Most of you know that I wrote my memoir a few years ago. There are many stories that I would love to share with you.
This is the first one.
Excerpt from Chapter 14: Making Dolls (page 91)
I never really played with dolls as a kid. My time was usually spent climbing trees, riding my bike, or making something from my art box. The only dolls I had were a collection from my grandparents. Whenever they visited a new country overseas they would bring back a doll in the native costume. They were all displayed high over my windows on a cornice board that my dad made especially for the collection. I probably had fifteen or sixteen dolls, from that many countries. My favorites were a boy and girl dolls from Holland with their authentic outfits, and wooden shoes.
One day in 1984, while visiting New Orleans, I saw a doll sitting in a store window that caught my attention. It was a custom fabric doll, similar to the Cabbage Patch Kids that were so famous at the time. The ones that were signed and numbered and had adoption papers you signed and sent in. The faces were life-like with individual expressions that children would really have. I stared at the doll with a seamstress mind, and I envisioned an adult, life-sized doll with the same real looking features. I was jazzed. I knew I could do this.
When I got back home to Houston I began making my first doll, (my prototype). Creating the doll that I saw in my mind was trial-and-error at first, but soon it began to take shape. It was easy to make the body. I stuffed nylons with bags of cotton. The more I stuffed the longer the appendages became. I molded the torso with the top part of pantyhose. The arms, the legs were sewn on and soon I had a five foot body. I made the head separately and that was another challenge in itself. I began by stuffing a knee-high nylon and shaped the face by adding more cotton to the chin, cheekbones and neck. I cut a wine cork on a diagonal and used it for the nose. I applied more cotton around the cork to define the shape even more. I used an eight inch needle and, from the back, I sewed in dimples, creases, eye sockets and a line for a mouth. Once I had the basic shaped head, I needed to figure out how to make realistic eyes and teeth. I contacted a denture company and after a few tries and they made teeth to specific measurements. I glued them into the indentation that I had sewn with the needle and plumped the mouth around the teeth. I painted the lips with a pale peach color and the mouth was done. It looked so real I astonished myself.
Next came the eyes. I found a glass eye company that would make the exact eye color and grind it down to a football shape that would fit into the socket I had sewn into the head. I attached lashes and shaded the area under the eye and around the nose with permanent shadow to look more 3-dimensional. I used a very pale rosy pastel cheek color, and OMG, this face was looking so real, it was eerie.
For hair, I bought a kids wig and sewed it to the head. I braided the hair thinking all along it would be a girl, but once I attached the finished head to the body, an amazing transformation happened. The life-sized doll began to look similar to Willie Nelson. I wrapped a red bandanna around the head, dressed him in old, faded jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes, and voila…I had a country western star sitting in my living room. It had taken six weeks to complete but I was proud of the unfolding process from beginning to end. I had done it. I created something from nothing, with only an idea and some problem solving ingenuity. Willie was wonderful lounging on my sofa and startled me every time I walked into the room.
The next thing that happened was truly a God thing. A friend came over to visit and she brought co-worker of hers. Marcia, was a smart, female entrepreneur who just happened to own Spurs, the hottest Country Western night club in Houston at the time (besides Micky Gilley’s). Marcia took one look at my Willie Nelson doll, and she wanted to display in her nightclub. She paid me $2,000. in cash, right on the spot, and commissioned me to make Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn dolls who would also adorn her upscale bar. By the time they walked out my door, my life had turned around and I was in the doll making business. As soon as they left, I freaked out.
What had I just promised ?!!!*?#!!?
My first doll was a total fluke.
How am I going to make dolls that look like someone specific?
The negativity started to consume my mind until I felt the $2000. cash in my pocket. I caught my declining state of mind, and turned my thought process around.
“I can do this. I made one, I can make another.”
I was going to take advantage of this situation and turn it into a positive opportunity.
And I did. I made the next two dolls and they surprisingly looked like the country western singers. Each doll took less time and I felt more confident in my ability after making three dolls. Johnny and Loretta were placed on display in the nightclub and I was in business. Because Spurs was frequented by many wealthy people, I instantly received more commissions than I could handle. I was charging two grand for the dolls but each took at least a month to make, needing custom eyes and teeth and hair and clothes. This was a high time in Texas and money flowed easily. I was grateful for the orders, but I was working my butt off and just barely making my expenses. I guess this comes with the territory of being an artist for a living, and not a business person.
I worked from pictures to make the life-like faces. I frequented good will stores to find the outfits so I didn’t have to sew the clothes. I had questionnaires that the client filled out so I knew exactly what they wanted and what was expected. I needed to get it right the first time or I would not make a profit on the commission.
My orders came from all different kinds of people and situations:
* a doll as a gift for a business partner with a Rolex on the wrist
* a doll to look like an x girlfriend
* a doll of a deceased husband to sit in their bedroom
* a doll for a single lady to scare off potential predators
* a doll for their car so they could use the contra-flow lane
* even a little boy doll for a professor who (I found out later) was her son who had drowned.
I’m glad I didn’t know at the time. I don’t think I could have made it.
I was working 24/7. Within a few months a newspaper article came out with several pictures and the word spread faster than Texas lightning. Soon celebrities and politicians were calling. I made dolls for the rock band ZZ Top; the governor, Ann Richards; the mayor of Houston, Bob Lanier; I made the First Lady Barbara Bush for a library because she was working on her literacy program; a doll for the CEO of South West airlines, based in Houston; and many more socialites, too many to list here. I even made a Pavarotti doll to sit in the bathroom of a prominent person, (who I promised I wouldn’t mention.) Oh, I have many stories… many, many stories I cannot tell here (like the party when I delivered the Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top, doll… or the Mayor’s doll who was commissioned by his haughty new wife, in time for his “ roast” at River Oaks Country Club.
It was certainly an exciting life style, but sometimes a bit overwhelming… as long as it lasted.
When the crunch hit Houston in 1986, my commissions all but stopped. People, not even Rolex wearing Texans, were willing to spend money on frivolous things anymore.
It was then another God thing happened. I was working on a way to reduce the size of the doll as well as the price. I chose to make the new doll out of a knit fabric and painted the eyes and mouth to save on the cost. I still structured the face with needles from the back, but this newer version proved to be a lot less expensive and still a precious looking doll. I was happy with the revisions.
Below is an example of the revised dolls. This is my beloved pastor, Dr. Robert Schuller, who has now passed.
In next week’s blog you will read more about the Inner Child Dolls that I began making.
Dr. Robert Schuller in 2001
(The smaller doll version)
Stay tuned for the next DOLL STORIES.