Jill created the exhibition post card and also has a flip doll in the show, see below. And next to her flip doll, Life's Journey, is Ruth Parks, an Artists and Makers artist who also responded to the flip doll challenge. Missing from this photo is Heidi Moyer, also a PFAG member, and who has been my sounding board throughout this project. Thanks to all for their amazing guidance and assistance.
It was a wonderful show. I am so pleased that three of the women from N. Street Village were able to attend, see photos below. One had to take three buses and one train because her other means of transportation fell through. What dedication! Many of the artists from the Flip Doll Challenge attended, as did many of the members of the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild, the organization which provided the grant which partially funded this project.
The final component of this project is a talk at the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild, describing the entire scope of this two year project. The talk will take place at the St. James Episcopal Church, 11815 Seven Locks Rd, Potomac, MD 20854, at 10:30 am on Saturday, February 10th. See the PFAG website for more information.
The show will be up until February 21st. Directions and hours are on the Artists and Makers website.
Revisioning the Flip Doll: Exploring Our ConnectionsPlease mark your calendars for the opening reception, February 2nd, 6-9 PM at Artists and Makers Studios, Parklawn Building, in Rockville, MD, to mark the culmination of the Flip Doll Project! The exhibit runs from February 1-22 and includes flip dolls from a challenge that went out the the D.C. community and beyond, flip dolls by women transitioning from homelessness at N. Street Village in D.C. and the flip dolls I made in response to my research and outreach.
Above are images of flip dolls from each of these three areas. My Rhea, Mother Earth/Raina, Every Woman is an Empress to the left, fiber artist Jill Newman's 5 Going on 50, center and top right and N Street Village resident, Cheryl Young's Winter/Spring doll bottomm center and right.
We will have some wonderful and creative dolls in the exhibit, with many different takes on the idea of dualities and connections that the flip doll evokes. Some are personal, some are political, all are unique statements of each artists experience.
Please also note, if you are interested in learning more about flip dolls and the whole project that I've been involved in over the past two years, studying, making and teaching about flip dolls, I will be giving a talk to the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild, where I got a grant that gave partial funding for this project. This free talk will take place on Saturday, February 10th at 11 am. See the PFAG website for more information.
For gallery hours, directions and other details, see the Artists and Makers website. And if you're hearing about this for the first time, see the blog page of my website, where I have posted about all the stages of this process.
Hope to see you on February 2nd! I still have lots more details to take care of, one more doll to put the final touches on, edits to my talk and lots more. But I am excited to see this all coming together after two years of working on this. Also I want to thank Jill Newman, who put together the image at the top of page and whose doll will also be in the exhibit. I am very grateful to all those who have helped me along the way. And I am grateful to have had the chance to have worked with so many wonderful people starting with the PFAG members who assisted during the N. Street Village workshop and the N. Street Village wonderful women themselves. Below I will give a sneak peek of what I will be sharing more of in my talk, of the actual workshops in process.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get when people come into the TAG gallery at the Torpedo Factory or at the Jackson Art Center Open Studios is how do I get my ideas?
The Conant Flip Doll Project:
I thought I would take a stab at answering this question of where my ideas come from, based on my process of making flip dolls as part of this grant project. (The second series is up and running.) What's been special about this round of flip doll workshops at the shelter is that this time I have some fiber artist members of the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild assisting the group. I've really enjoyed their contributions to the group, and the participants who have attended so far have been very interesting to get to know. And at the same time I want to talk about what happens between an original idea and its execution-what is involved in bringing ideas into reality.
Personal "Demons" as a Source of Creative Ideas:
Many of my dolls have to do with facing my demons or fears. In a way, the format of a flip doll is perfect for this, because you can come at something from two different but related angles at once. Right now I am working on a flip doll that is going to be about exactly that, facing fears related to putting myself out there in the real world. The inspiration for this doll was to choose some fears/demons- I chose six- and to show how they are transformed. I am a shy introvert, so one of the fears is speaking in public or to offer workshops or classes. The image to the left shows a detail from this doll with one of the fears I am working on transforming. It shows the fear of being judged for putting myself out there! I’ve been working on this doll in my studio but am also bringing it to the workshops at N. Street to show the participants my process.
What is inevitably lost between the idea and it’s execution and why that’s always OK
One of my biggest challenges is that, though I have tons of ideas, I can sometimes get lost in the planning stage and never get to the execution stage. I used to spend hours creating complicated graphs and charts of what I was going to do or detailed sketches of future art projects but most of them never saw the light of day. It seemed like there was an inverse relationship between the time spent in planning and the amount I was able to actually get done. Now I spend less time mapping things out, though I still do this to some extent. Instead, I allow myself to take the first steps into something, however imperfect those first steps might feel.
The challenge in taking steps into actions is that something always inevitably gets lost from the original idea as soon as it becomes reality. Part of this has to do with the different worlds that ideas and actual creations live in. Ideas live in the world of dreams and fantasy, where anything is possible and the laws of physics can be bent without any protest. Actual things live in a real world where there are laws of time, space and physics. Yet, what I am learning is, that it is in the interaction of the idea out in the world, that it can truly be shaped and guided into something effective and useful. There is a conversation between the idea and the world, and both are shaped in this process.
Working with materials to create mirrors what happens to ideas in the “real world”
This shows up really well when you are working with paint and paper or clay or in my case, fibers and fabric and they don't do what you thought they would do. I used to be stopped at that point by: frustration, perfectionism, or self-doubt. Or I would push on through, wanting a result that the materials didn’t want to provide. What was missing was taking time to stop and witness what was happening. Seeing that something new could happen that I might never have imagined in the planning stage. Those happy surprises that can only be seen when we take time to let them reveal themselves. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with the world of dreams and fantasy. This is in fact where most of my best ideas come from. But it is in the blending of those ideas within the world of reality and groundedness that those fantasies can show their colors and beauty most clearly.
Now when I tackle a new idea, I have more of a sense of the rhythm that it needs. When to stop to allow the idea to interact with the world, and when to push on through against resistance that is imaginary. It helps to know that each piece is a step towards something, it's not the last iteration by any means. To know that in creating each piece I will learn something that can be used in my next attempt. And that I am getting closer and closer to that elusive original idea. And this hold true whether the idea is an article I want to write (like right now) a doll I want to make or a series of workshops I wan to lead.
The Joy/Loss Flip Doll
Once about a year and a half ago, when I doll I had made was rejected from a show, I wondered what that feeling of loss would look like in a visual image. I drew this image (see above) or the two women, connected at the waist, one sorrowful and one joyful. The drawing came right out of me in no time, as they sometimes do. But then, when I contemplated making this drawing into a doll, I didn’t feel ready to do so. I wasn’t sure which materials would work or even that it would work as a doll. It took another year or so for me to think of how I might make it. I realized that I could needle felt the whole doll. I could get close to the same colors of the drawing and also the felted doll suggests the vulnerability of the original image.
In the images above, I show the steps it took to make the doll, building it out of felt. What I love now is seeing the way people who view this doll react to it, in my studio or in shows. The doll is out in the world and having a conversation. She has something to say and is heard in different ways by different people. And what they have to say also affects her and possibly any future dolls I make related to her.
That important step of putting something “out there” even if imperfect-and the importance of finishing
I’m learning that it’s important to finish things. It helps to know that each attempt is the best I can do with the information, materials etc I have on hand at the moment, but not the last attempt. Each time, I am getting my thoughts and ideas out into the world and they are getting shaped by that interaction. It also helps to know that my thoughts and ideas are being received and reacted to, even if the reaction is negative. It all teaches me something. I hope these observations might help you to take some steps into a new creative project. And I’d love to hear from you if this provoked some thoughts or ideas. Thanks for reading.
This is the seventh post in a series of articles about my current project: REVISIONING FLIP DOLLS. I received a Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and as part of this project, I worked with homeless women at N. Street Village in DC making flip dolls; interviewed professional artists who make flip dolls, and have been making my own flip dolls. And more...
Terri Dowell-Dennis is a recipient of two North Carolina Arts Council Fellowships (2000, 2006), a Regional Artist Project Grant (2000), and a North Carolina Arts Council Project Grant (1993). She is married to photographer W. Cameron Dennis, and they have two sons, Ian and Max.
Terri has worked in the field of Museum Education since 1990. Currently she works part time as Associate Curator of Education for the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Art Education from Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, her MFA in sculpture from Clemson University, Clemson, SC, and a MALS degree, in 2011, from Wake Forest University, where she focused her studies in religion and humanities.
For the Flip Doll Project interview, we spoke through video conferencing. Terri sat in her spacious and airy North Carolina kitchen, where some of her flip dolls hang on the wall behind her. We had a lively conversation, encompassing many topics, which could have gone on much longer and ranged into many more directions. Terri spoke of her lifelong interest in sewing and her sense that materials, such as wood, leather or fabric “have a history and carry meaning.” We talked about her interest in spiritual and religious traditions and how these contributed to her unique take on flip dolls. She sees her flip dolls as a response to their origin as a “racist relic” of the past, transforming them “from figures in opposition, to parts that make a whole.”
Raised in a fundamentalist Christian tradition, she continues to be inspired what she calls “foundational stories” and the ways in which these stories affect our attitudes towards many aspects of our lives, including the treatment of women, gender roles and our place in the world, though she doesn’t consider herself a religious person now. She finds the topsy turvy, or flip doll, an ideal vehicle to depict dualities such as good and evil, Adam and Eve, man and woman. She spoke of the artists who inspire her, from contemporary performance artists such as Janine Antoni to self-taught artists such as Thornton Dial. Yet, she made it clear that she is primarily inspired by traditional craft, especially the Appalachian tradition of her region and by the materials themselves. She shared some thoughts about her artistic process as well as how she manages to keep her artistic vision alive, while also working as a part time Curator and also spending time with family.
Traditional “Topsy Turvy” Dolls as inspiration:
Erika: What got you into being a doll maker? I know you don’t think of yourself specifically as a doll maker.
Terri: I was given a Mammy/little girl doll by my mother-in-law. The first thing that got me into doll making was interest in Appalachian history and culture. I was making corn shuck figures and made one that was a topsy turvy. When I remembered it I pulled it out to show you.
E: Tell me about it. What is the hair on the bottom one made of?
T: Corn silk hair. Corn shucks and corn silk. Top figure is veiled and the bottom one has a sort of Rapunzel-esque quality-the hair is all braided and falls down beyond the bottom of the skirt. You know, stages of life.
E. So that was the first flip doll you made and it was part of a corn shuck series?
T: Yes, made in early 2000’s. And I happened to do one that was topsy turvy.
T. This one was made in response to doll that I have that belonged to my mother in law. I knew that it was a racist relic from the past. This was my way of taking that energy and turning it around, and rather than seeing the black and white figures in opposition, to try to make a statement that you have to have both sides in order to make a whole.
