Songwriter and philosopher John Lennon said it best: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Such a random chain of events led to Henry and Zofia Zawieruszynski trading in their Polish mailing address for a home and business nestled in the American heartland.
“Henry’s mother was born in the USA,” Zofia shares, “and we came to visit her in 1988. She was living in Minnesota. Believe me, we had no plans to emigrate here. We planned to visit her and all of Henry’s family for a few weeks. And then a few months went by, and then a few more, and we still are here!”
Being able to be so impulsive, so incredibly daring about such an earth-shattering decision, is part of the Zawieruszynskis’ artistic demeanor. This is a married couple that has never played by traditional 9-to-5 rules. Instead, they have always listened to their inner creative drive, the voice of risk-taking and goal-grabbing.
Back in Poland, Henry and Zofia met while working at a studio where they both designed and hand-painted decorative fabric. “From working side by side, we have worked together ever since,” Henry observes.
Eventually in Poland, they opened their own interior-decorating business. They also kept their creative juices flowing by indulging in painting and sculpting. Perhaps as a harbinger for their future careers as doll artists, Zofia started to make wooden and cloth dolls as well. It was an expressive outlet she greatly enjoyed.
“Here in America, in 1992, we made our first porcelain doll,” Zofia chronicles. Having settled in the Midwest, where the couple admits, “we were used to rough winters in Poland but Minnesota’s is even longer,” they worked at improving their doll sculpting and their day-to-day communication skills.
“The Zawieruszynskis are very admirable,” comments Debbie Bibb, manager of The Doll House, in Edmond, Okla. “They learned to speak English by listening to TV and to the radio. I think their success here in the States and around the world comes from very hard work and a real desire to live and prosper in this country.”
Bibb and The Doll House have hosted many shop appearances and signings by Henry and Zofia. Bibb numbers the couple among her friends. “I enjoy spending time with them, and I’ve had them to my home. We’ve been to eat many times and we’ve all had a good time. All our store’s customers just love it when the Zawieruszynskis come for a signing. They are so willing to please and to make each doll special. They honestly and sincerely want every collector to be happy with their dolls. I’ve seen more interest with new collectors this year than ever before,” Bibb elaborates.
Henry and Zofia, likewise, stress how essential it is to meet and greet, and learn from, their collectors. “We love to meet and to talk with the collectors at signings and at shows,” Zofia says. “We receive a lot of letters, comments, e-mails and inquiries from customers. We like to hear from our collectors because it only helps us to make our dolls better and better.”
Barrie Shapiro, proprietor of The Toy Shoppe, in Richmond, Va., agrees the Zawieruszynski Originals are a line she personally anticipates each year. “Theirs are designs we always look forward to seeing. It’s a continuation of all the special touches we have come to expect each year. In both their porcelain and in their vinyl lines, collectors are drawn to their work, each for various reasons. The vinyl holds an appeal because of its warm touch and its ‘unbreakable’ quality.”
For the 2007 line of Zawieruszynski Original Dolls, the couple had intended to make two or three porcelain dolls. However, their vinyl production had gotten so busy and their time was so divided that at press time they only had one porcelain creation done. The pair finds themselves immersed in every aspect of their dolls, from the top of the head to the tip of the toe. Being able to juggle their home life, business life, personal life and artistic life is difficult.
Despite the challenges, Henry and Zofia confess there is no other business they would care to be in. “We have done a lot of other things in the art world,” Henry asserts, “but making dolls is the passion that fuels our lives.”
Zofia wholeheartedly agrees. “We love to design new dolls. Every detail is carefully selected to match the character of the doll. Even accessories and the tiniest additions are supposed to exclaim what each doll is trying to express.”
Husband Henry picks up on his wife’s conversational thread: “We work hard, very hard, to dress them. Sometimes when we find interesting fabric, we know exactly what we are going to do with it. But some dolls do stand undressed for weeks.”
When it’s pointed out how chilly that must be for their “girls” in the cold Minnesota clime, the couple agrees and chuckles. “We experiment with many different fabric and ideas until we know we have created the outfit that is perfect for each doll,” Zofia explains.
What impresses Teresa Smith, proprietor of “All Dolled Up!” CT in Thomaston, Conn., is that the Zawieruszynskis “continue to create dolls that are affordable to everyone. Their clothing has texture and color, and the dolls, which they create together in their studio, and at home, are works of art that many people respect and appreciate.”
Smith is familiar with the couple’s body of work and is a fan of their meticulous craftsmanship. “When I am presenting their dolls to potential new collectors in my shop, I alert them that the dolls were made by the artists, in their home in the United States. I touch upon the size of the dolls, as well as the quality of the material used, hence the value for the money. I also would point out the use of human-hair wigs and that the shoes are made of leather. Also, each doll comes with an individual presentation box and certificate. They are not just shipped in bags in a large box. The certificates are handwritten and signed, and the bodies of the dolls are hand-signed and numbered. Their collection of dolls this year has had mass appeal.”
One of the reasons why the 2007 line has garnered so much attention from collectors, and from award panels, is that they tried intentionally to move their dolls in a new, challenging direction. “We decided to make some of the dolls look a little more childish this year,” Zofia notes. “Our 2-year-old granddaughter was the inspiration for this year’s collection.”
The Zawieruszynskis have two grown children, Agnieszka and Tomasz, and four grandchildren. They adore spending time with the extended families, which live nearby, and were overjoyed to utilize granddaughter Natallie as a model. “Most of our dolls have been made from our imaginations, but the ‘Natallie’ doll was based on a real child, our grandchild.”
This younger, fresher perspective the couple has brought to their recent offerings have not gone unnoticed. Among the favorable response has been getting the nod for five DOLLS Awards of Excellence (DAE). “We are so grateful for each nomination we received this year. Each doll is special to us, and we are happy they’ve been recognized and awarded. When we got the news about the nominations, we were at IDEX. We were surrounded by another artist and by many collectors. They all congratulated us on this achievement, and that made it even more special for us.”
The success of the 2007 line was no surprise to Marge Voigt, proprietor of The Nursery Window, in Kohler, Wis. “From the moment I saw ‘Natallie’ and ‘Alinka,’ I loved them. They were so wonderful; I knew right away they would be very, very popular. Henry and Zofia have always created beautiful and elegant dolls. Their faces are marvelously sculpted and the attention to detail with their clothing goes beyond what one usually finds. It’s a winning combination.”
The results of the DAE voting will be revealed in August, at the Doll & Teddy Bear Expo, held in Washington, D.C. Whether the Zawieruszynskis walk away with five awards or no awards, they consider themselves completely and totally blessed. “We live in a large house, located on five partially wooded acres. We have a large, very comfortable place to work. We enjoy remodeling and decorating our home; we love to garden, landscape and spend time with our family and our friends. We are already very rich in this life with these pleasures. Everything else is just extra!”