These dolls are characters
‘They relate to somebody, they tell you who they are’
Writing teachers like to say that character development is an important tool in any writer’s arsenal. But these days, most of Peggy O’Connor’s characters are not in books.
These “characters” at O’Connor’s home are for sale at Mormor’s gift shop in Shelburne Falls. They are cloth dolls with expressive faces and jointed arms and legs. Some have pretty faces and some don’t. They’re of all ages and races.
“A lot of dollmakers are into fairies,” says O’Connor. “That doesn’t grab me.”
O’Connor, a writer and former high school English teacher, now has a growing family of 18- to 20-inch tall “people.” Some are replicas of real people she has known at different stages of their lives. There are also dolls of whimsy: a bearded guru on a meditation pillow and a slender, adoring follower that O’Connor has named “The Sprite.”
“She’s about 40 years old,” O’Connor says of The Sprite. “She’s like the fan you always see at a concert, the woman who dances by herself in front of the band.”
A fancy bejeweled “Princess Pat” doll was inspired by a character in a child’s song that was sung at Marks Meadow School in Amherst, where O’Connor had worked as an aide. The lyrics say that the princess has a “rig bamboo” of “red, gold and blue,” so O’Connor made her a royal staff out of bamboo, decorated in the appropriate colors. A pearl-studded hair barrette that O’Connor found at a tag sale, became Princess Pat’s “wig” and was the first inspiration for the doll.
One flaxen-haired musician — in a jazzy fedora and suspenders, jamming on his harmonica — represents her husband, Richard O’Connor, from an earlier time in his life. He is sitting in a chair, with a cardboard amplifier beside him. Next to “Richard” is a doll that looks like Peggy — but she is re-imagined as a guitar-playing blues singer with a white and aqua guitar.
O’Connor calls her “The Singer Doll,” and she represents O’Connor’s fantasy, “to be Bonnie Raitt.”
“This is in my dreams,” O’Connor says with a laugh.
But the guitar in the doll’s arms is a facsimile of Eric Clapton’s, based on one of his guitars that O’Connor found on the Internet and made herself, out of painted Styrofoam. The tuning pegs are pearl beads.
O’Connor has created a doll that resembles her cousin, a Boston University professor, in his 1970s “dashiki era,” sporting a goatee and large spectacles. He is standing next to a doll that, O’Connor says “turned out to be a librarian.” Her prim, red-and-white striped suit is made out of a jacket that O’Connor found in the Wendell “free box.”
Another doll resembles Mahalia Jackson.
There are also two sisters that were inspired by characters in the 1991 movie, “Daughters of the Dust,” about Gullah women preparing to migrate north from St. Helene’s Island in 1902. “My mother was from the island,” O’Connor remarked.
One doll, wearing elegant sandals sits in a movable wheelchair made of wooden dowels and toy wheels. Beside her is her “service dog” — a doll/dog who looks a lot like O’Connor’s real dog, Paki.
“The whole point of these dolls is they relate to somebody — they tell you who they are,” she says.
“If you bought a doll and if it worked for you, in my mind, the doll would be personal to you. I imagined the dolls would be something that would inspire your own creativity — your own story.”
She calls them her “character dolls.”
“Some are real people and some I’ve made up,” she explained. “You can live with them and they become friends.”
O’Connor first learned to sew by making her own doll clothes when she was 7 or 8 years old, she said. Later on, she took up sewing in Home Economics class and started making her own clothes.
When her daughter, Kate, was a child, O’Connor sewed both for Kate and for her dolls. She also made cloth animals for her daughter, as toys.
After moving to Greenfield about seven years ago, O’Connor was inspired by a doll-making book by Patti Medaris Culea and O’Connor started making her dolls. The doll bodies are mostly made of cotton muslin and stuffed with Fiberfill. The noses, lips and eyes are needle-sculpted, to be three dimensional. The faces are colored with pencils and gel-markers. “Paint tends to stiffen the cloth,” she says.
Besides making the doll body, O’Connor often makes the items that help to tell the doll’s story. “They like their things,” she jokes about the dolls and their possessions.
“I have to make up a story that leads me into making the doll. I start out with the body and by the time I do the face, I sort of have a good idea of who the doll is: How do I show that this is a mall rat? Or that that’s a professor?”
“Once I get a name for the face, I just look for the items in a store or a free box that would complete the image. And, if I can’t find it, I have to make it.”
“I’ve never gone to a doll-making workshop. I’ve just looked at dolls,” she said. “You can’t do what someone else does and be happy with it. I don’t want rules.”
O’Connor sews the dolls on a portable Singer sewing machine. “Each doll I think of, I have to think up another concept,” said O’Connor.
O’Connor has a master’s degree in creative writing so, hopefully, she’ll think up many more dolls.
Mormor’s is the only store where her dolls are for sale. Most are in the $100 to $200 range. Mormor’s on Deerfield Avenue is open Tuesday through Sunday.
For more information, call O’Connor at 413-773-8297 or email her at:
Staff reporter Diane Broncaccio has worked at The Recorder since 1988. Her beat includes west county. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or: 413-772-0261, ext. 277.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.