Welcome to the Dollhouse

Like mother, like daughter: Dollmaker Davora Lindner holds a refugee from the Island of Lost Toys
Tony Nelson

Nothing like a little summer sex in public, is there? Last week, a far corner of the reputedly stodgy American Swedish Institute revealed a PDA that is not likely to be forgotten. Inside a rose-covered gazebo, a couple broke from their game of tongue fencing to...breathe. Having tossed his jacket to the floor, he was down to trousers and shirtsleeves and working to get her out of her corset. The unspoken question, "Does this thing hook in front or in back?" seemed to ricochet off every rococo wall (even the thermostats in this room look like a wedding cake). Within eavesdropping distance of the lovers stood a nun, a hooker, a ballerina, a bride, a punk-rock hairdresser, her favorite client, and at least 16 members of the Swedish Royal Family. Yet no one seemed to notice. No one moved a muscle, no one said a word.

That might be because the characters in question were not quite...well...alive. Rather, our preternaturally friendly couple and their companions--the nun, the punk-rock hairdresser, the Swedish royal family--were the very animated and convincing art dolls of Maria Åhrén Brude.

Dolls making out is not a new sight. Many of us spent the better part of our preteen years coaching Barbie and Ken through afternoon delights that would put Dawson's Creek to shame. Sex play through dolls is common, normal--the original sin of suburban America's children. As for the grown-ups: Doll enthusiasts and collectors hoard everything from children's toys scavenged from thrift stores to one-of-a kind art dolls that cost a month's pay.

If Martha Stewart and your local RenFest survivalist were to merge "to do" lists, the result might be a day in the life of doll artist Maria Åhrén Brude. Her one-room studio in a trailer on a secluded farm near Good Thunder, Minnesota, supplies collectors the world over with specially commissioned, original art dolls. For a fee ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, she creates dolls based on photos, sketches, or descriptions sent by clients. Each of her nearly 400 "fashion-sized" dolls (that's Barbie-sized to you) is hand-sculpted from porcelain clay and cloth on a wire skeleton. Brude researches the dolls' costumes for authenticity, hunts for fabric sources with doll-scale patterns, and furnishes their environment from scratch. She even goes so far as to unravel silk fabric thread by thread to secure convincing fibers for her dolls' wigs.

Why would anyone go to all this trouble when Barbie runs about $16 at Target? Perhaps because, for historical or dramatic accuracy, Barbie sucks. Brude discovered this as a young girl growing up in Sweden. She found herself frustrated with the physical inflexibility and lack of creative costuming for Barbie. In turn, her mother, an art teacher and collector of antique fashions, encouraged her to make her own dolls and costumes. Brude's early dolls, which are included in this Swedish Institute exhibit, were mother-daughter collaborations that mostly involved historical portraits. There was also the occasional pop-culture homage, including a remarkable likeness of ABBA.

Brude grew up in art school and the studio, taking short breaks to explore other career options like costuming for the theater and historical reenactment groups. She returned repeatedly to her first love, though--historical-portrait dolls. "The reason I make the dolls," Brude explains in an e-mail exchange, "is to show fashion through the times. That is what I am interested in. But sculpting good faces for them can't hurt."

Brude does much more than just "sculpt good faces"; she has a fantastic knack for implying movement. Her dolls aren't just posed in action; they're caught in the moment just before the action--the pause before the gasp of surprise. This nudges the viewer into playing out the rest of the scene in her imagination. Brude's Victorian lovers posed on a sofa barely pause as they close in on their kiss. Tension is visible in his shoulders, chest, and upper arms as he simultaneously holds himself up and slowly lowers himself down. Her fingers open under the pressure of his hands and her body seems to melt into the sofa as she waits for him.

Brude creates these poses by studying photos, imitating the scenes with her own body, and through good old-fashioned trial and error. "My first dolls did not have that much motion," she says. "They were simply made to hold the dress up. But by request and my own interest in developing, they have become more alive. When I work with the doll, I have plenty of time to imagine the life and time around her....I think that's what makes it happen."

However it happens. Which is not to say that It happens--though It may be implied. Brude, though free from prudery in a European kind of way, seems slightly bemused by the American inclination to play out sexual issues in porcelain. She reveals that she has turned down only one commission in the interest of decency. "There was one strange man who wanted a doll of a woman with not too much clothes on," Brude recalls. "That wasn't going to happen."


Where Maria Åhrén Brude came to her craft through clothing, Davora Lindner is just as happy when her dolls aren't wearing anything at all. Lindner's overripe prostitutes and tiny waiflike tramps expose body parts that Barbie never had the cojones to possess, even hidden under a bathing suit. Gathered together, Lindner's dolls are a strange little brood of earthenware misfits wallowing in grotesque sexuality and freaky familiarity. Baldis, a doll named for Lindner's pet Chihuahua, is a ghostly beauty swathed in gauze that barely covers the porcelain intestines that bulge out of her belly. She's like a train wreck: gross, but you can't possibly look away.

Some of Lindner's pieces are dolls based on other dolls, or one-of-a-kind creations that are meant to comment on mass-produced children's toys. Her "Little Miss and Mr. No Name" set, styled after the pathetic and impish No Name dolls of the Seventies, was inspired by the fact that the rejected character never enjoyed consumer popularity. Lindner has adopted these characters and made them her own. In a similar vein, some of her pieces aren't "pretty" dolls by a long shot, and no one--with the possible exception of Wednesday Addams--would consider them children's toys. But they are beautiful nonetheless, in a very brave and fragile way--rather like their creator.

Tucked away in her south Minneapolis basement studio on a recent Friday afternoon, Lindner is finishing pieces for an upcoming show at Gus Lucky's Gallery. She is tall, slender, blond, and built very much like a Barbie. Her low-slung boxer shorts, covered in Andy Warhol's cow motif, and her turquoise wifebeater stand in vibrant contrast to the plain cement walls. Her work surface, an old vanity dresser pushed up against the wall, is crowded with doll parts waiting for the kiln.

Lindner breaks from her work to tell a quick ghost story. "My first dolls sort of willed themselves into being," she says. "I had to destroy some of them." She continues to explain that when she was learning to sculpt faces and bodies, her control over features was not as precise as it is now. As she worked on a face or hand, a personality would evolve out of the clay and present itself. Some were friendly and some were disturbing. She destroyed some of the disturbing ones.

It's not surprising that some of Lindner's dolls would occasionally creep her out; in describing her own work, she writes that her "dolls embody a panic about sexuality, gender, and childhood." That's a heavy head trip for a porcelain doll. Lindner can relate, as she herself has gone through an extensive self-transformation. She's changed her own body extensively by surgical means, strenuous corseting, and workouts in order to represent herself to the world as she sees herself. It was during this process of transformation that she found her medium. Sculpting her own body compelled her to sculpt other bodies of clay and glaze.

Lindner views some of these dolls as scapegoats, giving them physical manifestations of her own sexual queries and quandaries. Through this process, she drives these issues out of her inner self and into the world of exhibitions. She picks up her "Little Miss No Name" portrait, smiles maternally, and says, "I think it's really great when a doll like this slips through."

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