E. Really powerful, idea that flip dolls evoke wholeness or connectedness…
T. At the time I was making them, I was doing a lot of reading about religious traditions and spiritual traditions. And the topsy turvy doll became a vehicle to express my feelings about oneness and wholeness and growing out of this idea of duality.
E. Have you read the book Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory, by Kimberly Wallace Sanders? She discusses some of these ideas.
T. Will have to look it up. It’s a wonderful project that you are doing.
E. It’s wonderful talking to people who make flip dolls for various reasons. Wallace Sanders, in the book, talks about the Mammy idea, what it meant then, what it means now, and how artists are taking that image and transforming it into a new meaning, as a Mammy with a gun.
She connected me with Joyce Scott-she doesn’t make flip dolls but her ideas are so connected to this idea, the black white dolls.
T. Yes, I met her. I love the way Scott seduces you with the beautiful beaded work and then punches you with her challenging ideas. Very powerful.
E. Yes, again, the duality.
T You ask about how I got into making flip dolls-that’s really the way. I make work all the time but sometimes I just see something and it all falls into place. It was that way after making this one in corn and then seeing that I had this one from my family and it opened up another avenue for exploring what that doll is. I played with dolls a lot as a child. I’m really interested in what doll mean to us, they are almost an extension of ourselves and our identities. They express nurture and compassion. They have so much to do with how we learn about relating to other human beings. We think of them as belonging in the realm of childhood.
T: I have boys-they played with action figures. Boys sometimes get different lessons than girls do in their play. But one of my sons is almost a doll maker. He makes stuffed figures.
E. Interesting. What is the purpose of the figures he makes?
T. They are creatures. A cross between sculpture and toys.
E. How big are they?
T. Some almost as big as I am-five feet. Some small. This one is felted, not needle felted. Some are very complex. He is working on ways to simplify them so he can sell them. (She shows me an example of one of her son’s dolls.)
E. It almost has an alien quality to it. (The doll has several eyes across its head.)
E. I like what you said about dolls as an extension of ourselves. I’m very connected to idea of dolls reflecting us back to ourselves. When you make a doll, it can reveal things that you don’t see otherwise, like an aspect of yourself.
T. This must be powerful in your work with women in workshops.
Materials as a source of inspiration:
E. Influences? We talked about how there is a thread in your work, an examination of women’s work and women’s roles.
T. The other theme is an interest in materials. Materials and objects have a history and a story and they carry meanings. I incorporate interesting materials in my work.
E. The materials always have a history? Not store bought, as in the skirt with spoons in them? note: these images can be seen on Dowell Dennis's website, we are referring to her works "100 prints for hunger" where she printed images of hungry children, using used cutting boards as the printing medium and "She eateth not the bread of idleness" in her "Virtuous Woman" series, where she printed the words onto wooden spoons placed into the pockets of black aprons.
T. I work on the materials. Whittled the spoons. The cutting board series-they were old boards and used the lines to create prints.
E. You chose to use cloth as a material for the flip dolls. Some have bisque fired heads. But you chose to have it all be cloth.
T the one I inherited is all cloth and I’ve always sewn. It’s always been a part of my life. And I have some that I’ve started and never finished in wood…
E. Wooden flip dolls?
T Yes, never finished, maybe some day. And I have prints of topsy turvy images.
“Foundational Stories” as an influence:
E. Back to influences: are there artists or other influences on your work?
T Materials. Stories. poems. Lot of work with the book of Genesis. Very interested in foundational myths. Lot of Adam and Eve imagery.
E. Is there an Adam and Eve Flip doll?
T. Yes, pink and blue with snake wrapping around. I think of that as an Adam and Eve image. I also have topsy turvy Adam and Eve images in prints.
E. So many layers in old stories. I have that interest in common with you. I go beyond and use stories in other cultures as well, uncensored Grimm fairy tales. I made that connection later, once I saw it in my work. I’m also interested in Indian culture.
T. Eastern or American?
E. Eastern but I just read Braiding Sweetgrass, the Native American theme, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She studied Native American culture and biology at the same time. She describes how the academic community wasn’t open at first to her bringing the Native American ideas into her work. I haven’t used Native American ideas in my work yet but would like to.
T. On a university campus, you run into that bias a lot. I work in a museum in an academic environment and I experience that too, the lack of open-mindedness.
Artistic Inspiration: from contemporary to self-taught
E. Are there artists who you are drawn to, who you are inspired by?
T. I really like Janine Antoni.
E. Yes, I know her.
T. I love the way she can get at a very deep feeling through simple activities and the way she uses her materials. There’s a lot of artists I’ve been inspired by over the years, even Ad Reinhardt, who uses black in a way that I really respond to. I love traditional forms, such as the corn shuck dolls, the apple head dolls. And I love the self-taught artists, artists who are putting a lot of feeling and passion into what they are making. Thornton Dial is one.
E. Have you been to the Visionary Museum in Baltimore?
T. Yes, saw a lot of artists who interested me there.
E. I share your interest in self-taught and visionary artists. I went to art school late and felt like I had to unlearn some things after being in art school.
T. I find that as I get older I really appreciate the self-taught artists much more. Their work cuts to the chase.
E. Grandma Layton, this is an artist who you just reminded me of. She came to art late in life. She suffered from depression and a therapist directed her toward contour drawings. Her work is so uninhibited and expressive.
T. There’s another artist, Judith Scott, have you seen her art?
T. Her art has a lot of power. Also Jackie Winsor.
E. Yes, would you think of her as a fiber artist?
T. No, as a sculptor.
E. Someone gave me a book “50 Women Artists,” I think was the title, something like that, when I was a teenager and Jackie Winsor was in it and she made an impression on me too.
T. Yes, I like the idea of labor, of the time spent on the work and how it shows in the work.
E. When you do your work, especially the embroidery, there’s that idea of recording hours of labor.
T. Thanks. If my work can capture that, it makes me feel good and like I’ve gotten to something.
More about Spiritual and Religious Traditions:
E. What materials did you use before the corn-husk dolls?
T. I worked mostly in wood and I’ve also done pieces in leather. It depends on what I’m trying to aim for, what materials I choose. I’ve made works that use black leather that is gilded with words. Or I’ve made a piece out of brain-tanned leather that was about the first clothing. It’s the book of Genesis and my interest in the bible as a, not that I’m a religious person but I was raised in that tradition. I was brought up in that tradition so I recognize how much we are influenced by those foundational stories even when we don’t believe that we are. There are a lot of attitudes about women that come through for example. Attitudes about a lot of things.
E. So many layers here. We could go off in a lot of directions.
T. Yes, I feel we could talk for a long time.
E. One time I was fascinated with the Gnostic Gospels, the ones that didn’t make it into the bible.
T. I’m so glad you said that. The Gnostic Gospels had a huge influence on my thinking. And yes, when you look at that, it’s a whole new ball game. I love that. There’s a wonderful poem that was found with the Gnostic Gospels. It’s called the “Thunder Perfect Mind,” you would like it.
E. I don’t know it.
T. Yes, you should look it up. It was written by a woman. It was another thing that really influenced my topsy turvy dolls. Duality and wholeness and speaking about the same thing.
E. Makes me think of Hildegard von Bingen and also the Chalice and the Blade book, by Riane Eisler.
T. I think that the early notions of Christianity were much broader that what has come down to us. I think that what we have are these stories but they are very political. The Gnostics were probably declared heretics. The leaders of the forming religion said, we’re going this way, not this way.
E. I saw some of your embroidered images of witches being persecuted. That reminds me of this idea. We’re lucky to be living now.
T. Yes better time to be a woman.
Terri’s Studio Process:
E. What is your process in your studio? And with dolls.
T. I still make dolls occasionally when it feels like the right thing to do. But about my process in the studio. I work at a museum and sometimes when I have an idea I have to make a sketch and record it until I have time to work on it. But when I’m not in that mode, I just go. And I work on what comes up. And sometimes it takes a long time for something to filter out and become the thing that I discover through the process.
More about Flip Dolls and their Meaning and History:
E. Does your art, do your dolls make a political social statement? We talked about this a bit already.
T. Sometimes my art makes a political statement, sometimes not.
E. What are your ideas about the history of flip dolls?
T. The original flip dolls were a way for slave women to have an image that looked like themselves. The flip was a way for them to conceal this from the master. But I don’t know that for sure. People may not know or remember why they were originally made. I read about this interpretation in an article a while back.
E. Do you have that article? I’ve heard the opposite take on it-that the white side of the doll had to be hidden. I’d be curious to see. Other theories were that the slave mothers made the flip dolls as a way to cope with having to care for black and white kids at the same time.
T. That sounds plausible.
E. Another theory posits the dolls as a subversive idea. And also symbol of connectedness between the black and white women. Sometimes the white slave owner women, who may have been illiterate themselves and with little outside contact, may have had their most meaningful relationship the black slave woman.
T. It’s all speculation.
E. Even difficult to know in the research whether the dolls were actually made by slaves. Wallace Sanders talks about how the flip dolls were later owned by white girls and used in a way to perpetuate views of whites superiority to blacks. These later dolls were more of a black Mammy and a white child. Complicated because at the same time, often the Mammy was seen as a better maternal figure than the white children’s own mother.
T. Yes these ideas are around even now. Did you hear the story in the Atlantic of a woman from the Philippines who was brought to this country as a slave? Off the subject but yes, her name was Lola. She was kept as a slave throughout her life. Interesting to think that this was perpetuated up to the present in a quiet way.
Craft vs Art:
E. And in other countries more overtly. What do you see as the role of craft vs art in your work?
T Things that are designated as craft are often traditions carried on by women whereas if it’s painting or sculpture, they were historically seen as created by men. I tend to think that art can be made of anything, Anything that transcends its making is art to me.
E. Interesting to look at the historical connection of gender to art vs craft.
E. What about symbols or metaphor in your art? You talked about Adam and Eve and Genesis.
T. Opposites. Adam and Eve, life and death, dark and light, good and evil. And in regard to the dolls, it’s ideas where you really can’t have one without the other. Male and female, and now you can complicate that a lot, and I’ve been working on that recently. I’ve been doing some work that questions the idea of gender being just dual.
E. I think that’s the cool thing about the flip doll, you can add more. You can have two heads or front and back of the head. Like the Little Red Riding hood flip dolls where the grandmother has the wolf on the back of her head. Do you have these on your website? The ones that question gender?
T. Yes. I have one of the prints that’s about this idea.
More about Christianity and art-how to communicate so you are understood.
E. Does your personal experience come into your process?
T. Yes, the way it comes in is that I was brought up in a very fundamentalist family. That’s where my interest in gender roles and in the foundations of religious traditions come in. I’m interested in what they teach us and how they came to be. It’s a huge interest of mine.
E. Very powerful.
T. A lot of times in the world of art, people don’t want to talk about religion.
E. Yes it seems to me to be true particularly about Christianity. Sometimes it seems like if it’s Buddhism, it’s more accepted somehow. But Christianity, it’s no no no.
