For every change in my life, I have stood on a threshold, momentarily paused in my forward action. Birth is the first threshold, and death is the last. In between are a thousand moments of transition where I stepped from into a new stage, times when I left an old habit behind, or moved beyond old ways of understanding, experienced new gowth, or achievement.
I wanted to do a series of photos inspired by these threshold emotions. I knew I wanted some dreamlike effects, so I chose a lens that would be variably sharp and blurry (Lensbaby Sweet 80 on Olympus OMDEM 5 mio 4/3rds).
I also wasn’t up for any self-portraiture, so as I often do, I turned to my doll collection to see who wanted to stand in for me: a very old Apache woman with a dark, dried apple face stepped forward, as did my small carving of Dzonoqua, the Wild Woman of the Woods, my muse and mythic persona.
On a day when I was very tired, after a long drive home after Spring Break, I took dolls and camera out into the back yard. I had some ideas, but both the camera effects and the dolls themselves took over the shoot. Here’s what happened.
When I was a little girl, I was doll crazy. I dressed my dolls obsessively, and I was lucky enough to have an Aunt Mel who loved to make doll clothes for my girls.
I sat them around the picnic table and taught them; and I became a teacher.
I invited them to tea parties and cooked for them in my doll kitchen; and I became an avid home cook and dinner party hostess.
I read to them and became a reader.
I drew with them and became an artist.
What I am now, I learned by acting on The Doll Stage.
“Am I not right to feel as if I
must stay seated, as if I must wait
before The Doll Stage, or, rather,
gaze at it so intensely that at
last an Angel
has to come and make the stuffed skins startle into life?
Angel and Doll: A real play, finally.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke
My most beloved doll was a Betsy McCall doll. I took her on our family vacation to Glacier National Park. One morning, I got her all dressed for the day’s adventure over the Going to the Sun Highway and arranged her in a little tableau under a huge old oak tree.
In the kerfluffle of departure, I forgot her until we were high on the pass, and then the parents said it was too late to go back for her. I was heartbroken. My mother, now age 89, has so many times told me one of the few regrets of her well-lived life was that they didn’t go back for Betsy.
In my memory, Betsy is still there, waiting for me. I have returned to Montana three times over the span of the ensuing five decades, and each time I have gone to that tree to look for her. At age 65, there is some inner compulsion to return again and again to the scene of the crime; the crime of abandoning a loved one to the wilderness.
Why does a doll, an inanimate object, hold such a place of psychic charge, of emotional power on The Doll Stage of my soul? She was my first loss; she went ahead of me and created the Room of Inconsolable Grief that is now always there just off stage. Betsy lives there in the good company of my father and a black dog named Fianna.
Dolls occupy a liminal space between the rational and the irrational, between form and its shadow, between daylight and dream. The psychodramas of childhood doll play became the dark well of Mystery that I draw on daily in my art, in all the details of a passionate life lived for and in art.
I return to the theme of dolls again and again in my Mysterious Night Vision Field Journal (soon to be an online class. Stay tuned by subscribing to toucancreate.com, the website for our online art classes.). I find them deeply satisfying. The dolls speak to me of my many interior worlds; they act out on The Doll Stage that is the theatrical doorway to the old growth forest of my mind.
It turns out that I am the “Angel who startles the stuffed skins into life. Angel and Doll: A real play, finally.”
Are you a doll lover, too? Some people hate dolls and find them creepy–I will write about that next time. Is there something in your life that acts as dolls do for me, as intermediary objects between daylight and the place where you do art, that waking dream?
Please share your thoughts in the comment field below, or the one at the very top of the page–between the two “The Lost Doll” titles where it says “Leave a Comment.”–I’d love to hear from you!