My parents were both thwarted in their artistic pursuits by the reality of the Depression, but they encouraged each of their five children to develop our own art skills. My father became a well-known railroad photographer, as well as a psychiatrist, and my mother still enjoys making up stories and giving presentations to her group at church.
I made my first doll at five from a kit and filled endless black and white composition books with my stories and drawings of princesses.
Because my father received his medical training through the army and then the VA, we moved every years, which increased our need for self-reliance on our art projects. I was unable to start first grade with my friends, so like many of us, I was taught sewing by my mother and grandmother to fill my time.
Edith Flack Ackley, in the 40’s and 50’s, was a true liberator of females, writing books on doll making as a money-generating activity for women, which could give them some freedom from financial dependence on men—a pretty radical idea for that time. I started with her basic patterns, but quickly started branching out, based on my obsession with costume design making fashion dolls with incredibly detailed underwear and embroidery. I was using doll making then as a way to gain positive recognition and to avoid the common early teen discomfort with social situations.
I also became fascinated with the history and process of making dolls. Empress Josephine, made when I was 13, was my first wire armature doll, and my entrepreneurial side came out in my teen years, too, with selling at my first craft shows.
Following my parents’ recommendation, I picked the practical major of Occupational Therapy in college and also got married to the man who abused me. We bought an old schoolhouse in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont in the Sixties’ Back to the Land movement, and became leather crafters. My husband did encourage my painting, but everything had to be done following his direction exactly.
I feel that it’s important for me to share this information about myself in case it can help other women in my position. He kept me so isolated from all other outside input that his reality became my reality. I saw an exhibit of Lenore Davis’ work in Boston in the Seventies, and it opened a whole world of possibilities to me. The paint that I’d been using on primed canvas moved to shaped muslin, and I as I came into my thirties. I was subconsciously working on expressing the feelings that I kept numbed and submerged in my marriage, with pieces like the Angry Woman Mask.
Cultures throughout history have used the doll form for Transformative purposes, as icons that mediate between this world and the spirit world, healing, sending positive—or negative—thoughts for oneself or another, and as a way of focusing energy for healing. I see this practice today in both my own work and in that of many other doll makers, which is why I’ve written my book on DOLL MAKING AS A TRANSFORMATIVE PROCESS.
Arlinka Blair takes freely from both tribal influences, non-traditional body forms, pieces she picks up on the beaches of Hawaii and Fire Island, and bases like boards and painted trays that she collects from her enthusiastic treks to discount stores. She says, “Thinking about the Transformation word, I’ve come to the conclusion that really ALL the dolls are part of the process of Transformation in one form or another.
Dolls can be used as a talisman or a focal point to represent the person we would like to become or who we are when we think the best of ourselves, like Always More, a doll in which I used a Central American clay mask for the face and a box with a collage of endless vistas inside for the body. Always More came to me as a title and “Always More” seems to be my personal theme for the last decades.
An animal skull sat for years on by worktable while the ideas of what to do with it cooked in my subconscious. I had difficulty with the structural problem of how to attach the skull to a body until I took a workshop with Lois Sckhlar, who gave us PERMISSION to use any technique that works. After several drawings and using aluminum foil and glue to attach the skull to the body armature, this figure emerged. There is a carved ivory face of a woman below the skull, representing a female coming out of a chrysalis, which turned out to be me emerging from my role as a rehab director into myself as an artist. The process of making the doll helped to solidify my view of myself.
Rosie Rojas uses her dolls to express and work with strong emotions. Conflicting feelings can be developed in one piece. “Hope is an ogress with an inner beauty and dignity that can only be appreciated if you look beyond the outer appearance. With her baby in her arms, she symbolizes the hope that one day we might be able to look beyond appearances to see this inner dignity in each other.”