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The Power of Dolls and Doll-making:
What do you think of when you think of the word doll? I know for me, there is something infinitely comforting in the memory of the “Sasha doll” I had as a young 6th and 7th grader living in Brooklyn, New York. My doll’s name was Monique, named after my best friend at the time. The cool thing was that my doll had sort of in-between color skin, so she could have been any of a number of races. My doll had light coffee colored skin just like my half Indian/half Swedish friend Monique.
Monique and I played with these dolls, making them do whatever we wanted them to. Along with imaginary play that also involved paper dolls, drawn and written stories and imaginary games, the dolls inhabited a world where we were the absolute creators and guides. A fantastic, powerful adventure world of our own.
My two sisters would have nothing to do with dolls (though they did participate in some of the play.) One preferred stuffed animals and the other preferred being with her friends. What does that say about them? What does that say about me? Does it matter? The point is; there is a great evocative power, even in the word doll. Maybe you feel that too.
Dolls are often they are relegated to the secondary place of children’s toy or outmoded symbol of the over feminization of little girl’s training to be mommies and wives. Maybe if you looked at our play from the outside, you would think that is what our play was about, yet as Monique and I knew as kids, dolls are so much more. For us, they were about an exploration of identity, of our friendship, including our similarities and differences, and where we are in the world.
As a doll maker and healing artist, I like to think back on the ancestors of the dolls I create now and the ancestors of the healing artist I identify myself as now. I like to imagine a Native American child using a corn husk to create a companion for herself or an Inuit girl receiving a simple doll carved out of bone that she could carry with her on cold, dark winter nights. Or the German bisque dolls with realistic faces and lacy clothes that might have been collected by girls and women of the mid 1800’s.
But the more likely ancestors of the dolls I create now, might be the spirit dolls created by Shamen from Northern Asia, pre-Christian Europe or Native American culture, made of cloth and filled with animal skins, bones, grasses or straw, herbs and other ingredients from nature that were believed to have healing properties. There is a thread between these potent creations and the Sasha dolls that Monique and I embodied with our own powers, that carries on in the dolls I make and share today.
I'm going to be posting here from time to time about the history of dolls. What I look at as the ancestors of the dolls I create now. And my doll making predecessors as well. Here is the first entry...
Post Number I: Domestic world: Children’s play and dolls used for teaching
Dolls exist in almost any human culture in the world and have been documented to be the oldest form of toy. From the simplest ear of corn that was used by farming communities to symbolize a doll companion to the most complicated of Victorian dolls full of lace and curls, humans have always found a need to make small representations of themselves.
Usually dolls were made for the little girls in the family. Sometimes the mothers would make the dolls, such as in the early days in America, when small leftover scraps of fabric and wool were used to make simple, often faceless dolls for their children. Sometimes the fathers, after carving furniture or boats out of wood, carved dolls for their children. Sometimes the girls themselves would make the dolls from any materials at hand.
I remember the pleasure I felt as a child while playing in our tiny concrete “back yard” in Brooklyn Heights, in making tiny acorn-hatted fairy creatures out of sticks or leaves with materials gathered from the neighbors yard just over the fence. My mother, originally from Germany, would tell my sisters and I stories about fairy creatures that populated the woods in German and Scandinavian folklore.
Dolls were used in early times as teaching tools. Little girls mostly but also little boys learned about their roles in the family structure. In addition to hearing the European fairy tales from my mother, we also learned about dolls in much of the literature popular at the time. In the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, with their daring wilderness survival tales, the main character sports a simple doll that serves as a confidante and companion in a life also full of hardship and loneliness. The Little Princess. Little Women. All these books featured the dolls of the main characters. The boys had their action figures.
I remember how real my dolls felt and in the early days when I could still get my sisters to play dolls with me, how much fun it was to “play school” with them and to take the dolls on adventures. And as I mentioned, the Sasha doll, with its interracial features and skin color, was a way to communicate with my best friend, to share our dreams with and to expand our imaginations.
At a recent panel of writers who spoke about the dolls that influenced their writing, author Yona Zendis McDonough spoke of the inspiration for her children’s book, “The Yellow Star.” She was given a doll by doll artist Trudi Strobel, who was inspired to create dolls by a therapist, as a way of recreating the German bisque doll she had had to give up to a Nazi guard many years ago. Strobel’s dolls recreated the restrictive clothing forced upon Jewish people during regimes throughout history, many wearing yellow stars. Strobel, in recreating this early doll, was able to reconnect with the way in which her doll provided one of the few sources of comfort in a very difficult time.
Dolls were a source of comfort to slave children in early America, and were made of rags. While African dolls were mostly used for religious and spiritual purposes, they were also passed on from mother to daughter and served in fertility rituals. The Innu of Northern Canada provided young girls with tea dolls, filled with tea for long journeys. In parts of Latin America, “la ultima muneca” is the last doll given at the time of the Quinceaneara, or celebration of the girl’s 15th birthday, the last time she will play with a doll. Of course in American society now, the age for the last doll would be much earlier.
As a child, I was forbidden to play with the ubiquitous “Barbie” dolls because my mother thought she was too adult looking and was thus not appropriate. Barbie dolls in a way represent the changes in women’s roles over the last 50 or so years. No longer only a beauty queen or Ken’s girlfriend, Barbie had been depicted performing almost any kind of job imaginable. Personally I never really liked Barbie dolls, but oh well. As I kid, I think I preferred those acorn hatted dolls that we made ourselves. They left a lot more room for the imagination.
I've been making dolls for about ten years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am excited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!