By Eva Andersen
At the Harlem Annual Holiday Doll Show, each artist and collector will be quick to point out one thing: each doll has a story.
The annual show, put on by the Morrisania Doll Society since 2000, is tucked away in two rooms in the basement of Dwyer Cultural Center. Here, a passionate group of 14 vendors have come from as close as Harlem to as far as South Carolina to showcase their distinctly different collections.
“At this show I like to bring together artists with all types of creative styles,” says Ellen Ferebee, president of the Morrisania Doll Society. The longtime doll collector from the Bronx says she started the show in order to meet the artists whose diverse work she had always admired. “Art takes many shapes and forms, and it’s important that we have dolls that showcase that.”
Though the show is tiny, each unique doll is infused with a history–and often personality–that is larger than life.
Take a certain long-legged, brown leather doll with puckered lips and a sheer fishnet dress, a creation of Shaquora R’Bey, a Brooklyn doll artist. The way R’Bey speaks about the doll, even though she doesn’t have a name, makes her sound as if she’s a real person.
“She has a diva-tude,” says R’Bey, referring to the handcrafted doll. She further clarifies, “Not an attitude, but a diva-tude.”
Donning gold metal jewelry also created by R’Bey, the doll sassily perches on the display table. According to R’Bey, she does high fashion and runway modeling.
“She thinks she’s too good for these types of shows–she has better things to do,” says R’Bey. “But I convinced her to come along.”
While some dolls are fiery, others are elegant and determined. At a nearby table, a figure in a gold, bejeweled tutu reaches out her slender arms and gracefully holds an arabesque. Valerie Gladstone, a former dancer who studied at Alvin Ailey studio and performed in several ballets in her youth, made her. The artist, who has also worked in the wardrobe department for Dance Theatre of Harlem, has been sculpting dolls out of polymer clay in her studio in Brooklyn for the last 20 years.
“I named this one ‘In Awe,’ ” says Gladstone of the dancer in the gold tutu. She says the name was inspired by the looks on the faces of three girls who saw a similar gold tutu on display at the The Dance Theater of Harlem, when they put on the production of the ballet, “Le Corsaire.”
At a nearby table, another three girls stand in awe themselves, gazing at the collection of doll artist and collector Judanna Cavallo, from Fresh Meadows, Queens. Cavallo’s table is perhaps the most classically “girly-girl” of the collections, with many of her dolls donning braids, curled locks, and frilly lace dresses. Cavallo played with these dolls as a child, and she is excited to share them with a new generation.
“She’s a sea fairy!” says Cavallo as she places a doll into the wanting arms of one of the little girls.
Cavallo, herself fairy-like, looks like she may have stepped out of the sea–with an aqua-colored blouse, earrings, and purse that match her butterfly neck tattoo in the same color. Her green eyes light up as she talks about the dolls in her 150-doll collection.
“They come from all over the world,” she says. Behind the table, she carefully maintains the owner’s certificates that accompany many of her vintage dolls–each adds to the historical value.
Cavallo is excited to talk about her favorite vintage doll–but the doll herself does not look excited at all. Instead, she wears a plain blue shirt with matching pants and a melancholy expression. The doll was designed by a famous Swiss dollmaker named Sasha Morgenthaler, whose dolls were meant to show realistic emotions, defying the norm of dolls who always wore a smile.
“Sasha’s dolls were meant to let girls express if they were feeling sad,” said Cavallo, posing the doll’s arms and legs admiringly.
Indeed, many of the dolls at the Harlem show have a rich history. At the table of vintage doll collector Fern Gillespie sits a doll from the 1940’s that stops mid-torso; instead of legs, there is a flat base made out of floral material. Apparently, it’s meant to sit on a toaster.
Gillespie, a longtime lecturer on black history and black Americana from New Jersey, notes that in the early part of the twentieth century, black dolls had yet to be seen as a positive plaything.
“Their images would be exaggerated, or they would be used for appliances, like this one,” she says, holding up the toaster doll. “It’s important that the contemporary black dolls have a more positive image.”
Morrisania Doll Society president Ferebee worked her own table. Although she did not have any collectibles for sale, she stood and watched the crowd at the show that she worked to put together since last spring. She did sell homemade banana bread–a recipe she says she got from the New York Times.
“It’s nice to have such a mix of energy and talent,” says Ferebee, who wears a doll pinned to base of the neckline of her black dress. “After this, I’m going to go home and have a nice glass of wine.”