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Art Dolls: Expressions of Artistic Equity and Diversity

Dawn Martens

What is a doll? If you were asked that question, visions of cherubic-faced porcelain dolls, G.I. Joe action figures or perhaps even the latest fad – Monster High dolls – would come to mind. What if someone asked you what an “art doll” was?  

I could not have answered that question seven years ago. I had created cloth dolls using published patterns and freehand sewing since I was a child, but when I attended my first doll conference in 2007 in Ottawa, a whole new creative world opened to me. I have since participated in national and local mentoring art doll classes, developed my own doll website, sold dolls at venues across Canada, published work in art doll magazines, and run private spring break and summer art doll classes. I have also taken this passion and passed it on to students at Buchanan Park Elementary School in Hamilton, Ontario. There, doll club members have included boys and girls. The patterns have included simple dolls (no legs but a head and arms), pin dolls (very small dolls) and more complex figurative art dolls.

To put it simply, an art doll is a doll created not primarily as a plaything, but as a piece of art meant to communicate an idea to the observer. Canadian doll artist Adele Sciortino explains this concept related to her work: “Each figurative sculpture is as important as the next, each with their own souls and personalities.  I have captured the enlightenment and spirit of true fine arts in the figurative sculpture medium.”

Dolls have been around for centuries in many different cultures. They have played many roles, including as ceremonial objects, representations of deities, burial symbols, commercial figures meant to communicate native costumes and cultural norms, and socialization tools to help children define roles related to gender. American doll artist Elinor Peace-Bailey argues in “The Doll as a Tool” in  Art Doll Quarterly  (Spring 2011) that dolls became works of art rather than tools when women acquired more leisure time: “For a long time, the art doll did not exist due to the non-existence of leisure time and the repression of women’s art. Think about it? When teaching art, how many female artists or female composers are ever studied? Doll art is still stigmatized by the trivialization of both the female and the child.” By creating art dolls with students, teachers can address this marginalization of women and children artists. 

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