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The Artful Dodger: Can someone explain what distinguishes a doll maker from a figural artist?

The other day, my daughter, who is 6 going on 36, announced that she had to write a paragraph in school about her future plans and ambitions. That’s a great deal of forward-thinking for a bunch of first graders. Jane was very pleased with herself because she poured out her energy into composing a look at her life as a chemist/scientist.

However, as she was regaling me with her futuristic résumé, she seemed to be smiling like the cat who devoured the proverbial canary—or maybe the cat who lapped up the cream. It’s a much nicer simile.

“What’s up with the grin, Jane?” I asked.

She replied, nearly bursting with her own cleverness, “This was just a cover. I’m really going to be a secret agent; but if I said that, everyone would know, so I had to come up with something else.”

pixiehollowfairy1And with that kernel of truth confirmed—deception is a spy’s most trusty tool—she left to go upstairs and play with her Pixie Hollow fairies. (They’re all members of a secret society of winged agents who battle criminals, solve mysteries, and preserve law and order. This is her own invention, sort of a “CSI: Never Land” edition.)

When I heard Jane offer up her very tricky ruse—doing one thing and calling it another—I immediately thought of the whole furor that still heats up occasionally regarding “doll artist” vs. “figural artist” vs. “soft-sculpture artist” vs. “doll maker.”

Are all of these labels one and the same, or is there a distinct difference among the ladies and gentlemen depending on what they label themselves?

Many years ago, I heard someone (who shall remain nameless) stand a few inches from my face and explain how men are definitely “artists,” whereas the women are “makers.”

This person opined that women tend to personalize and imbue their creations with backstories and fictional histories and coo over them,gloriasteinem1 and act as if every finished product was a matter of birthing. The men, however, were more objective and worked on honing their craft, capturing lifelike muscles and movement, and created beautiful works of art that stood on their own merit—no personalities or storylines required.

Channeling my inner Gloria Steinem, but making sure I didn’t tread on any toes, I tamped down my feminist knee-jerk reaction and tried to talk with this jerk on some kind of human-to-human level.

No luck. The opinion was set in stone.

According to this conversationalist, all men with a kiln were doll artists; all women were doll makers! Well, if we hopped aboard this train of thought, it wasn’t the talent that pulled the freight or chugged the engine. It wasn’t the genre, but rather the GENDER alone that distinguished who should be accorded this special accolade.

So I ask, what does make the difference in these word choices? What makes someone a “maker” as opposed to an “artist?”

Casablanca_Ingrid_Bergman1In show business, is there a difference between the “film industry” and the “movie industry”?

There was a time when “film” seemed to suggest something more artistic and insightful. Perhaps it was what one would watch in a college course that celebrated Scandinavian celluloid soul-searching: lots of Ingmar Bergman—not so much Ingrid Bergman.

And movies? Well, that seemed to be applied to escapism versus existentialism. Popcorn and soda pop, mounds of M&Ms—that seemed to be the real purpose behind movies. It’s a way to entertain you while you handed over your hard-earned cash at the candy counter.

I suppose a movie was two hours’ worth of empty, mental calories: not a lot of heavy thinking required. A film was supposed to nourish the soul.

But that distinction has blurred, and I hear schlock-meisters like Michael Bay, the “genius” behind the “Transformers” flicks, described as a filmmaker.

More to the point, when Steven Spielberg creates a picture like “Jaws” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” is he making a movie? But when heStevenSpielberg1 stands behind the cameras for “Schindler’s List,” is he suddenly making a film? Does he wear both hats—or in his case, both baseball caps?

It gives me something to consider when I talk about my collecting and my day-to-day work in the doll world.

Do I have to bite my tongue and apologize if I call a certain artist a “doll maker”? Do I have to defend my position if I say someone is a “doll artist,” and she sees herself as a “figural sculptor”?

Barbie-Doll1What’s the difference? And does it make a difference to you—the readers of the magazine and of this blog, the collectors of the dolls (aka “artwork”), the artists/sculptors/doll makers? Where do you stand on this issue?

I’d love to hear from an array of people who are immersed in this field, and find out what makes you implode or explode. In the world of doll artistry, does the prefix of “doll” automatically diminish its significance? And in the world of doll commerce, does the notion of “an artist’s original” immediately add to its monetary cachet? And if a Mattel Barbie is swaddled in the mantle of a Gustav Klimt painting, does it rise in meaning?

Let’s discuss, in an artful way, naturally!

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smilies/smiley.gifA doll artist puts love and care into every doll he or she makes. It is never just a doll to that person. It is a labour of love.It is definitely an art form of self expression.
Lady Laura , December 08, 2011 | url
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It is most interesting to me that your acquaintance stated "women tend to personalize and imbue their creations with backstories and fictional histories" as if that were a negative trait. I believe that as an artist my creations are extensions of my own feelings and passion. If there is no backstory, the passion is missing and it becomes just another item gathering dust on the shelf.
Liz , October 23, 2011 | url
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I have been hearing this argument ever since I started getting involved in the doll world. I am an artist, over all, and dolls are only one of the mediums I work in. I make dolls from others patterns and from my own. I call them "soft-sculptures", only because to call them "cloth dolls" seems to bring in the image of "Raggedy Ann" to people who don't seem to know any better. (Don't get me wrong here, I LOVE Raggedy Ann, but have never made one.) At least, when I say "soft-sculpture", it opens up a conversation with the person, so I can explain that there is a whole world of "cloth dolls" out there, along with Raggedy Ann AND that it IS an "art form". So, soft sculpture artist is the term I prefer for myself.
Mickey , October 21, 2011
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I think of a doll artist is someone who creates something original. I think of a doll maker as someone who works from someone else's pattern or mold. Whether something is a doll or a figure, to me, depends on whether it is jointed and whether the clothes can be removed -- a doll must have both.

You showed remarkable restraint with your "men are artists/women are makers" conversant. That is just ignorance.
Ruby Dolling , October 21, 2011 | url
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I think of myself as a dollmaker, all one word. It is a craft (an ancient and honorable one) that I practice and enjoy. I don't call myself an artist but I do try to create dolls that are "real", which to me means that they hold a small bright piece of human experience inside. When I fail at that, then it is 'just' a fabric sculpture to me. Really, it might be the word 'just' that gets us into trouble!
Andrea B. , October 21, 2011 | url
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I agree with Ruby in general, but some well known doll artists do not make their dolls with joints (Carol Trobe for example), or with removable clothes. They do not want their work altered in any way, including the position they were sculped in. Other doll artists love to have their dolls played with and enjoy seeing them changed and personalized. The whole discusstion reminds me of the fuss in the art world when Degas put wigs and cloth tutus on some of his ballerina bronzes.
Pat , October 21, 2011
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I think of a doll artist is someone who creates something original. I think of a doll maker as someone who works from someone else's pattern or mold. Whether something is a doll or a figure, to me, depends on whether it is jointed and whether the clothes can be removed -- a doll must have both.

You showed remarkable restraint with your "men are artists/women are makers" conversant. That is just ignorance.
Ruby Dolling , October 20, 2011 | url
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There is a difference between "just" a doll and a piece of doll art. I can't really define it. It's like that Supreme Court judge who said "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it."

There is a real difference.
Monica , October 12, 2011

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The Chicago Toy Show

You haven’t seen a toy show until you’ve seen this one. Six buildings! Over six hundred exhibitors! Exclusively toys and dolls and children’s playthings on display everywhere! This is the show everyone always says they intend to visit, and now is the time to do just that. Collectors say the Chicago Toy Show really is the largest in the entire world. They are correct. Collectors say they find toys at this show that are never seen anywhere else. Correct again.

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