Rosehip, Brennesle and Evie, ….. or How I became a Doll Artist

Evie, Rosehip and Brennesle
Evie, Rosehip and Brennesle

I have posted about these three before but I suspect I may have written something quite boring and short as the blog was still a bit of a blank canvas at that stage and as anyone who has ever tried to create anything on a black canvas will tell you, blank canvases can either be inspiring or they can freeze your brain until it can only squeeze out banal mutterings.   At that particular time it I am pretty sure I was only able to manage banal mutterings, and short banal mutterings at that.

Also, at that stage, I had no idea whatsoever of what anyone would think of my dolls and creatures because almost no one had seen them.  I’d been keeping them a secret from everyone except my closest friends and some people who’d wandered into a group show in a gallery in Oslo.

You see, making dolls and creatures and puppets and figures has always been a part of my life, always, since as early as I can remember, but until last year, I had never taken them seriously.

I made figures and creatures all the time, out of whatever was lying around.  I always had done.  In every design or teaching project I worked on there would be a little figure or animal somewhere in a sketchbook or corner of my desk that I’d made from left over fabric or blu-tac or paper or whatever and I would almost never show them to anyone.  Ever.  Because as far as I was concerned making wee characters was just something I did, not something that I could actually do as a real job.

I’d trained as a fashion and textile designer.  I’d worked all over the place being a serious, grown up designer, who made serious, grown up work and these wee dudes on my desk made out of paper clips, bits of lace and copper wire were not serious or grown up.  But the serious, grown up work just wasn’t cutting it anymore.  I was tired, I was bored and I was at a dead end.   I also had a lot of time on my hands and a dark Norwegian winter ahead of me.  I’d asked myself over and over for almost a year “What do I want to do with my life?” .

By the time I’d got to my thirties I’d lost focus on the career I’d strived for in my twenties and realised that I’d invested my time and creativity into something I no longer had faith or much interest in.  But what else?

Dolls.

I continued to teach and more often than not, my students’ passion for their subject was more confirmation that what I was doing was not what I should be doing because as much as I loved the subject, I just didn’t have their same love of actually doing it.  But damn it, I was in my thirties now, I should know what the hell I want to do with my life, what should I do?

Make dolls.

I made lists, wrote in my diary, made mind maps, tried to work through all the clues and possibilities, all the while aware that I was being incredibly self indulgent in a way that I really should have got over in my teens.  I had a little studio room and all I did in it was make lists about what I should or could do.   The lists were piling up and still my work was confused and half finished because I couldn’t find anything that was worth my full attention, something serious and important and valuable.

Dolls!!!

So I stopped trying.  I spent more time in the forest, learned how to make soap from nettles, play the ukulele, identify edible wild mushrooms and a whole lot of other things I’d wanted to do that I’d never got round to because I was filling every spare minute with panic and lists. Then one morning I woke up and I knew what I wanted to do but it wasn’t a new idea, it was an idea that had been there all along waiting for me to be still and quiet enough to hear it.

I would take all the characters and creatures in my head and let them out.  I’d make dolls, puppets, miniature worlds and mythical beasts and I would give them my full attention.  Instead of sketching them in blu-tac and masking tape and leaving them on a desk, I would give them my time and my skill and my patience.  I would not think about a market for them or a specific outcome.  I would let my creative instincts take the lead.

This seems easier than it actually was because I am a self confessed control freak when it comes to my work, or at least I had been.  Years of penny counting and hard work meant that I couldn’t just let go and do something for the sheer hell of it.  So I sat down and started drawing, then I started making.  Then I decided that it was all crap and that it was all going in the trash.

Then I tried again.

Something in the back of my mind was getting stronger and kept telling me to keep going.  I kept showing up and I kept on messing up, until one night I took a metre of calico and a pencil and started cutting and drawing, and along came Evie.

Evie
Evie

Then Rosehip.

Rosehip
Rosehip

Then Brennesle. The Pale Rook - Brennesle All three took shape at the same time.  All three were dipped in dyes made from plants I’d found on my forest walks.  All three taunted me with their complete uselessness and lack of commercial marketability and I still kept on making them.

Evie in progress
Evie in progress

I was and always have been aware of just how much pressure I put on myself, but I had only been marginally aware of how much pressure I let myself feel from what I thought the “world” wanted from me.  I didn’t see value in work that was so personal.  I’d let my ego lead me into a career that I had a lot of excitement about in the early years, a lot of interest in certainly, but it never had my heart and soul.  I did it because I thought it was what was expected of me.  It would make my parents proud of me, bring me a prestige that was easy for other people to understand and give me a respectability that I could rely on. (Just in case you were wondering, it didn’t.)