T. It’s seen as you are putting judgment on people or that you are a fanatic of some kind. I think a lot of people-religion has an uncomfortable place in their mind and they haven’t really mined it.
E. It’s a really important and courageous role that you are taking. Have you had people to your art respond in a way that’s difficult?
T. I have to be careful to communicate very clearly so that I’m not misunderstood.
E. What have you found that helps with that?
T. It’s all in the language that you use to talk about the interest. It’s important to, my background is Christian so I am interested in all traditions.
T. I think so, and not anti-science.
E. Right. We’re almost out of time. Do you collaborate other artists, teach and do workshops?
T. I haven’t had the opportunity to collaborate. It’s on my wish list. I try to encourage this in my work in the museum. When I retire.
Vision for the Future:
E. What’s your dream for the future?
T. A couple. I dipped my toe into the idea of performance. And the idea of collaborating with other artists. There’s a long tradition of artists working with dancers, actors, writers. I would really like to explore that. I’d also like to do a residency somewhere and be with other people who are making. Thank you, also nice to talk to you.
Dealing with Creative Blocks:
E. Any creative blocks and what do you do, if so?
T. Of course yes. I fret about them because making is what keeps me me. Those are the times when I just go into the studio and just play around. Sometimes it takes a long time to find something to say or for me to do something that puts me on a path that I want to be on. I have to be patient.
E. Do you have things going on at once?
T. Yes, because of the nature of time that I have. I start things and sometimes it’s a year before I get back to them. Because of the nature of my museum work. I try to take notes. But if it falls away, it falls away. If it’s good, it comes back.
E. That’s a helpful philosophy, not to get too worried about what falls away. Do you have advice for homeless women making flip dolls?
T. I so loved what you said about how what you make can speak back to you, could bring up what is below the surface or subliminal in some way. And I think dolls have that capacity to mirror and reveal parts of ourselves. The whole art-making process has that capacity. I think that could be really useful in working with homeless women, to help them learn things about themselves.
E. Is there one doll where you could describe the process in more detail? Did the flip dolls happen in a condensed time frame or were they one of the things that you left and came back to?
More about the creative process:
T. Conjoined hearts one started and then I lived with the thread drawing (of hearts) on the surface before I realized I wanted it to be really rich and pop out. I went in and embroidered the hearts more fully. I did one called Kali/ Medusa. In looking at images I realized that both Kali and Medusa, are very powerful feminine figures from different cultures, both fearsome. There’s a lot of female energy in those figures that’s not the traditional energy that is condoned for women. And there are all these images of both of them, depicting them with their tongue distended. The similarity made me think what would happen if I put those together. They have so much capacity to speak about life and death. That one is on my website. A friend owns it now. That one is an unusual one for me because I made all these snakes coming out of Medusa’s head. It had a different kind of presence.
E. I’ve made Kali but not Medusa images, no, did do one of Medusa decorating a dragon body. But I never thought of them together. I Read the story of Medusa. She tends to be seen more exclusively negative. Kali in the Indian culture is seen more from both sides.
T. I did another, this time a print of Athena/Medusa. Athena, a warrior, is seen as a more masculine figure. She was born out of her father’s head. Medusa is a more feminine power.
E. Wondering about the Greek version of Athena, she seems a bit more feminine?
T. Not sure, But Athena is important in the pantheon, but not very feminine. She springs from the mind.
E. Both are subversive.
T. Yes. The head of Medusa is on Athena’s shield. It’s like a kind of murder of the feminine-in my interpretation.
E. So much here. Is there anything else? Is it OK to use this in my blog? Will you send some flip doll images? I love your work and it inspired me to do this process.
T. I enjoy your project too. It’s something that was waiting to be done.
E. I’m close to getting a venue. I plan to show my flip dolls, the flip dolls by homeless women and the flip doll challenge images.
This is the sixth post in a series of articles about my current project: REVISIONING FLIP DOLLS. I received a Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and as part of this project, I worked with homeless women at N. Street Village in DC making flip dolls; interviewed professional artists who make flip dolls, and have been making my own flip dolls. And more...
This month I want to give you an opportunity to participate in the flip doll process. Above is the first entry in the flip doll challenge, by Carolyn Hudacek. Carolyn's doll features handsmocked skirts and is meant as a "Patriotic Flip Doll." Please visit her blog to see more of her "Annie" dolls, all tributes to her mother, also named Annie.
In this issue of Transformative Healing Dolls newsletter, I am focusing on the Flip Doll Challenge, which I hope many of you will choose to participate in! You can make your flip doll out of any materials you choose.
For inspiration I have included instructions on how to make a stick flip doll (see below for link to instructions and a video.) You can also be inspired by Carolyn's doll. Another source of inspiration is an article on topsy turvy dolls by Linda Walsch. She includes information about the history of these dolls and has several links to topsy turvy doll patterns.
To participate in the FLIP DOLL CHALLENGE:
1. Make a flip doll out of any materials you choose, using the stick doll instructions, look up flip or topsy turvy dolls on-line or create your own design.
2. Submit an image of your doll to Flip Doll Challenge or by responding to this newsletter. Please include, your name, title/name for the doll, dimensions, cost (if it is for sale) and any information about the meaning of the doll.
3. Your doll will be featured in a future issue of this newsletter.
4. Plans are also in the works for an exhibit of flip dolls from this challenge, dolls created by the women of N. Street Village and by Erika. I will keep you updated on this. Please indicate if you would be interested in participating in this exhibit, currently scheduled for February/March 2018.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Below are two more views of the first entry in the Flip Doll Challenge, by Carolyn Hudacek.
Stick Flip Doll, Below is a stick flip doll which I made in response to my work with homeless women at N. Street Village in D. C. The first side is the artist, with details symbolizing what I learned from this experience. For more about this doll, see answers to questions below. I also made this doll as inspiration to you in case you want to use this simple method to create your own flip doll. Below are step by step instructions on how to make a stick flip doll in video and written form.
See below also for an example of a soft sculpture flip doll that I'm currently in the process of working on...
Instructions for Making a Stick Flip Doll:
Please also refer to the video above to see images of each step.
sturdy sticks for armature
quilt batting cut into 1-2” wide strips
fabric strips 1-2” wide, approx 12” long
sewing needle and thread
glue gun (optional)
soft pencil or fabric marking pen
colored yarn or felting wool for hair
needle felting needle to attach wool hair (optional)
beads, lace, sequins and other materials for embellishment
two different patterned pieces of fabric-approx. 10” long by 18” wide for alternate sewn skirt (optional)
sewing machine (optional)
Start by laying out your sticks, one or two long ones, approximately 12” long with two smaller ones approximately 4” from the top and bottom, for arms
Wrap two longer sticks together (in the video it shows one longer stick, sometimes it can help to use two for extra reinforcement) using duct tape
Wrap the two smaller sticks crosswise to the longer one with duct tape
Wrap entire piece, long sticks and shorter with quilt batting strips. You can tuck the ends of the pieces under to secure them and then continue on from there, wrapping the ends of each strip on top of each other. Use enough to get the thickness you want. You may want to wrap an additional thick layer over the head area and over the chest and upper arms
Once you have covered the body to your liking with quilt batting strips, you can start adding fabric strips for the body, arms and back of the head. I like to leave room at the ends of the arms to show some of the end of the stick for hands. You can arrange the strips however you want to delineate the areas of the chest, arms and waist, creating a separate arrangement for each side of the doll to differentiate them into two separate characters.
To make the heads, cut out a two squares of fabric for each side, approximately 2” square. Sandwich a piece of quilt batting in between the same size-2” square. With the soft pencil or fabric marker, draw simple features of a face
Pin together to hold into place and then stitch along the lines of the drawing using a simple backstitch-looping back into the previous hole to create a continuous line.
Cut out the shape of the face with some material around the edges, enough to attach to the fabric on the head area of the doll.
Stitch (or glue) face onto the head
Loop colored yarn in a length determined by how long you want the hair to be (measure by draping over the head) and cut into individual lengths. Sew along the intended hairline.
If using felting wool for hair, it can be felted onto the head using the needle felting needle
The skirt is make by overlapping strips of fabric, attached and sewn to the waist. Choose different colors for either side of the doll.
Last step is to embellish with beads, lace, sequins or other materials of your choosing to make the doll more individual.
To make the alternate skirt-attach the two 10” x 18” pieces of fabric together back to back, leaving a small opening at the edge. Turn outside in and sew opening together by hand. Attach skirt at the waist using a running stitch and leaving ends of thread loose, so that you can gather folds together.
Quilt batting comes in cotton or polyester. For this purpose it’s fine to use the poly or poly blend version. I prefer to sew the fabric strips to the doll but if you want to work faster you can use a glue gun instead. I use strips of fabric for the skirt as a quicker, simpler method, but you can alternatively make a more traditional skirt and sew it to the body.
For the head, I’ve shown a way of making a small face with stitched features. There are many other ways to make heads, including: pressed mold clay heads, faces printed from photographs onto fabric. These require other techniques and materials, which can be researched on-line.
Questions to ask yourself to ask once you make your flip doll.
1. What is your doll’s name/names? Is this someone in your life, someone famous or invented?
2.Can you say something about the colors/textures in your doll?
3. Are there meaningful symbols on your doll? What do they mean to you, if so?
4. What is your doll’s story? Are the two sides opposites of a story or two sides of the same idea?
5.What lessons does your doll have to teach you?
I'll answer these questions for the flip doll below to give you an idea....
1. My doll's name is Maisie/Ernestina. The Maisie side represents me as an artist who worked with homeless women at the N. Street Village shelter in DC. The Ernestina side represents the women at the shelter whom I worked with.
2. I chose bright colors and varied textures. The Maisie side has white skin and the Ernestina side has brown skin. Many, but not all of the women I worked with had brown skin.
3. The symbols on the Maisie side are the tiny rabbit on the top of her head, the yellow butterfly on her forehead, the lace on her bodice, the tiny baby on her chest and the lighting element also on her chest. These symbols represent the innocence and open-mindedness that I tried to bring to my work with the homeless women. The richness of the lace bodice and the roses have to do with the meaningfulness of what I learned from my experience at N. Street.
The symbols on the Ernestina side are a watch face without hands, a tiny heart charm, jewelry under her face and on her ears and her sequinned arms. These symbols have to do with the way in which the homeless women are somehow living in a place out of time, in a sort of holding place. The heart has to do with the heartfeltness that I encountered in meeting these women. The sequins have to do with the playfulness and fun they shared with me.
4. The doll is about the connection I felt with the women at the homeless shelter. I especially appreciate the way in which a flip doll is connected in the middle, suggesting a wholeness between two disparate elements.
