The Art of the Doll

Nancy Wiley's highly imaginative dolls have captured the interest of celebrities like Demi Moore, as well as museums across the country. The Columbia County artist- equal parts sculptor and clothing designer- explains how her fanciful creations are "born"



The Art of the Doll

 

Nancy Wiley¡¯s super-imaginative creations
have attracted a star-studded clientele,
as well as the notice of museums

 

by Anitra Brown

 

 

 

When people at parties ask Nancy Wiley what she does for a living, she tells them, ¡°I make dolls.¡± And the conversation usually ends there, says the pretty, long-legged doll maker, who lives with her husband and son in an 1860 Italianate townhouse in Hudson, Columbia County. ¡°They think I¡¯m sitting at my kitchen table making Cabbage Patch dolls,¡± she sighs. ¡°It takes too long to explain.¡±

 

Actually, her one-of-a-kind dolls command $4,500 and up from admirers like actress Demi Moore, who has more than 20 Nancy Wiley dolls in her private collection. Museum curators in Muscatine, Iowa, think so highly of Wiley¡¯s work that the Muscatine Art Center mounted a major exhibition of her dolls this year. And Reverie Publishing Company has just released a 170-page coffee-table book, detailing Wiley¡¯s life, career, and most important dolls.

 

Wiley is a serious figure in the world of art dolls, but she was drawn to the work because it¡¯s fun. After all, how many people get to reach into tiny drawers labeled ¡°stars,¡± ¡°small birds,¡± and ¡°little people¡± for their work?

 

¡°I¡¯m always on the lookout for things I can use,¡± says the soft-spoken Wiley, opening up a cabinet to reveal a collection of miniature spinning wheels. In her studio, piles of rich fabrics crowd bookshelves, miniature rhinestone crowns sparkle, and plastic bins hide a treasure trove of handmade Belgian lace, a gift from the owner of de Marchin a few blocks away on Warren Street, Hudson¡¯s miracle mile of shopping. ¡°Once people know you¡¯re working on dolls, they give you things,¡± Wiley observes.

 

If professions seem to run in some families, then doll making is in the Wileys¡¯ blood. Wiley¡¯s mother, Jean, made dolls before Nancy was born and later owned a toy store in Virginia. Her older brother, William, cut a magnificent swath through the art doll world in the 1980s. A brilliant innovator, he created dolls for art galleries, films, Lincoln Center, even Tiffany¡¯s famous window displays. While his career flourished, Nancy, now 40, studied at the Rhode Island School of Design.

 

In 1987, she moved to New York City, planning to become an illustrator of children¡¯s books. But two years later, William, who was HIV-positive, fell seriously ill with pneumonia while visiting his parents in Virginia. Nancy decided to abandon New York City to go and care for him, and he began to teach her the art of porcelain doll making. Her work progressed so quickly that William introduced her to his agent, who successfully launched her as a doll artist in 1990. Without her brother¡¯s illness, and her decision to care for him, she doubts she would have taken this path. ¡°He was such a formidable talent as a doll artist that I probably would have stayed away from it,¡± she says. ¡°It was his thing.¡± William died in 1991, just days after Nancy¡¯s marriage to longtime boyfriend Robert O¡¯Brien.

 

Wiley and O¡¯Brien moved to an apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, where Wiley set up a studio and continued to create dolls. The ¡¯90s were the go-go years for doll makers, with artists pouring into the market and prices for one-of-a-kind dolls rising from an average of $2,000 in 1990 to $4,000 in 1997.

 

When Wiley and O¡¯Brien were ready to buy a house and start a family, they chose Hudson, attracted by its affordable prices and reputation as a haven for artists. In 1998 they moved to a handsome brick townhouse just a few blocks from the Hudson River, with a carriage house and a charming walled garden. ¡°It made me think of the book The Secret Garden,¡± recalls Wiley. A year later, the couple¡¯s son, Henry, was born.

 

Wiley¡¯s porcelain dolls are created by first sculpting the figure in clay, making plaster molds, pouring slip into the molds, cleaning and sanding the resulting ¡°greenware,¡± and then firing it in the kiln. But lately, Wiley has been working in Paperclay, a Japanese modeling compound made from volcanic ash and talc. It gives her more freedom because she can sculpt directly into it. It is also more resilient, hardening into a form that can withstand being dropped on the floor.

