Creating dolls is such a part of who I am that I can’t imagine not having them in my life. Articulating what it is I do and why I do it, however, is much harder than the actual making!
It has taken me over twenty years of practice to embrace the term ‘doll’ and to be happy to name myself a ‘doll artist’.
Although dolls are widely regarded as a meaningful and crucial part of our material culture, there is something aloof and dismissive about the way in which dolls and doll makers are sometimes regarded by their artistic peers and contemporaries. The term itself brings up images of little old ladies analysing brush strokes with a critical eye and a disproving demeanor, and dusty old rooms filled with dead plastic eyes. The word of art doll artists, which I associate myself with, is much more vibrant and diverse. I find just showing a few photos of my work is enough to convince people that these are not ordinary dolls.
I made my first doll at age 10. Will Scarlet from Robin Hood. My bug-eyed, jaundiced creation was then followed by a steady stream of characters inspired by The Lord of the Rings and Dragonlance. Fast-forward to 2015 and although my work is still inspired by fantasy, I see my work aligned more with low-brow and pop-surrealist influences than high fantasy. Some influences from the fantasy world, however, still remain.
My dolls enable me to create new entities and personas, to be a world builder. As a child, it meant that any thought or fantasy I could dream up could become a tangible reality, and I was restricted only by my own ability. Characters gestate in my mind and I have a constant need to get the ideas out into their physical form; an expression of my own imagination influenced by environmental, social and political narratives that provide for a rich storytelling experience. Each doll is a small piece of me.
The most important attribute I feel within my work is achieving character believability, through their physicality, expression, attention to scale and proportion, texture and tone. I believe that there is a ‘golden section’ or a hierarchy of rules that determines good doll design. Like good architecture and design, there are attributes which, when addressed in correct proportion and composition, create the believable being. The expression in the eyes; the size of the head in comparison to the limbs, each decision plays a valuable role in the development of the whole. This meaningful being is a timeless creation with its own world, purpose and ambition. For me to achieve success in my work, a piece needs to speak to me, and continue to express long after my pleasure in its creation has waned. It is this challenge that I am sure most artists encounter in their work, through self-critique and iterative advancement. For me, it is this driving force that keeps me creating new work.
Tanya Marriott is a Senior Lecturer in Design at the College of Creative Arts, Massey University, and the President of the National Institute of American Doll Artists. She has been making dolls for over 20 years, inspired by the world around her and, predominantly, her obsession with birds and war.