5. The doll taught me about love and connectedness and how even without homes, women can exhibit generosity and caring.
Below are some images from a new series of lace flip dolls that I am currently working on. I'm using lace and other fabrics from my mother's attic stash. She and my step-father are moving from their ancestral home where the attic was full of five to six generations worth of antique fabrics and lace dating back to the Civil War era. My mother has also donated some of this fabric to Michael Melle, an artist local to their area, the Berkshires, and who makes figures out of straw and peat, "dressed" in antique clothing.
The two dolls depicted here, both with the same body but one with a large loose skirt and the other with a tight and narrow skirt, started off in response to the questions:
1. what are the advantages vs disadvantages of structure and constraint?
2. what are the advantages vs disadvantages of openendedness and freedom?
The doll with the tight skirt is very difficult to flip, because of the tightness of the skirt. One side is lacy and decorated with only ecru and white colors. The other side (not shown) is more colorful. The stitched image on the doll with the looser skirt has to do with freedom and joy. This is an example of going with the theme as it develops. I don't really know exactly how these dolls with develop next. Stay posted.
This is the fifth post in a series of articles about my current project: REVISIONING FLIP DOLLS. I received a Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and as part of this project, I am
working with homeless women at N. Street Village in DC making flip dolls; interviewing professional artists who make flip dolls, and making my own flip dolls. And more... I will be writing about all of these efforts in these pages.
For the last couple months, I've been working in my studio on a large scale flip doll. This week I finished her!! And she's in a show at the Torpedo Factory, in the TAG (Associates Gallery, Studio 311) called From Start to Finish, on display until April 7th. Here she is in the show (above) and below are photos of the process of making her. Her name is Rhea-Mother Earth/Raina-Every Woman is an Empress. In the photo above you can see the Mother Earth side of the flip doll. I'll show the other side below. I'm also planning a final exhibit next March (2018) of this flip doll and others I create, along with some of the dolls created by the N Street participants and some flip dolls created by PFAG members and other artists as part of a flip doll challenge (which I will be describing in more detail in future posts.) Stay tuned for this.
If you're in the DC area, you can come see the Torpedo Factory exhibit any day. The Torpedo Factory is open every day from 11 to 6 and on Thursdays until 8. Or come to the reception next Thursday night (March 30th) from 5:30 to 7:30 pm. Two other artists are featured in this show; painter Greenway and jeweler Paulette Warwick.
Below is an article about the process of creating Mother Earth/Empress..
First stage: Mapping out the images and creating a form to work with
Sometimes I start a doll with drawings, sometimes I don't. In this case I started with an idea and then I made drawings as I went along, to imagine next steps.
My original intention was to create a flip doll in response to my recent work with homeless women at N. Street Village. That idea led to a more general idea of our relationship with Mother Earth as women. I wanted a doll that showed the connectedness between women and the earth. In this doll, I decided to show that connection from the veins and arteries of the woman to the roots of the Tree of Life on the Mother Earth side.
In this series of images, you can see my initial sketch of the woman side of the doll. Then I worked out the image with stitching, felting and simple sewing. The two griffin creatures were inspired by images of early Goddess imagery in various cultures, where the Goddess is often depicted between two fantastical creatures such as griffins, peacocks or dragons. They are her guides and protectors.
The second drawing shows how I envisioned the two dolls being connected.
Second stage: Stitching the fantastic beasts and Tree of Life
The images above show the next stage, which involved a lot of stitching. First I sewed an oval shape for the "world" belly of the Earth Mother side of the doll. Then I chose twelve animals to be in that world, sketched them and stitched them. I painted the tree of life and then stitched and embellished it. Then I painted each individual animal and stitched each of them to the panel. I wanted a combination of real and magical creatures. Twelve is a magical number in history and also for me personally.
Third Stage: Mother Earth head
The next stage was creating the head of the Mother Earth side. In creating such a large felted head, I decided to use a center of cheesecloth filled with poly fill. I covered that with core wool (sheep's wool that is combed but has some of the impurities left in it.) Then I added the "skin" of dyed sheep's wool. Then I added features, inspired by an image of a radiant old woman that I found on Pinterest. Then I experimented with hair, deciding on blue wool hair embellished with silk ribbons. Then I added the neck and attached the head to the body.
Fourth stage: Creating patterns and stitching the woman's head and arms and the bodies for the smaller dolls
In this next phase, I started to work on the soft sculpture head and arms for the woman side of the doll. I made patterns for the small dolls, two for the shoulders of each of the dolls. For the woman, I added wool hair and then needle sculpted her facial features. Then I added color with Caran D'Ache oil pastels. I highlighted some details with fabric paint. I experimented with how the dolls were going to sit on the shoulders. First they were going to lie on the shoulders but then I decided to have them sit. For the white dolls' skirts I used lace from a blouse given to me by my mother. My mother chose lace and some other fabrics from five generations of old clothes and other antiques that were stored in her attic.. The woman's blouse is also made from this donated fabric.
Fifth stage: Embellishing the smaller dolls
This next part was a lot of fun. I used some of the fabrics from my mom and also some wonderful fabrics and embellishment details that I got at a store called Artistic Artifacts, in Alexandria, VA to decorate the small dolls. I wanted them to each have an animal on their chests. To decorate the dolls on the woman's shoulder, I stitched animals directly onto the fabric of the dolls chests. Then I embellished them with needle felted details. Then I embellished the arms, added fabric bonnets and stitched simple facial features. For the dolls on the Mother Earth side I sewed some beautiful gold fabric and velvet from Artistic Artifacts. Later I added animals that I had stitched and painted, similar to the ones on Mother Earth's belly. I decided to leave off the faces on the Mother Earth dolls.
Sixth Stage: Final details
In this last stage, I played around with different ways of adding lace to the chest of the woman side of the doll. I embellished Mother Earth's arms with beads and added beads to her chest as well. And I made the animals for the dolls for Mother Earth. I didn't get a photo of this but I decided to add beading and some needle felting to these animals as well. I was working on this up until an hour before installation. There always seems to be something more to do.
Here is a view of the exhibit at the TAG Gallery. On display are also four other of my dolls. Two of them are also flip dolls. One I didn't mention but can be seen in this last image, is entitled Good Habits/Bad Habits. This doll has 21 snaps and on each side, with arms that can be snapped on. It takes 21 days to develop a good habit or get rid of a bad one. This doll is a way to track the process of working on habits.
This is the fourth post in a series of articles about my current project: REVISIONING FLIP DOLLS. I received a Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and as part of this project, I am
working with homeless women at N. Street Village in DC making flip dolls; interviewing professional artists who make flip dolls, and making my own flip dolls. And more... I will be writing about all of these efforts in these pages.
As I've been researching flip dolls, I discovered that there is another type of flip doll or inside out doll, that is constructed differently from the original flip dolls. Instead of flipping from top to bottom, these dolls transform from inside to outside. This article is about an artist I met who makes this kind of doll. Below I will share some resources related to this type of doll, in case you would like to try one.
Above images are of Jihee demonstrating how one of her inside out doll (she calls these works transformables) works. This one is entitled "Womb"
I met with Jihee Kang, back in November of 2016, when she was doing her Post Graduate Residency at the Torpedo Factory. She is a graduate of the Corcoran School of the Arts MFA program. When I met with her in her studio at the Torpedo Factory on the first floor, the room was filled with her whimsical cloth sculpture creations. One wall as you entered the studio, was filled with her piece, Recognize Me Not, three rows of outlined nude figures drawn on canvas, most covering their faces. The rest of the studio was filled with playful animal shapes, figures that moved. Some pieces, such as a gigantic nose with nose hair hanging down from it, invited participation. Visitors to the space could cut pieces of the nose hair short. Jihee sat in the back of the studio, working quietly at her desk. She has an unassuming presence but gives the sense that she shares the humor that many of her pieces radiate. I asked her questions while we sat. Later, she clarified some of the points I had questions about, in an e-mail exchange.
Question: Tell us about yourself. What got you into art/doll making?
Jihee: I was working on the theme of identity, as an artist from Korea. I’m interested in Dualism-I like to see things with dual qualities, Korean and American. I’m American now but have a background in Korea. I like to combine what I experienced in Korea and find similar things here.
As an example-the term bird-brain, English has this word and there is the same term in Korea, same meaning. Then I figured, we live in different cultures but we share the same feelings and emotions, everybody does.
My piece with sushi on one side and goldfish cracker on the other side makes a point about identity. I used the whole body of the fish in the sushi.
Fish-koi fish means long life or to flourish.
Question: What was your experience as a child? Did you play with dolls?
J: When I was a kid my Barbie dolls weren’t normal. I cut their hair and made clothes for them.
Question: What are your artistic influences?
J: Claus Oldenberg-he makes things with strange scale relationships. People look at it and don’t recognize it at first, later get to know the sculpture better and understand it more-I like when you don’t get art at first glance, is it a cup? Not sure. I like to have to think about it.
Doh ho suh-a Korean artist another artistic influence, he uses a lot of fabric and also uses tiny elements to create huge things. He always talks about cultural things and identity. He’s interested in traditional Korean buildings. He lives in the US and London. He grew up in an old traditional Korean house. He made a building out of fabric that he can carry in a suitcase and take anywhere, so that he can comfort himself whenever he feels homesick. His method of construction is to trace every corner of his house and then create elements of the house and the house itself out of fabric, including toilets and doorknobs.
Question: What are the primary materials you use? What media/modality did you use in the past?
J: Right now fabric and sometimes wood to support the fabric are my primary mediums. For fabrics I prefer muslin-unbleached or bleached. Muslin feels like skin to me. It feels so basic, like paper, you can use anything on it and it changes.
Question: What is your process with doll-making? I understand that you don’t necessarily call your work dolls.
J: I get the ideas and I sketch them. Not really defined sketch, just an outline. I decide if it’s going be circular or rectangular. Then I add details while I’m constructing the piece. So it’s really different in the outcome. Then a more defined drawing comes later.
Sometimes make a small version out of paper if I’m making a bigger piece. I make a template out of paper and then start. And then I fix it later and add details.
Question: What are the themes used in your dolls? Is there a political/social statement you want to make?
J: Again, I’m interested in Dualism and identity. Not into so much political issues. My work is more personal. I’m trying to do things that make sense to me. They may not make sense to others. But I hope it makes sense to them like it does to me.
I’m so glad that other people really appreciate my art. I made a piece of a big nose with nose hair that you can trim. People have fun doing this or they are startled or laugh and I want that reaction.
Question: What is your understanding of flip dolls historically?
J: It has dual or more qualities, can be one thing and can turn into something else.
Question: How do you see the role of craft vs art in your work?
J: Hard to answer. I don’t have a good answer for that. I like craft but I feel like if art is in the art world, it isn’t valued the same way. Don’t like that. I want my work to be art but doesn’t mean I don’t like craft.
Question: What symbols/metaphors do you use in your work?
J: The fish, The womb-I’m a woman, I carry a womb. I don’t know if guys relate to this. I use an infinity sign to symbolize that women can bring life into the world. Not guys.