 

One of her most spectacular recent dolls is The Fairy Godmother, from the Cinderella story. The 34-inch-high doll has four smaller dolls (Cinderella, the Prince, and the two stepsisters) attached to her dress. Wiley said she was inspired by an earlier ¡°theater piece¡± that set the Cinderella story within an actual stage. ¡°I realized that I could act out the story in one doll, with a theater in her dress,¡± she explains. ¡°It¡¯s an ensemble scene played out against the Fairy Godmother, who makes the whole thing happen.¡±

 

Once she had her concept, Wiley began sculpting The Fairy Godmother¡¯s face, which is the most important part of the dolls. ¡°Making a soft, pretty face is harder than you would think,¡± she says.  ¡°One thing can make it look wrong. It¡¯s easier to do an exaggerated face.¡± She starts by fashioning forms for the head and chest, legs, and arms from wire and aluminum foil. Next she covers them with Paperclay, building the basic shape, letting it harden, sanding it, and sculpting it. She adds more layers and repeats the process until it takes on the look she wants. ¡°Sculpting takes a long time ¡ª days and days and days,¡± Wiley says.

 

As she works, she starts pondering the costume, to be fashioned from all the bits and pieces she has collected over the years. Inspired by the idea of a pumpkin that turns into a coach, she decided on an orange palate for The Fairy Godmother¡¯s dress. The bodice is an expensive piece of Japanese fabric she bought in New York City some time ago. The skirt comes from a discarded dress someone gave her. As she works, she also thinks of the props she will use: a ceramic pumpkin in The Fairy Godmother¡¯s left hand; a cuckoo clock for one of the sister¡¯s hairdos, ¡°because I want her to look a little silly¡±; and the tiny glass slipper on the red pillow held by a kneeling prince. ¡°I was waiting a long time to use that slipper,¡± Wiley observes.

 

Finally, after many days of patient and painstaking sculpting, she is ready to paint. This goes much more quickly. The Fairy Godmother becomes a pale, ethereal beauty, with white skin and a beneficent cast to her eyes. Cinderella is just as beautiful but more earthly, with flushed, ruddy cheeks. The stepsisters¡¯ arched eyebrows and sidelong glances establish them as the haughty, jealous creatures they are.

 

With the sculpted parts finished and painted, Wiley is ready to create the actual doll. She sews the soft parts ¡ª torso, upper arms, and thighs ¡ª from muslin, attaches them to the arms and legs, then stuffs them with fiberfill stuffing. Structure comes from thick wires that extend up into the body from the lower legs and arms. The head and chest plate is glued to the body.

 

Once the doll is assembled, Wiley can create The Fairy Godmother¡¯s elaborate hairdo, fashioned from string and raffia curls, painted brown, then white (to give it the look of a powdered wig), with orange and gold highlights. In the middle of her massive hairdo sits the castle where Cinderella and the prince will live; Wiley constructed it herself, and surrounded it with tiny pines from a toy train set. Cinderella¡¯s hair, made with unraveled rope, hangs loose and rustic, tumbling from under a red cap. ¡°I wanted Cinderella to stand out, so I gave her a red hat that matches the Prince¡¯s pillow,¡± she says.

 

When the doll is complete, it¡¯s ready to be clothed. Wiley constructs the costume directly onto the doll, not sewing a separate outfit that can be taken off and put back on. Using trial and error, she pins pieces of fabric onto the doll to see what works. If a color doesn¡¯t look right, she might paint it, as she did the vivid orange central panel of The Fairy Godmother¡¯s dress. (And she always gives her dolls underwear, because collectors always check.)

 

 

Fairy tales and children¡¯s books have been a rich source of inspiration for Wiley, with Beauty and the Beast, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Sugarplum Fairy (called Visions of Sugarplums) among her most fanciful creations. But she has also drawn ideas for her work from classical mythology, Shakespeare, 18th-century fashion, and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Vermeer. One of her most famous dolls wears a wide striped pannier dress, which acts as a theatrical backdrop for two puppets that dangle from her hands. Demi Moore purchased the doll, and when John F. Kennedy Jr.¡¯s George magazine invited Moore to be on the cover, she dressed up like the doll (with Wiley creating the costume, of course). The cover line read, ¡°Sex and Politics: Demi Moore on Who¡¯s Pulling the Strings.¡±

 

Wiley has occasionally delved into other art forms, creating a life-size doll of Alma Mahler for a dance choreographed by Carol Blanco, performed in New York City and praised by the New York Times for its ¡°ambitious visual.¡± And for the show in Muscatine, Iowa, she created her first doll inspired by a literary figure ¡ª Mark Twain, who lived in the Mississippi river town.

 

While relatively few can afford her one-of-a-kind dolls, Wiley is currently working on a series of 12 prototype angels for Russ Berrie & Company, which will reproduce the line in China. Sculpted entirely from Paperclay so they can be more easily reproduced, each angel will have a different theme, like winter, autumn, or new baby. And at $50, the new coffee-table book, A Dollmaker¡¯s Art: The Creations of Nancy Wiley, gives doll lovers a chance to appreciate the breadth and mysterious strength of her work.

 

But when people ask her at parties what she does, she refuses to say, ¡°I¡¯m a doll artist.¡± She waves a hand, dismissing the thought. ¡°It seems too pretentious. People can choose to consider my dolls art or not.¡± ¡ö

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