What I’d never put time into or faith in were the ideas that didn’t yet make sense in the context of the rest of the world.  I couldn’t see the value in my imagination from the view point of those around me, so I ignored all the ideas that were only mine.  Then I wondered why my work didn’t give me the same joy and satisfaction I saw in others.

The last person to see my new work was my Mum, ironically the first person to see the things I made when I was a little girl.  I was so worried she’d think I’d gone nuts, that I was having an early mid-life crisis and finally given in to my hippy fantasist leanings.

Just writing that last sentence, I realised that that is not too far from what I have done but that is no bad thing.

There comes a point where you need to at least ask yourself what you would do with your time and your talent and your skill if you only had to take your own needs into account.  I know that life is not that easy or straight forward.  It’s easy to keep that little voice small when it seems to be talking shit and you’ve got  a million other important things to do.  Maybe try listening to it though, because none of what you see on this site existed outside of my head this time last year.

When I finally started listening to that tiny little voice and giving it my time, all of the skills I’d learned in my career, at college, from random Youtube videos, from Pinterest, all the seemingly unrelated crafts and techniques that I’d used for whatever, finally came together, en masse to help me out. Instead of being a time wasting, self indulgent departure from everything I had worked for and built up, this “new”work had become a culmination of it.

And if no one paid any attention to my work, would I keep on making it?

Yes.

Without a doubt, because as wonderful as it is to have support and appreciation and clients who want to own and commission my work, my work has only become that way because I created it with just my own needs in mind.  And I’ve realised that one of my, and probably your fundamental needs is to create something beautiful or wonderful or terrifying or ugly, and quite possibly useless for no other reason than because it is in your mind and deserves your attention.

So whatever is in your imagination, go make it.  If you can’t sew, knit or draw then learn.  If you can’t sing, dance, write, do it anyway and keep doing it until it feels good.  What ever it is you need to learn or do to get what is in your mind out into the open, do it.  Do it over and over again. No matter how silly and pointless it seems, no matter how frustrated you get, keep going.  You have no idea what it may turn into.

Dolls in progress
Dolls in progress
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And now for something completely different…

Fish Skeletons
Fish Skeletons

So just over a week ago I was steadily working my way through some ideas for my new Etsy shop, I had a few different things in mind, but was quite happily toddling along taking things at a steady pace.  I went for a walk in the woods, gathered some branches to carve into bits and pieces, went home, watched some Breaking Bad, checked my Facebook and BOOM!

The mighty Mister Finch, the hugely talented, influential and generous textile artist had posted some photos of my work to his 160,000 followers, with a link to my Facebook page and 1,200 people had shown their appreciation by hitting the “like” button in just a few hours.  This had led to lots of other lovely bloggers, writers and artists sharing my work and an snowball of attention and commissions.

Now I am not and have never been the sort to covet Facebook “likes”.  When I set up my page I shared it with my friends and asked them to share it if they felt so inclined.  I always wanted appreciation for my work to be genuine and voluntary rather than out of obligation or harassment.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that for some businesses, a high “like” rating on Facebook is very important, but I just can’t understand people who cajole others to “like” their pages and who see “like milestones” as an end result in themselves.  “Likes” are ultimately abstract and should be seen as a gesture of appreciation and interest, rather than a measure of success.

That said,

I was over the stonking moon!

The beautiful messages of support, interest, fascination and sheer loveliness were staggering.  Some made me cry, especially the people who told me that seeing my work had inspired them to make their own.  That was particularly nice.

I spent most of the weekend feeling all fluffy, then went back to the studio on Monday petrified that the next thing I made would be awful and that I’d let down all the lovely people who’d taken the time to write to me.

I was reminded of almost every other creative success in my adult life and how every single one had been followed by crippling self doubt and the crushing weight of my own expectations.

So, I decided to go back to what I know best and spend a day in the studio making random things for no other reason than to see what happens.   My good friend Louise McVey, a beautiful and very talented ceramic artist makes time for this sort of creative work regularly ( this is the woman who came up with ceramic monobrows on sticks and noses that sneeze giant flowers, for no other reason than just because)  and I always find that it’s a good way to get a grip of your (my) own spiralling freak outs.

So I made these fish skeletons.

Silk and cotton fish skeletons
Silk and cotton fish skeletons

I had no idea if they’d work out, if they’d look good, if they’d be anything I’d want to share with anyone, but to hell with it!  I wanted so see what a fish skeleton would look like if it was made from silk and cotton.

I think for any of us who work in creative fields, it’s easy to latch on to the work and processes that are commercially successful as most of us live with unstable, if not chaotic  incomes, and it can be difficult to find the time to invest in something as simple and seemingly ephemeral as creative play for it’s own sake with no specific outcome.