Question: Where are you headed now with your art? with doll making? With flip dolls?
J: I’m going to keep working on the theme of identity and dual qualities. Now that I know about the history of flip dolls I want to try to make different versions of flip dolls.
I mentioned that I plan to do an exhibit of the flip dolls and Jihee said she would like to be a part of the exhibit.
Question: Do you collaborate with other artists? Teach or do workshops? What is your message to students if so?
J: Not a lot of opportunity yet but would love to.
Question: What is your dream project?
J; It’s big. I was thinking of making a doll but not just one, but instead hundreds and thousands of them. The kind of doll that when you push it, it bounces up. With a tongue sticking out and the tongue is sticky. Hundreds and thousands. Like dominos, when someone pushes one doll it sticks to the dolls next to it.
Oh Du Gi in Korean. Toys.
Question: Have you ever experienced creative blocks and if so, what did you do?
J: I feel that all the time. When I’m near the end of a project, I start to feel like I don’t know what to do next. I feel like I’m stuck and the feeling of almost finished feels like what do I do next. Then a few days later I have lots of ideas. I make lots of drawings and writings so I never feel stuck. We need that moment in order to move on. My brain starts working on finding other things very quickly.
Description of her flip piece, above::
“Blue crap, Blue crab” is a visual pun. I often made a mistake speaking homonym words. and one of the pairs of words I have trouble with are crap and crab. So I made both crap and crab as one piece.”
After this interview, Jihee was inspired to make a flip doll. Here is what she said about it:
“I created a flip doll with one side as a knife and meat and the other side is a fork and lettuce.
The fork and lettuce represent vegetarians.
The knife and meat represent meat lovers.
Vegetarian and meat lover are in one body. This means that sometimes people are like reeds shaking. Their minds are whimsical. They become this person and that person to be in favor of themselves.”
This was a fun interview. You can find out more about Jihee on her website, After talking to her, I discovered a book with patterns teaching how to make inside out flip dolls by Laura Wilson. It's called Flip Dolls and Other Toys: That Zip, Stack, Hide, Grab and Go. I'm planning to try making one of these dolls with my husband soon. He's handy with three dimensional thinking. My favorite in the book is her knight that changes into a dragon!
This is the third post in a series of articles about my current project: REVISIONING FLIP DOLLS. I received a Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and as part of this project, I am
– Long Walk to Freedom (1995)
No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’
Why flip dolls?
I’m going to share with you as much as I can of what I have learned about flip dolls so far. It’s been an interesting year or so that I’ve been immersing myself in anything and everything flip doll, since I began the research for the application for the Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild, which I was awarded in June of 2016.
There is no way that I can share everything here. There are many explanations and descriptions of how the dolls came about and that in itself could be the subject of a long article. An unavoidable truth is that one of the origins of flip dolls is in the very ugly past of American slave ownership. This ugliness continued in the aftermath of the slave era, with the stereotyping of black characters such as Aunt Jemima, Mammy and Little Black Sambo (this last was not unique to the U.S. but expanded to England and Europe as well.)
Even though the history of slavery and the oppression of blacks is such a huge topic and really the subject of another article (or book), it’s important enough that I want to include some historical context in this article.
So, why flip dolls? Because they represent such an important part of our multi-cultural history as Americans, both the challenges and the strengths. In doing my research for this project, I have learned a great deal about how flip dolls mirror the history of racism in our culture. My hope is that the material that I present in this series of articles, the work with the homeless women and my own flip dolls go some small way in bringing awareness to some of this history. And that it might also provide an opportunity to find a measure of healing from this past.
And a note: I've done my best to cite sources for any information I have included here and have tried to be as accurate as possible. I apologize for any inaccuracies. Sources are sometimes difficult to find. I would appreciate your bringing any mistakes to my attention.
an example of one of the first topsy turvy pressed face flip dolls by Albert Bruckner, with details of the faces-more about this below
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin: first black/white flip doll characters
My reading took me widely, to a biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life by Joan Hedrick,) author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin where the original flip doll characters, , Eva and Topsy, originated and where the name Topsy-Turvy for flip dolls came from. Some interesting facts from this book: I didn’t know that Beecher Stowe wasn’t initially an abolitionist, but instead sort of fell into writing the book that ended up bringing her most into the public eye. Controversial as her book was, it did raise awareness at the time, of the treatment of slaves and might have helped the cause somewhat. The most interesting thing I learned from the biography was that her biggest concern in writing the UTC book was in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that tried to force whites in the Northern States of America to return escaped slaves to their owners in the South. She hoped that her book would bring awareness of the injustice of this law. Another interesting thing I learned was that she herself, as a Northerner, never visited a Southern slave plantation and wrote the book using her vivid imagination and stories from anyone she could find who could describe life on a plantation to her.
Topsy-Turvy by Horsman, Eva on one side and Topsy on other, circa 1890s as illustrated in Jensen's Collector's Guide to Horsman Dolls Identification and Values 1865-1950, from Debbie Behan Garrett's extensive article about flip dolls
To inform myself more of the context for the original slave-made flip dolls, I read two books, Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory and Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture by Kimberly Wallace Sanders and also had an e-mail exchange with her.
Sanders is a scholar of African American Studies at Emory University. In Mammy, Sanders tracks the use of stereotypical images such as Aunt Jemima and Mammy during the antebellum era. Mammy (a name used for the maternal black woman who took care of white children, first as a slave and then later as a hired help) and these other stereotypical characters were used to whitewash American memory of what the slave era really meant. Her second book is a series of essays that “chart the ways that the simultaneous interrogation of gender, race, and corporeality shape the construction of black female representation.” The essays explore the ways in which depictions of bodies of black women were used to exploit and undervalue them. I highly recommend both of these books if you want to learn more about the interconnected, complicated (and at times very disturbing) history of whites and blacks in the Antebellum South and in our culture in general.
example of Black Mammy/Sothern Belle flip doll from 1950's, cotton, muslin fabrics, yarn, metal rings (on Etsy)-relates to Sander's idea of idealization of the "Mammy" character in Antebellum South. These kinds of dolls were common in the Antebellum South but also became popular in the North and even Europe.
I also read a research paper by Ann Stachowski, entitled “Black Dolls and American Children: Learning what Dark Skin Meant in Antebellum America,” which also references Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Topsy-Turvy doll. Stachowski describes how the topsy-turvy doll, among other black and white dolls, were used as an misplaced educational tool, teaching white children of antebellum America of the white’s superiority over blacks and keeping the black children "in their place." She also describes the emergence of a black middle class in the mid 1800’s in Philadelphia and how Northern blacks began a movement to create black dolls that would inspire and empower their children. These dolls wore the refined clothes as the white middle and upper classes and depicted characters who lived more varied lives. I haven’t yet been to find any depictions of flip dolls that emerged out of these efforts.
Contemporary artists and crafters making Flip Dolls:
I read many, many articles on-line about flip and topsy-turvy dolls and looked at many images of flip dolls. And as you can see in previous articles in this series, I interviewed and am interviewing contemporary artists who create flip dolls. I also found an interest in flip dolls on-line among crafters, including a knitted pattern for a werewolf flip doll (Annie Watts) and an artist who calls herself Southern Belle (Nina Terry), who created a series of “gothic” flip dolls with names such as “mourning doll/ghost doll, poison coffee/poison tea.” The knitted doll was the first time I saw the interesting variation of flipping the doll inside out as opposed to flipping it from top to bottom.
If you look at an earlier post in this series you will find my interview with Judith Scott, included because her Mammy series of beaded figures relates strongly to the theme of how flip dolls originated, even though she doesn’t make traditional flip dolls. My overall interest in undertaking this project was also to subvert and transform the origin of flip dolls into something more inclusive and accepting. I will be publishing more interviews in this flip doll series on this blog.
Annie Watts knitted werewolf topsy turvy doll (left) and Nina Terry Gothic Southern Belle, "Victorian Spiritualism" Tea leaf reader/Lady of Seance and Mourning Bride/Ghost Bride (middle and right)
Evolution of Flip Dolls:
From the original black/white flip doll, the flip doll evolved in content, style and character. These dolls were mass produced and patterns for the dolls were also mass produced. And later, fiber artists created their own version of the doll. In countries such as Barbados and Jamaica flip dolls were created by native women in traditional dress, with different outfits on each side of the doll.
Flip dolls lent themselves well to stories such as Little Red Riding Hood doll, with little red riding hood on one side and the wolf on the other, often with the grandmother on the other side of the wolf’s head. Other stories depicted in flip dolls were Snow White, with Snow White on one side and the dwarves on the other, or Alice in Wonderland or Cinderella. Sometimes the dolls depicted simple opposites. Contrasting awake and asleep dolls were one example. Flip dolls became so popular that many sewing companies offered patterns so that consumers could make their own dolls. From Historical Folk Dolls website: "During the mid 1900s, McCalls, Vogart, Redline and Butterick pattern companies began producing their own Topsy-Turvy Doll patterns. Vogart's pattern in the 1940s was titled, "Topsy and Eva Doll--One doll with two changeabout faces." Redline's pattern in the 1940s was called Topsy and Eva. McCalls' 1940's pattern #1014 was for an "Upside Down Doll," but both dolls were white. Some of these historic patterns are now available as copies." (see below for links to sites that offer flip doll patterns.)
from United Federation of Doll Clubs DVD:
Images of flip doll patterns by Vogart, American Crafts (box and then contents of box-all supplies were included, Simplicity (pattern and then image of doll made from pattern,) and last, an example of a ready made flip doll pattern printed onto fabric, and then doll made from that pattern
And, from New York Historical Society and Museum and Library Teen Historians "The Topsy Turvy Doll: An Upside-Down History", also in the 1940's and '50's, "stores such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Bruckner revitalized the doll by basing their versions off of popular characters, such as those from the story of Red Riding Hood including the wolf, grandmother, and Red herself. The emergence of successful children’s movies, especially Disney’s, increased the number of marketable characters considerably overnight. The simplicity of the stories in many Disney movies directly appealed to the dual nature of the dolls, pitting heroes against their foes and featuring both film’s leading duo. The colorful design of the characters also lent themselves well to dolls and the popularity of the topsy turvy doll soared, completely forgetting its background in slavery."
(left) cloth Red Riding Hood and the Wolf doll, with grandmother on back of the wolf's head, (middle) Topsy Turvy: Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf doll, ca. 1890, Material fur | bisque | cloth, Origin France, Style multi-head, Object ID 78.1016, Strong Museum of Play, from Linda Walsh's doll blog, (right) 1980's Jamaican and Barbados souvenir flip dolls from Behan Garrett's The Definitive Guide to Collecting Black Dolls, p. 40 (2003).
