Think of a doll, any kind of doll. What do you see? Is it a flaxen-haired Malibu Barbie lounging on a beach towel, giving that blank yet perky stare to her man Ken? Or are you picturing the puffy cheeks and narrow gaze of a Cabbage Patch Kid, arms open wide, begging for a hug? Perhaps you recall the mechanized rant of Chatty Cathy, or the wholesome innocence of Raggedy Ann. Whatever you’re thinking, put it aside and check out the exhibit called “Odd Babies: Four Artists Explore the Doll” at the Lazy Pear Gallery in Montpelier. Your preconceptions won’t do you any good in the company of these abstract, alien and, indeed, odd creations.
And that’s just the point of this quartet of artists: to expand and explore the definition of the doll, each in a very different way. Some of these figures are made of earthenware and clay, others papier-mâché; some almost resemble more traditional dolls — such as Beth Robinson’s eerie Goth figures. Others are mere “gestures” at the doll form, like Nina Gaby’s blocky, imperfect creatures wearing Mary Janes.
Rob Hitzig, co-owner of the Lazy Pear, says the idea for a doll show came from Gaby, though he had also been thinking about highlighting Robinson’s work. “To do that,” Hitzig muses, “you really need to build other dolls around it.” He did so by collecting artists’ perspectives and facilitating a kind of doll dialogue.
While each artist is uniquely intriguing, Robinson’s dolls are the attention-getters in the gallery, by virtue of their lifelike eyes and unnervingly expressive faces. Hitzig points out that her figures — clothed in vintage lace, striped stockings that recall Beetlejuice, and black, almost masochistic shoes — tie in with Montpelier’s Fashion Week. “It’s sort of like a mini-fashion show for the dolls,” he suggests.
Robinson, 32, resides in Colchester, but the twang in her voice betrays a childhood spent partly in the Deep South. A graphic designer by trade, she’s found enough success with her dolls to pare her day job down to just 12 hours a week. Robinson began making them in 2003, inspired by the big, tired-looking eyes, ample lips and expressive faces of vintage Russian dolls. When she gave her versions a more Gothic look and ’tude, she quickly discovered their strange appeal. “They just started to sell instantly,” Robinson remembers. “It was crazy.” The dolls were so popular that she gave them their own online identity: http://www.strangedolls.net. “It sort of took on a life of its own,” she says.
During a telephone interview, Robinson reveals that her personal style is nothing like that of her dolls. She doesn’t “dress Goth,” and she’s been too intimidated by that scene even to attend her own gallery openings in places like London and Berlin. “When I see the pictures,” she relates, “it’s like a Marilyn Manson video; I would feel so out of place there.”
Yet she sells a couple hundred dolls each year, for prices ranging from $150 to $1800. Though her customer base is diverse, Goth and gay communities seem especially drawn to her figures, Robinson says. Addressing the contrast between her appearance and her artwork, she explains, “I like to go home at night and build my own world.”
That fantasy is influenced by the punk music, clothing and DIY ethic of her teenage years. Back then, “You couldn’t just go to a Hot Topic and pick something out,” she says, “you had to make everything.” Today, Robinson stresses, she’s just a “normal person.”
Her dolls, however, encourage stares. They’re made from polymer clay with Glastic doll eyes, and some feature antique buttons and vintage lace. The pink-haired “Gothic Lolita” is 18 inches tall and has a startled expression, as if she’s just witnessed something disturbing. Her ghostly-white skin contrasts with her dark clothes and wild hair. The blue-haired version, 22 inches tall, wears a black frock with intricately sewn lace hems and has a more confrontational demeanor.
Two other dolls in the Lolita series sport nose rings and necklaces with big crucifixes. The only blonde one on display, “Lea,” appears fragile and somber. Seated cross-legged, she looks as if she’s been pushed down and has decided to stay there.
Adjacent to Robinson’s characters at the Lazy Pear hang Chris London’s sculptures. London, 47, of Hartford, Connecticut, is a full-time potter who’s found a niche in the offbeat. “I find I make a lot more money making freakish, weird things than making things that are beautiful,” she explains. Some of her offerings in this exhibit fall into the freakish category — think ghoulish clay faces mounted on antique pitchforks. Another group of figures is more spiritual, almost talismanic.
London says the pitchfork faces emerged from her love of old tools, including rakes and other garden implements. She wanted to pair these with hard clay, so she fired the pieces at 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. “Everything is fired to cone-6, almost the temperature of CorningWare,” she explains, “so it’s really very sturdy.”
Other “dolls” are shaped like russet potatoes and have spiral eyes and shocked expressions. The texture of the clay resembles that of dried, distressed rawhide, but it’s rock hard. Standing beside the display, London says she likes to “make things that don’t look like an alien, but look alien.” In other words, she’s not aping the popular image of an E.T., but trying to create something original that doesn’t appear to be of this world.
London’s other figurines, the “Goddesses,” realize her goal of making hard clay look soft. While these small creatures have a human form, their rounded edges and delicate etchings make them appear pliable. Their hands are turned out and raised, as if they’re being arrested, and the images on their bodies evoke an inchoate spirituality. The dolls are misshapen or otherwise flawed — for a reason. “I wish women could understand that the things that are different about them are the things that make them beautiful and magical,” London says.
Nina Gaby would most likely agree, given the imperfect nature of her “gesture” dolls. These slightly abstract babies have heavy feet shod in classic Mary Jane shoes. Gaby, 58, lives in Brookfield and now works predominantly with earthenware. Some of her earlier work resides in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.
Aside from the “gestures,” Gaby has two other styles on display at the Lazy Pear. Perhaps the most provocative pieces are her “fetishes.” To Gaby, a fetish is simply any object to which one ascribes meaning. Her earthenware figures are wall mounted and almost two-dimensional, each shaped like an Egyptian vase with the mold of a porcelain doll face on top. Gaby fires the pieces three times: once to bake, twice to glaze, and thrice to smoke. (Incidentally, she pit-smokes them in her backyard in sawdust shavings from Rob Hitzig’s wood workshop.) Then she paints on designs and colors using commercial glaze.
After many years of making porcelain, a difficult and limiting medium, Gaby says she is delighted to work with one that’s more forgiving. “With earthenware . . . I have orange and I have red and I have this funky blue!” she exclaims. “It’s like having an artist’s palette.”
Gaby is also showing conical, abstract dolls made of papier-mâché — a medium she shares with North Carolina artist Tiffany Ownby. Ownbey’s dolls straddle the line between abstraction and realism, and she uses reclaimed paper to give their “skin” the texture of newsprint. Her creations usually bear punning names, such as the “Chest of Drawers,” a humanoid figure with four drawers sticking out of its chest. The drawers are attached to a backbone-like pipe, giving the prosthetic the look of a crude posture-repair device.
Waxing philosophical on the meaning of dolls in the art world, Robinson says she likes the physical interaction an owner can have with the work. One of her customers, for example, broke her doll because she was sleeping with it. Robinson did repairs but told the owner to keep taking the doll to bed. “It just seems to me that there’s a certain innocence with the doll,” she says.
For Gaby, the infatuation is even simpler: “I’ve always loved small-scale,” she says. But, as “Odd Babies” shows, mini-humans can have big meanings.
"Odd Babies: Four Artists Explore the Doll," The Lazy Pear Gallery, Montpelier. Through July 20.