To suddenly have overwhelming support for work that had been largely unnoticed for the last while had thrown me into a panic.  I suddenly felt the pressure to do meaningful work that would also keep everyone’s attention, when what I really needed to do was go back to basics and work as if no one was watching.   As much as I value my work, I think it’s important to keep just a little bit of perspective on just how important it is in the grand scheme of things, and I firmly believe that taking time to simply play around with creative ideas can keep you from taking your work and yourself too seriously.

I want to thank every single person who has taken the time to write to me, to share my work and your thoughts about it.  I am so completely grateful for your time, your lovely words and your generosity.

Thank you.

Silk and cotton fish skeletons
Silk and cotton fish skeletons

 

 

 

 

Dinah

Dinah
Dinah

When I posted Dinah on my Facebook page, quite a few people commented that they thought she looked sad. I have to agree that she definitely has a slight melancholy that I hadn’t planned. I’d always imagined her as having quite a sultry, cat like expression and she ended up with a much more fragile look.

Dinah
Dinah

All of my dolls and creatures have hand drawn faces, so I never know what sort of expression they are going to have until it is drawn on.  Sometime, no matter how I try to plan it or draw it, a face will just take on an expression of it’s own and no matter how much I try to tweak it or change it, it will be the way it wants to be.

One commenter described Dinah as having a “Monalisa” smile, which I thought suited her very well.   She actually reminds me a lot of a beautiful Welsh friend who I haven’t seen in too long.  Maybe it’s time head south to go visit her.

Dinah
Dinah

Dinah is made made mainly from calico, but her stockings are made from scraps of a baby blue Chinese silk blouse. Her hair was originally part of an Edwardian christening gown that I found in a charity shop in Glasgow and bought for a whopping £3! The fabric was decaying and falling apart but small parts of the delicate cotton lawn were still holding together. I dyed them with onion skins to make the beautiful soft peachy colour. Her hair is decorated with chocolate alpaca fleece needle felted into little balls and embroidered with blue silk thread.

Dinah has a slightly more voluptuous shape than a lot of my dolls, I drew her pattern free hand and loved seeing her curves come to life as she was shaped, tucked and sewn.  Her curves did make her slightly more difficult to pose though, so I think I may have to make her a chaise longue, probably from red silk velvet.

Dinah's blue silk stockings
Dinah’s blue silk stockings

Violetta

 

Violetta
Violetta

Violetta took shape from the feet up. I made her at the same time as Constance and Fifi and decided to give her similar long pointed feet.  Instead of stitching her toes, I embroidered red shoes, another one of my fixations, then let her character build up from there.

Violetta
Violetta

I love the story of The Red Shoes and all it’s variations (Violetta’s shoes were originally much brighter but dip dying them in red wine dulled them down to a deep blood red).

Violetta's red shoes
Violetta’s red shoes

The original version of the story is a cautionary tale of the dangers of pride and vanity but I prefer the later (or possibly earlier) interpretations of it where the shoes are a metaphor for the passions, drives and longings that will tear us apart if we don’t find a way to live with them in a balanced way.

I spent almost an entire week stitching and embroidering the red silk shoes in my Stitch gallery, and it became a full on compulsion until they were finally finished.

Silk and stitches
Silk and stitches
Violetta
Violetta

Constance and Fifi

Constance and Fifi
Constance and Fifi

These dolls started as a combination of fabrics rather than a clear idea of what they would end up looking like.  I always wanted them to be a pair, one dyed with indigo, the other with onion and both using the pale grey Liberty print fabric and the dark grey antique kimono scraps.

The Pale Rook - Cloth art dolls

I’ve got a massive hoard of Liberty scraps, I just can’t throw any of it away.  The prints are so beautiful that I think it’s such a shame to not use even the tiniest wee bits of it.   The same goes for kimono scraps.  I’ve collected old kimonos since I was a teenager and once they inevitably fall apart after years of wear and tear, I salvage what bits I can and save them up for quilting or doll making.

photo 2

I wanted these dolls to have long, skinny, floppy arms and legs and a sort of laziness about them.  The fabrics are so soft and fine that the dolls flopped over naturally but I added elongated feet and ears just to exaggerate it a bit.  I love the way the feet have turned out on both of them.

The Pale Rook - Art Dolls

I’ll be adding Constace and Fifi to my new Etsy store in the next few weeks, along with other creatures and dolls.  If you’d like to keep up to date you can find me on Facebook

Constance and Fifi
Constance and Fifi
Constance and Fifi
Constance and Fifi