Flip Dolls as a Medium to tell stories and empower women:
I’m in the process of working with women at the N. Street Homeless shelter, teaching them to make flip dolls. I will talk more about these as these projects develop. Over the past couple months I have been bringing flip doll making materials, (many wonderful fabrics and embellishments donated by women in the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild) for every other week sessions at one of the sites at N. Street Village Homeless Shelter. A small but dedicated group of women have been working on flip dolls. We started by making "story skirts," or decorated skirts to tell stories that are important to them.
women at N. Street Village homeless shelter working on flip dolls as part of an on-going workshop. These two women are working on their "story skirts."
Definition and origin of Topsy Turvy or as I’m calling it, flip dolls.
As mentioned above, the first known appearance of flip doll was in 1852 in the American South during the Civil War. This was the-Topsy and Eva doll based on the characters in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin book. (again, New York Historical Society and Museum and Library Teen Historians "The Topsy Turvy Doll: An Upside-Down History" by Hannah Batren) This is the first publicized appearance of the flip doll but clearly the doll already had a presence in the homes of slave owners and slaves. However, possibly because slaves were forbidden to write, there is limited documentation of flip dolls constructed prior to this time.
In one of the best articles on the topic, “Topsy-Turvy a.k.a. Topsy-Turvey, Double Doll, Two-Sided Doll” (in a post in Debbie Behan Garrett's Black Dolls Collecting blog, also mentioned above) Behan Garrett cites one theory that the flip doll, “appeared in the South in the 1800s. These dolls share one body. Each doll’s dress or skirt, when flipped, hides the other doll underneath. It is widely believed that servants made these dolls for their children using dress scraps. The slave child would play with the white side in the absence of the slave master. Upon the slave master’s approach, the child would flip the doll over to the black side to hide the forbidden-to-play-with white doll. Others postulate the dolls were made by slaves for their masters’ children, who were forbidden to play with black dolls. In the absence of their parents, the white child would play with the black doll and flip the doll to the white side upon their parents’ or other disapproving person’s approach.”
Note: Behan Garrett is also author of the book Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting and Experiencing the Passion
Images of early handmade flip dolls from United Federation of Doll Clubs DVD (See link below.) In Antebellum South flour was sold in floral flour sacks. The first three images are of a Topsy and Eva doll with a skirt made out of the floral flour sack cloth. Fourth doll is an 11 inch doll with hand embroidered features. The DVD narration states that this doll may have been owned by a slave girl in the South. She is very well worn.
Another view of the origin of the flip doll comes from author and scholar Kimberly Wallace Sanders, in her book, Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (see above.) She suggests that instead of the flip dolls being forbidden for either the black or white children to play with, “the dolls were made by the mothers of slave girls to socialize young slave girls into their future roles as caretakers and mother substitutes for the children of their white slave owners.” This interpretation seems more likely to me. It also fits because I wonder why the black slave children would be so interested in playing with white dolls. Possible explanations may have been that the white dolls were desired as a novelty or because they were forbidden, or it may have been a wish to feel connected to the culture in power. The answer to this lies only in speculation.
another Bruckner 1901 pressed mold face topsy turvy doll from Dixie Redmond blog.
The source Historical Folk Toys describes how “the authentic Topsy-Turvy doll, features a black doll with a headscarf on one end and a white doll with an antebellum-style dress on the other end. The black doll could represent a maid, slave or servant and the white doll could represent the master's child or the mistress of the house.” The clothing fits with the idea that the original Topsy-Turvy dolls were used to reinforce stereotypical black/white roles in society.
Another unusual theory of the flip doll origin comes from the Strong Museum of Play, whose collection also includes a Bruckner “Topsy-Turvy Two Faced Cloth Doll.” According to their website, “some doll historians think the topsy-turvy evolved from the Pennsylvania Dutch hex doll. The head of a man at one end cured warts. The other end, with a head of a pig, cast spells.”
Image from United Federation of Doll Clubs DVD (see link below) Narration in the DVD states: The Pennsylvania hex doll had heads of kid leather. The pig’s head cures warts and other human ailments. The human head casts spells on a neighbor’s horse or crops. Dewitt Burton[sp] patented a multihead doll in 1899. Some of these dolls were intended to be magical objects Quote is from Debbie Behan Garrett's transcription of the DVD.
Were flip dolls first made in Africa?
Questions abound. In some of the readings, it is speculated that African women might have created flip dolls for their children before being captured and sold as slaves in America. I haven’t been able to find any documentation of this but with the wide variety of creative toys and dolls created in Africa such as the Nbedele dolls (see below) or others, this is quite possible.
South African Ndebele Beaded Dolls, traditionally used in courtship rituals to ensure a strong marriage and fertility. In modern times they have become a way of honoring ancestral traditions and are a major export item for Ndebele women’s artists cooperatives. Lindo Collection. from Dolls: Collection, Stories, Traditions, Exhibit at the Sargent Johnson Gallery in the African American Art & Culture Complex, San Francisco, curated by Nashormeh Lindo.
Materials used in flip doll construction:
Early flip dolls by slave women were created out of any material they could find, mostly scraps of cloth attached to bones, a gourd or a broom, from the mid-1800’s to the early part of 1900. In the beginning of 1900, as the dolls began to gain in popularity and become mass produced, their faces were printed, using lithographed faces on cloth. The bodies were still made of cloth, but later dolls appeared with wooden bodies and jointed arms. In the mid 1900’s patterns for topsy-turvy or flip dolls began to make their appearance. These dolls were made of cloth with soft bodies and cloth faces. Some paper doll patterns were also offered.
In her article, Black is Beautiful: Why Black Dolls Matter, Lisa Hix quotes Debra Britt (founder with her four sisters of the National Black Doll Museum in Mansfield, MA) about the early materials slaves used to create dolls, including flip dolls. “Slaves living and working in the main plantation house were more likely to have access to high-quality scraps for doll-making, but slaves working the field would have to be more creative when it came to materials. They would make dolls from whatever they had, whether it be the bones of a chicken, a nut, a cornhusk, an empty gourd, a mop, a broom, or a black nipple from a baby bottle, after the baby had grown.” As Britt describes above, early flip dolls were made with all sorts of scraps, including scraps of cloth, combined with whatever could be found. Note: I wonder about the nipple from a baby bottle idea, since this was the material for some of the stereotyping dolls created in the antebellum era, with black Mammy dolls that had nipples from baby bottles as heads. To me, it seems doubtful that slave women would use this as a material, but again, much of this is speculation.
Image below from "Black is Beautiful: Why Black Dolls Matter" by Lisa Hix of A 1920s Mammy doll, made from a black rubber bottle nipple. Via Stonegate Antiques. While not a flip doll, this Mammy doll represents themes also depicted in flip dolls and is characteristic of the ante-bellum dolls that stereotyped the idea of an idealized black Mammy who dedicates her life to caring for her white charges. See this article for more interesting information about the context within which the black white dolls appear and also the evolution of black dolls in America.
More about materials for flip doll construction (and yet another radical theory of the meaning of flip dolls during the Civil War era in the American South):
An interesting perspective on the materials used in the earliest flip dolls(and another theory about why slave women in the American South made flip dolls) comes from Robin Bernstein in her book, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, (pp 88-91). She makes the point that slave women could have used wood to make the flip dolls, given the availability of the material. She claims that making the flip dolls with soft cloth bodies was a deliberate choice that had two aims. For the black children playing with these dolls, the author saw the soft body as a way of giving the young slave girls, “an opportunity to own and have complete power over a representation of a white girl.” And if the slave woman made the doll for a white child, “the African American doll maker sent that child to bed with a sign of systematic rapes committed by members of that child’s race, if not that child’s specific family. She tucked beneath that child’s blanket-which she may have washed-a sign of that child’s enslaved half sibling, either literal or symbolic.” She goes on to point out that by making this doll cuddly, the slave woman created an ironic situation in which the white child is snuggling with a toy while her slave-owning parents look on, while neither perceive the hidden meanings of this doll, making it a sort of Trojan horse of black resistance.
In Historical Folk Toys the evolution of mass produced flip dolls is described. “Black and White Topsy-Turvy dolls began to be mass manufactured after 1900. One of these dolls made in 1901 was purchased with the advertisement: "Turn me up and turn me back, first I'm white, and then I'm black." The Horseman Company produced “the Babyland Rag Doll series including a Topsy-Turvy doll, designed by Albert Brückner, with a hand painted face in 1901. Later, wooden Topsy-Turvy dolls were made with jointed arms.” Albert Brückner manufactured cloth mask faced dolls from 1901-1930. He was by trade a lithographer. While watching a friend work on a rag doll, he conceived the idea of embossing the features onto cloth with a (pressed) mask. He patented the idea in 1901 and established a full line of rag dolls using this method. The mask was printed on sateen or muslin fabric or bisque clay.
If you've made it this far in this article, you may be interested in exploring flip dolls further by making your own. There are myriad resources out there on line and I have included some of them here to get you started. I can't vouch for the quality of the videos but this is a start.
Here are some links to flip doll instructional videos and flip doll patterns:
Flip Doll Patterns and videos with instruction on flip doll construction:
Video: How to make a topsy turvy doll
Video #2: How to make a topsy turvy doll, all steps
Video #3: How to make a topsy turvy doll
Cloth Doll Supply company link to vintage flip doll patterns
Gail's Doll patterns link to more vintage flip doll patterns
and another website to explore with more links to articles, patterns etc, is Linda Walsh Originals topsy turvy article
A Challenge: Make Your Own Flip Doll!
A challege to all PFAG members and anyone else who would like to try this. Make your own flip doll. Along with the flip doll grant, I’m sending out a challenge to fiber artists (and artists in other media who might be interested) to create your own flip doll.
For ideas, see the gallery page on my website and refer to photos, resources and links in this article. You can also Google flip dolls or topsy turvy dolls. There are many resources out there.
For a theme, think of opposites but make it personal if you want. For example, a sun or moon goddess, day vs night. Use your imagination.
I'll be posting more about this. My hope is to host an exhibit of flip dolls at some point next year, including ones I have made, ones made by the participants in my flip doll workshops at N. Street Village and those who respond to this challenge. I would love to hear from you, especially if you are interested in trying to make your own doll. Please contact me here if you would like more information or if you would like to be part of a possible exhibit.
United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc (UFDC) DVD. This DVD program features numerous variations of the Topsy Turvy dolls ranging from home made to commercially produced. It includes 80 images featuring dolls from the late 19th century through the 20th century.
Here is a link to the page where you can buy a copy of this DVD if you are interested in a brief slide show history of flip dolls.
This is the second post in a series of articles about my current project: REVISIONING FLIP DOLLS. I received a Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and as part of this project, I am
11/ 27/16 NOTE: A couple of corrections from Ellen: "my granddaughter is NOT adopted! she is my daughter's natural child. It's my sister's kids who are from Korea.
