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Paula Coston enjoys modern doll families

March 21, 2014

Proud family: LBGT couple made by Timo-Handmade at Etsy.

Proud family: LBGT couple made by Timo-Handmade, available at Etsy.


Mother, aunt, friend or grandmother: you probably know this woman. Woman doll whose personality you can imprint, and whose roles you can assign. By Timo-Handmade, also available from Etsy.

Mother, aunt, friend or grandmother: you probably know this woman. Woman doll whose personality you can imprint, and whose roles you can assign. By Timo-Handmade, also available from Etsy.


'Family' of 13 characters with a variety of roles and relationships you can assign. Timo-Handmade again, again from Etsy.

‘Family’ of 13 characters with a variety of roles and relationships you can assign. Timo-Handmade again, again from Etsy.

When I was young, my grandparents, whom I and my young siblings considered very jet-setting for their day, brought us back dolls as gifts, dressed in the national costume of whatever country they’d visited: Italy, Mallorca. But those were trophy dolls, and also meant to be educational. Meanwhile my sister and I played at home with individualist little people mass-manufactured in plastic and felt. I don’t remember forming doll families with them, but of course one relationship was taken as read: we were their mothers. The mother-child unit was unassailable, the hub of the family, an atom that couldn’t be split: inconceivable to us that that could change, however many decades passed.

But it has. And modern dolls offer some great takes on the modern family, and the place of woman within new social groups.

Timor makes quirky, contemporary-folksy dolls, singly and in sets, at http://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/TIMOHANDMADE. She’ll custom-shape these groupings to your needs, even send her figures with blank faces for you to add your own.Yes, there are mothers and children, and male-female couples with 2-point-something children. But the illustrations here show that she also thinks outside the conformist family box. She labels the large ‘family’ above mothers, grandparents, fathers, children, but they could equally be some more organic, shifting tribe.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka warrior nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka warrior nuns, ARTZU Gallery.


Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.


Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

Alejandra Valencia, matryoshka nuns, ARTZU Gallery.

The traditional matryoshka or Russian nesting dolls had associations of fertility and motherhood (‘matryoshka’ literally meaning ‘little mother’), their children contained inside them. But today, 1:5 women over the menopause in the UK, North America and Australasia are childless, including me, and conventional Russian dolls have always emanated a solely female power (no male children inside), so I love the way that the artist Alejandra Valencia, originally from Columbia, does something unique with these doll women.

Fukuruma dolls from Honshu, Japan’s main island, represented Buddhist monks and were used in rituals. Those symbolised the layers of the human soul; Valencia’s, too, have a haunting mystical quality, and – notably – are individual, no longer clones of each other, however large or tiny. What are these strangely potent assemblages of warriors and nuns, warrior-nuns? I don’t know, but somehow feel I’d like to belong to their gangs.

Go to http://www.artzu.co.uk/homepage/feature/love-art-love-fashion-manchester/?utm_source=hootsuite&utm_campaign=hootsuite and philosophise on the future of massed womanhoods for yourself.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. At Home: Laundromat.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. At Home: Laundromat.


Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. Holiday: Feast.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed series. Holiday: Feast.

If I love Timor and Valencia, I absolutely adore the work of Suzanne Heintz, featured here. (Heartfelt thanks to Catherine-Emmanuelle Delisle, blogger on childlessness at http://femmesansenfant.com/ for pointing me in Heintz’s direction.)

Heintz grew up in the Mormon Church, well-known for its idealisation of the family and its near-idolatry of the roles of women as mothers and homemakers. Her artistry combines photography and theatre, performance art; she has a background too in television – and it shows in the popular appeal, in the best sense, of her work. (She says that humour is her ‘most important medium’.)

She explains that she was totally p****d off with people asking her, ‘Why aren’t you married?’ (her italics – imagine a whiny American singsong), so set about insinuating herself among the hilarious stilted satire of idyllic and humdrum mannequin arrangements, representing her absent ‘family’ – thus pointing up not only the fact that, in the conformist, universally accepted sense, she doesn’t have one, but that – with family members’ constant ‘needs and demands’ (it’s no easy job lifting, moving, posing and transporting mannequins around) – a family, and the expectation you’ll have one, too, can be an inflexible encumbrance.

Sheer genius in each shot, her expression of fake enjoyment or routine housewifely boredom juxtaposed with ‘husband’ and ‘daughter”s grim, glazed faces.

Visit her work at http://www.suzanneheintz.com, checking out her artist’s statement and biography. Watch her movie trailer PLAYING HOUSE at http://www.vimeo.com/suzanneheintz/playinghouse. And if you like her work as much as me, send her a message at twitter.com/SuzanneHeintz or facebook.com/suzanne.heintz1. And if you get to my level of keen, her upcoming book can be preordered through her website.

Here’s one of hers especially for Easter, a season when we childless women find we sometimes long to turn aside from all that imagery of eggs:

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed Series. Holiday: Blue Egg.

Suzanne Heintz, from her Life Once Removed Series. Holiday: Blue Egg.

Wouldn’t it be great if these three women’s artistic statements could play a small part in shifting assumptions that, for women, there’s one universal standard of family life? In changing social stereotypes about women and their ‘families’?

Admiring dues to Margaret Atwood for these snippets from her Five Poems for Dolls:

‘… did we make them
because we needed to love someone
and could not love each other?’

…’Or: these are the lost children,
those who have died or thickened
to full growth and gone away.

The dolls are their souls or cast skins,
which line the shelves of our bedrooms
and museums….’

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One Comment
  1. Stephanie Smith permalink

    I would most definitely have purchased the lovely Timo-handmade doll sets for all my granddaughters had they been available when they were small – our family being one of the strangest collections of current and ex-relationships, and with a variety of sexual identities, too. All a bit confusing for little ones at school when having to talk about family history and chronology!

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