Thank you to Carol Brobst, who introduced me on-line to Ellen Tepper http://www.ellentepper.com/about.htm. Carol is a member of PFAG and is herself a fiber artist (www.ambrosianfiberarts.com) and also a harpist, like Ellen Tepper. And thank you to the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild, whose Conant Grant helped make it possible for me to do this project.
Background and introduction:
Tepper is primarily a harpist and early music performer. I met her through PFAG member, Carol Brobst. The interview was conducted over the phone in two sessions. She talked about her loves of music and art and finding a balance between the two demanding pursuits, especially for one who is a perfectionist as she is. Tepper plays multiple instruments and creates art in a wide range of media, including embroidery, doll making, quilting and painting on glass. Ellen told me she is about to publish a book of rounds for harpists, part of a series called The Harpers Accomplice Plays the Round. She wrote the book and the music and also illustrated it with “part art and part cartoon.”
Tepper thinks of herself primarily as a musician. She told me that she started making dolls as a sort of relief from the challenges of practicing and performing music. Her first dolls were music related. In 1997 she made a 1799 historic harpist doll including the harp. She was interested in that specific historical period in making her dolls. She used sculpey clay. She also got interested in making what she called “lounge lizards” playing early instruments.
Her earlier influences were a childhood in Austria, where she was more interested in making doll clothes than playing with her dolls. She got her embroidery skills from her dad, and sewing skills from her mom. When Tepper was small, her dad had to stay in bed with a prolapsed lung-and teaching himself to knit, knitted a green sweater. Having learned embroidery from his mother, he taught his daughter the lazy daisy and French knot stitches. Tepper’s mother is a German refugee and her father’s parents are from Slovakia. The family lived in Austria for the early years of her life. She learned to play the harp when she was eight years old, also in Austria.
Before Tepper started to make dolls, she used to make embroidery, entering in embroidery competitions. One of Tepper’s first dolls was a portrait of a historic harp restorer whom she worked with. She used steel wool to depict his grey hair, plastic for his eyes and dressed the doll all in leather. She made the doll a historic pedal harp with tools and a bag and put it all in a presentation box lined with satin. She says he has this doll at home now and “thinks it’s a bit creepy.”
Start with flip dolls
Tepper became especially interested in the medium of flip dolls as a way of supporting her daughter who as a white woman, had just adopted a black girl. This first black/white flip doll for her granddaughter was meant to be played with, so it was important that the doll be strong and sturdy. She also wanted to make sure that the clothes could be removed and put back on easily.
She learned to make doll faces from a book by Maureen Carlson who teaches a method of making doll heads out of clay in a sort of caricature style. After exploring working with various self or oven hardening clays, she at first determined that Fimo clay was the strongest and worked best, especially when the dolls were meant to be played with. More recently she found a kind of clay called Living Doll, a super sculpey, that comes in Caucasian flesh color. She pre-baking the eyeballs all at once, marks the eyes, then constructs the face around that. She then adds the more solid smaller features to the dolls
To make the flip dolls, Tepper first stitches two permanently attached underskirts and then creates two separate outside dresses, one for each side of the doll. The skirt is made from a fabric circle with the opening to the skirt in the center. Then the pattern is built up with a series of triangles. The body is made on a wire armature with tin foil. She bakes the parts of the doll in successive bakes, first the armature, then the face, which she paints with real make up before she bakes it, then finally hair.
She likes to use old clothes such as cast off shirts, especially collars and side seams or pre-gathered hems so that the skirts don’t need to be stitched from scratch. She gets supplies such as buttons, snaps, borders and cuffs from second hand stores.
Purpose of flip dolls for Tepper:
Tepper uses the flip dolls to represent mothers and daughters who are of different races as a way to show how they are connected to each other. She is interested in the possibilities of representing ethnicities in her flip dolls, particularly between mothers with daughters of mixed ethnicity. Her next flip doll is for a niece adopted from Korea. She has a fascination with recombinant families.
Fine art vs Craft:
She says it all depends on the medium. She sees embroidery as fine art and dolls as craft. She sees painting as art. She likes elevating one into the other, like taking early music or Irish folk music and playing it as if it’s classical.
Symbols in doll making:
She once made dolls as totems, for instance creating a “Princess Bra Bra doll”, when her sister had breast cancer. She made bodies out of old bras, tiaras made of hooks and eyes and various bits of the bra as clothing. At another time she created lots of cookware, frying pans and spatulas for a “Giant lizard cook” as a gift for a cook friend. She made early music instruments for the Lounge lizard, later giving them more modern instruments. She’s inspired the positions that the bodies of musicians get into when they play.
Some more questions:
Does your personal experience come into doll making?
“Probably but hard to say. When I’m making art I’m thinking of music. When I’m making music I’m always thinking of art. It’s a tug or war but also they’re also mutually supportive.
When I get up in the morning, not what am I going to do but what medium I’m going to use.”
Where are you headed now with doll making?
“I want to make that have four or five heads. I’m also waiting to meet with my niece to get the Asian face right. Making dolls makes me look more carefully at people’s faces. It’s seasonal for me. I tend to make visual things in the summer and do more music in the summer.”
Do you collaborate with other artists?
“I collaborate musically. But artistically I tend to be solitary. I used to do things with my sibling, my brother. We used to make things together. I once went with my brother to a friend’s house and overnight we made a room sized foot out of papier mache. I would enjoy working with the community to make a quilt. But mostly I like absolute control of a project.”
What advice do you have for working with homeless women making flip dolls?
“I would like to do that project too. They could do flip doll of what they wish they were or where they want to get to, as opposed to where they were, the worst part. A caricature of the really bad and the really good could be inspiring.
I’d also suggest the idea of using recycled materials. Old windows, old bras. buttons and button holes.”
What’s your dream project?
“I made my own unicorn tapestry as a teen-ager… I used to dream of a gallery show where all the art is mine but I could also play my harp at it.
Another gallery might be interested in my paintings on glass where I work in an opposite way. ‘Windows’ is the name of the project. I paint from the back and think backwards, doing finishing touches first.
Or a dream job would be three clones of myself and we could play trios.
I’ve made a lot of pictures where I’m the model, for instance a cartoon of sequential harpists pulling harps behind them on a skate board, with the harps and skate boards sequentially getting smaller.”
Have you ever had a creative block and what did you do then?
“I go dancing. I’ve had a lot of blocks. I had one recently. It’s like a post partum thing that happens. A piece of art is done and you don’t know what to do with yourself.
Once I was blocked physically, with tendonitis. All my regular avenues to make myself feel better were closed. I read a lot, drank a lot and got a really good tan.
It’s scary to be blocked. Making art is Important for my emotional well being. I used to call myself ‘compulsively creative.’ And art is also a source of money. But I believe if there are too many irons-you need a bigger fire. If there’s too much on your plate, get a bigger plate. “
“The need for perfection in art comes from being in embroidery competitions where if something is frayed, it’s judged as imperfect. In music it’s perfection first, then emotion.”
Tepper is very self disciplined, if there’s a music deadline, she cleans out her house of art projects and won’t do art. “For music you have to practice over and over again to achieve perfection. Being an artist balances the invisibility of being a musician. You only do that art once, but music is over and over.”
She says “try to teach art or music to someone else to learn better.” Again, if you would like to learn more about Tepper and her music, here is here website. http://www.ellentepper.com/about.htm. Some of her art can be found on her Facebook page. This is one of the first times she has shown her flip dolls publicly. I am honored to have had this chance to get to know her and her dolls better.
Over the next year, I plan to post about my current project: REVISIONING FLIP DOLLS. I received a Conant Grant from the Potomac Fiber Arts Guild and as part of this project, I am: working with homeless womem at N. Street Village in DC making flip dolls; interviewing professional artists who make flip dolls, and making my own flip dolls. And more... I will be writing about all of these efforts in these pages. So stay tuned.....
Special Feature this month:
Interview with last month's MacArthur Grant winner, Joyce J. Scott:
As a part of my project Revisioning Flip Dolls I am interviewing a series of professional artists who make flip dolls or whose work is similar thematically or stylistically to the flip doll. Flip or Topsy-turvy dolls are two-sided dolls connected in the middle at the waist, and separated by a skirt, which flips over to cover one side when the other side is revealed. My first interview, two phone conversations back in April of 2016, was with renowned multimedia artist, (weaving, printmaking, quilting, beadwork, and more recently, performance and installation art.) Joyce J. Scott. I heard about Scott from a fellow fiber artist, Julie Booth and also from Kimberly Wallace Sanders, whose books (Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory, Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture) I also read as part of this research. Scott has exhibited widely and won multiple grants and has also taught at many prestigious art centers throughout the world. Her work is in places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian. Recently she won the 2016 Maryland Baker Artist award. I just discovered that she won the MacArthur Genius award this September 2016.
Here are links to two recent articles in the Baltimore Sun:
Joyce Scott profile
Joyce Scott winds MacArthur genius grant
She very graciously took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me, and for this I am very grateful.
From protesting against injustice and inequality to her creative process
The interview with Scott took place over two phone calls. In the first, we talked about the Nanny series and about flip dolls. In the second we addressed a wide range of topics, including Scott’s current focus. We started with the personal story of her own mother’s experiences of racism when she worked as a caregiver for white families, and then Scott’s motivation to speak out in her work against injustice and inequality, whether it be racial, social or gender based. We also talked about her interest in collaboration, giving back to her own community, and to communities in other countries in her extensive travels. We talked about the creative process, the importance of artistic media as inspiration, how she approaches her work and what motivates her.
Scott’s work deals with far ranging issues but the impact of her work is personal and intimate. This directness and at times provocativeness, came up in our discussion, reminding me that it is the personal aspect of politics that has the most power.
Scott’s origins, her quilt-making mother
Joyce Scott doesn’t make flip dolls per se and doesn’t call what she makes dolls, but some early beaded figures (1980’s-90’s) from her Mammy/Nanny series, are strongly related to the theme of flip dolls. In this series, a tall black woman holds a tiny white child and a small black child lies neglected off to the side. This series, Scott has described elsewhere, is a reflection back to her own mother’s experience of being a child-care provider when Scott was a child in Baltimore. Her mother was born in 1916, in South Carolina, and had worked in the fields picking cotton. She moved to Baltimore in 1940, working in factories, and later as a child-care provider for white families. Scott’s mother is herself a renowned quilt-maker and sewing and craftwork were a constant in spite of her busy life. Scott remembers feeling neglected by her mother’s need to spend long hours caring for these children who as they grew insulted her mother. The Nanny series of figures reflect this sense of neglect as well as the strength and power of the black nanny, who remained strong in spite of the way she was treated.
How is Scott’s work connected to flip dolls?
The depiction of the relationship between a black caretaker and a white child has an obvious connection to the early flip dolls in which black and white dolls alternate on each side of the doll. I have read various explanations for the meaning of the black white flip doll, but the one that makes the most sense to me is the explanation that slave mothers made these dolls to help their daughters cope with an intolerable situation. The dolls also represent the interconnectedness between white slave owners and the slaves, where in spite of the outward power differential, the black slave caretakers often held a powerful role of intimacy and influence over their white charges.
Scott’s insight into flip dolls
During our first conversation about flip dolls. Scott told me that coincidentally she had just given someone a flip doll as a gift, not her own creation. I asked Scott her take on the meaning of black-white flip dolls, mentioning a quote I had read recently: “Long past their prime as playthings, topsy-turvy dolls continue to ignite discussion in large part because they resist being squarely fixed to one meaning-instead they flip back and forth between ideas that conflict even as they coexist.” by performance artist Cori Spenser in an article by K. Tait Jarboe in The Atlantic.
Scott had addressed these contradictions, first on a personal level in her Nanny series. The works “speak to the fact that this woman who was everything except a wet nurse had such a role in the family’s life but was then poorly treated…how can you be mean to her and disrespect her but entrust her with the care of your own beloved child? The Nanny series speaks to the humanity of the servant in having to embody these contradictions. Of course some of the nannies weren’t nice but most were nice, took care of children as children. When the black caretakers own child believes that the nanny is showing more love, whether or not this is true, what choice did the mother have?”
Also, speaking to the contradictions in the lives of slaves and white slave owners that these early black/white flip dolls were based on, Scott talked about: “the blackness of white women and whiteness of black women-many white women were closer to slaves than to other white women. Isolated, the person they saw every day was the slave. The white women spoke more similarly to the slaves and couldn’t read or write, except verses from the bible-so the women who owned the slaves were sometimes also ‘black’ in that they were close, whereas the slave girls were often ‘white’ from white slave owners sleeping with their slaves….”
She said the two-sided doll, “represents a scale-weighing justice, what justice holds. It changes each time you weigh it. What weights the most often has the least value.” She also said that the “flip doll is also about pulling up skirts and seeing hidden/nether/dark parts.” In my experience of making flip dolls, I have to find a way for each side to weigh the same so that it can hang evenly. To me, the flip doll is about finding a way to give equal weight to each side. And the nether parts comment is something I can relate to as well in my work, the balance between light and dark, good and evil, opposites of all types and the need to find wholeness or equilibrium.
Our second conversation was more wide-ranging and I reproduce it here as a conversation:
First Scott apologized for not being able to speak to me the first couple of times I called. “Every time I turned there was something different, always important-had to finish an art work, beaded piece I’m working on is 46” x 31 ½” good enough to show. Took a couple years to make.”
Erika Cleveland: I notice a theme of interconnected/intertwined bodies in much of your work, in the Mammy series and in many of your figurative beaded jewelry pieces and the works of beaded figures on glass.
Joyce Scott: Sure for some of the pieces there is a meaning to this. But mostly it’s a conceit, a design that I like to work with.
EC: not so much a metaphor?
JS: don’t know if it is, depends on each piece. Things are just designed and feel good to make that way and other things, directly relate to whatever the concept was. So what I’m saying is that I’m not locked into anything. Each piece asks me to do something different.
EC: do you start from the medium or is it the theme or is it both ways?
JS. Each piece, it’s different, and that’s one of the great things about me going into the studio. I may just go in and fiddle around. I may have something that’s been bugging me for a long time. Or I might just sit there and look stupid and just keep messing around until something happens. I really seldom have that kind of direction unless I’ve already made a piece…a piece where I hadn’t finished what I had to say. That’s kind of how a series happens. Each one asks the other and tells me a story that extends the original concept.
EC: Some does come from personal experience, as in the “Mammy dolls”
JS: That one did come from my mother….
EC: …personal stories,
JS: I don’t know how that’s not true for any artist, any art form. Some things happen from the broader story, but smidges in there can really shed light, like …I hear Prince-and might sing a Prince song, you know what I mean?
EC: culture, own history or more global, universal…
JS: …world culture, I’m influenced a lot by pop culture, what’s popping right now… also as an African American woman how black culture has if not insinuated, definitely directed a lot of things that are popping around the world and it comes out of that culture. I just watched a 2016 World street dancing competition and not one African American, they were Asians and Europeans, but that started with us. We have influenced a lot, certainly music, a lot of pop stuff.
And also, I’m old enough to remember the 60’s and 70’s and a lot of that social concern started with, we were in this giant…the way we did things like Black power, it started things for a lot of other people like Hawaiians, people of color in other countries. Indigenous Hawaiians were doing things like black power and certainly people further in the Pacific like New Guinea and Australia, it comes out of this…Wait, Don’t think that I’m saying that we’re the only group that does that. But that’s who I am so I can see it clearly.
EC: the only way that makes sense is to start from who you are.
Can we talk more about medium and materials?
JS: I started with weaving. I’ve always done beadwork but worked on looms, crochet. I started as a fiber artist, those are things my mom did. A lot of textile motivated and oriented my work. Loved that feel and loved that it was something I could wear and sleep under or make something else out of, great for me to walk on. But I became challenged by translucency and the idea of light moving through something and it was very different with textiles where light would be absorbed or bounce off the surface.
EC: when did that start? Your interest in translucency.
JS: Hippie days. I wanted to be a hippie. 70’s. When I was first inspired by translucency. But when I first started doing residencies or teaching or hanging out at different art or craft schools like Penland and Haystack. By that time I was either watching what was happening in glass studios or I was also working in glass studios.
Also at Haystack in 1976 learned the peyote stitch or … it’s also called diagonal weaving, in Maine and that changed everything for me as a beader because before that as a weaver I was on a loom or sewing into fabric and this peyote stitch allowed me to do needle, thread and bead and had the luxury of being as inventive and improvisational as I wanted to be. I wasn’t bound to anything. No loom. No fabric. That’s the way I think. I see now that it wasn’t a struggle. It was a smart progression or evolution from one form of fabric or thread into another. But this thread having beads on it.
EC: did that take you to 3D?
JS: no was always doing 3D. when I was doing fiber I was doing 3D fiber.
EC: peyote stitch was a technical freedom.
JS: Yes, it allowed me to do the kinds of things that I do. It also allowed me to apply the things to something else like the Mammies and the glasswork that I’m doing. It was the language that I should be speaking. Does that make sense? …truly my language that I am most fluent in.
EC: a lot of sense. What are your influences? Did other women artists influence you?
JS: Really the usual suspects, of course I studied them at art school etc. But it was more culture. More my traveling and being with the Guatemalans and going to market with them…watching how they dress. Being with the Kunas in San Blas Islands. I did that. Remember that was hippie times too so that’s what you did. You stay and immerse yourself as an anthropologist or archeologist. That’s what you’d say to yourself but you just wanted to hang out. And it was the liberty to go places and know you had complete freedom though sometimes there was also the danger. Like couldn’t go to Guatemala because the revolution was about to happen. They were about to have a coup and that was about to happen, in about two years. And I went to Cuba-certain places, in the 70’s early 80’s. It wasn’t what it will be in the next two years. Soviet Union was still there. So all I can say is all of that for me is what propelled me to be making art the way I make it. Always had great liberty in what I do.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with the status quo, don’t like when someone is hanging something (shit) on me, unless I have something to do with the status quo. If someone is expecting me to submit, that’s probably not what I’m going to do. If I had some part in it, then I’d be happy to…
EC: Tell me about collaborations? with other cultures?
JS: They’re teaching me or I’m teaching them, that’s the way of collaboration. I sang in a rock band for two years after I graduated. That’s a form of collaboration. The whole life thing is like that.
For example, I and five other people went to South Africa two years ago. We went for almost a year. We went specifically to just bum rush and make beadwork with people and show them our stuff and they showed us theirs. I mean we did it on people’s dining room tables. Literally. That was wonderful. And we weren’t subsidized by anybody. We went because you can actually do that with, this really über-global consciousness we have now. It’s all much more expensive than when I was younger but you really do have the opportunity to do that.
EC; Please talk about the provocative nature of your work.
JS: You know. Everybody’s got the idea of what’s provocative. Some people tell me I don’t have the filters you should have and I tell them where can I get the filter? Is it in a filter store?
EC: Are you talking about freedom?
JS: Provocative means if I believe that this is my best voice as a visual artist/performing artist. then I’m going to talk about the same thing that you would talk about. If you’re pissed off about politics or at least in pursuit of some knowledge, then you’d talk about it your way. Well this is my way. One of the biggest fights we have is about ethnic prejudices or racism, I’m always going to be talking about it.
I’m always going to be talking about misogyny and how those tentacles are in race and class and that’s just what I’m going to do. And it’s very tiring. I get tired of it too. The world doesn’t seem to change. I am completely for Harriet Tubman on the 20 dollar bill, (this was just in the news as we spoke)and she will be a fount for other people to draw from but I don’t know what it will change. You could not change it into two tens. Only reason that happened was because people kept yelling about it. I’m not a martyr. I’m not going to set things on fire. I’m not a marcher. But I hope through my art and my performance that I have the ability to…
EC: You already sort of answered this question but what are the obstacles you still see? What are you still fighting against?
JS: I’m fighting what everybody else is. I live my life like everybody else does and so consequently and I live in a challenged community. First I live in Baltimore but secondly I live around the corner from where the CVS was set alight (last year during the riots after the police trials related to their abusive treatment which led to the death of Freddy Grey.) So every day I see what happens. And every day I not only see people selling drugs but I also see those people working very hard to make life good for them and for their children. It’s the same struggle and the same fight. So we as humans gain. I don’t see how it will be that different. Our tools will be different. But we’re evolving tools that make it easier or harder but we as humans? I don’t know.
EC: What’s on the horizon?
JS: I’m going to keep doing this large piece I told you about. It’s taken me back to beadwork. I’ve been doing a lot of glass and beadwork and I want to keep working on painting and doing print and that’s something I haven’t done truly in earnest. I’d really like to do that. The other thing is that I am an artist in residence at an art program called Motor House http://motorhousebaltimore.com in Baltimore. The ‘geezer in residence” They give me a stipend and a studio. I don’t want people in the house, so instead of that I’ll be able to have people in the studio doing different things. I’ve already set up projects with folks so I’ll be able to extend what I have, knowledge to others and they’ll have a safe place to create as well.
EC: Can you speak about aging process. Do you think about that? We have our limited life.
JS: It took so long to get to the phone. The studio’s on the third floor and what I think about all the time is if it gets too hard to get to the third floor, then I’ll bring the stuff to the second or first floor. The question is will I have enough time to create all the things that keep popping into my head that I think are worthy. That’s what I’m wondering.
I wonder how I can make it. And then, Stephen Hawking, I look at him and he does it with a computer and I guess I could do that. I don’t think I’ll be stymied by my age ever unless I go where my mom went which was dementia. As long as I can walk or be pushed around, that’s what I’m going to do.
EC Incredibly inspiring. Thank you.
JS Go on youtube, see the music too.
EC. Thank you.
I've been making dolls for about five years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am exited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!