Doll Parts: drawing event at Firstsite part 1

The ‘Doll Parts’ drawing event took place on Saturday the 28th September in the fantastic purpose built learning studio at Firstsite Gallery Colchester. I set up a ‘tableau’ of dolls, mannequins and marionettes old and new.


Some of the dolls were actually my own and one of the first comments was how they were in such good condition considering their age (and mine!). This immediately sparked a discussion around how girls treat their dolls, which always fascinates me. It seems you were either a girl who cossetted and groomed your dolls like children, keeping them clean and undamaged or you were a girl who used them like ‘voodoo’ dolls – hair cut and pulled out, clothes torn, faces drawn all over. I was in the former camp – my dolls were always perfect, pristine, I wouldn’t have dreamed of damaging them or ‘using them up’. BUT. Now I pull them apart in my images, dismember them. Behead them. Tear their hair out and their eyes. But don’t start psychoanalysing me; that’s what my Doctorate research is for…

The women handled and studied the dolls and it was interesting to see which ones they connected with. Various other people strayed in from the galleries, all had immediate responses to the dolls and wanted to comment on them. We talked a little about why people have such a gut reaction to dolls – what their uncanny quality actually is.  We also reflected on the ‘evolution’ of popular dolls through different decades. In the 50′s and 60′s baby dolls were the thing, training us to be little mothers. Indeed, my first doll (‘Annabel’) was given to me age 2 as a baby substitute when my first sibling was born. The in the 70′s and 80′s girls obsessed about Barbie and her extensive wardrobe. Then Bratz arrived in the 90′s – they seem highly sexualised compared even to Barbie. It’s as if the doll itself is growing up and childhood is shrinking accordingly.



We did some fast sketching of different dolls then tried tracing through perspex clipboards to create drawings on acetate, this was a complex activity that explored how we translate three dimensions into two. The drawings had a frailty and interesting distortion to them.


We then projected the images as large as possible to create ‘phantasmagorical’ apparitions on the ceiling and walls. The images distorted as they wrapped around the architecture and small dolls became monstrous. We interacted with the projections with our hands and bodies.


I had plenty of books available including one on the pre-Christian gods and goddesses of Europe – they made a fascinating juxtaposition with the new drawings of modern era dolls – reminding us of the root word ‘idol’ – indeed, the doll was originally an object to be worshiped.


Experimentations with the Real and the Illusion:




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the News on the Doll

See link here to my recent free newspaper – initially available around Essex galleries/libraries/cafes and then nationally.

The free newspaper as artwork is useful as it is easily available, it bombards during its short lifetime but may also have life beyond – maybe it will end its life as a chip wrapper, a poster on a wall, kindling for a fire or to block out an empty shop window…as this newspaper is predominantly visual it may serve as an interesting antidote to the all pervasive free ‘Metro’ or even the ‘Evening Standard’  –  a contemplative moment for the commuter…

The image below appears on the front cover – it is made from carbon paper printed on to linen paper and presents multiple motifs current in my practice. Titled ‘Mirror’, it is my version of the Vanitas genre – ideas of immortality and beauty as decay…


This image is titled ‘Grande Vanitas’ and presents further motifs and appropriations that I return to again and again – images of the female form as idol from ancient to the modern.


‘Appearance Research’


I came across a place called the ‘Centre for Appearance Research’ recently. I was almost ready to choke on my muesli, imagining it was the academic version of the Daily Mail website’s ‘sidebar of shame’ (ie endless ‘pap’ photos of women in the media in various states of undress with appalling ‘judgements’ cast on their myriad appearances and behaviours…). It came up in a Guardian article from last year, about the link of female depression with anxiety about appearance.

The C.A.F. is concerned with how ‘invested people have become in their appearance, how central it is now to the value they place on their themselves’.On further investigation, the C.A.F. is no superficial, commerce-driven ‘think tank’ but a faculty of the University of the West of England that ‘strives to make a real difference to the lives of the many hundreds of thousands of people with appearance-related concerns both in the United Kingdom and across the world’. That is, people with facial disfigurements through birth defects, injuries, burns etc.

It’s moving to look at the case histories and research currently being undertaken there and it presents a sobering counterpoint to the hysterical imperatives from mass media to ‘Remove the visible effects of aging!’ ‘You too can have perfect skin!’ ‘Beyond natural skin matching make-up’ ‘The Eraser perfect and cover foundation’ ‘Face the future with firmer skin’ and the endless ‘fat reducing’ adverts ‘lose Ibs in one week! by obeying 1 rule!’ that scream at me every time I go to email or a social networking site…there may well be an advert at the base of this WordPress post, I do hope it’s a weight loss ‘miracle pill’.

We’re living in an appearance obsessed society for sure – young women particularly are under enormous pressure to resemble the perfected media images we’re all bombarded with everyday.

‘The psychotherapist Susie Orbach, (who, since publishing Fat is a Feminist Issue in 1978 has become a loud and public voice in the conversation about body image) points out that ‘none of us live in a vacuum…simply acknowledging the pressure doesn’t eliminate it’.

‘Look the Doll in the Eye’ is a kind of riposte to all of this – the only answer I have – in a world of artificially perfected images of the idealised female, impossible ideals to attain that achieve only self-loathing and discontent. The discontent that of course fuels our consumer driven society.

The doll symbolises the alienation the girl can feel, the manipulation that she’s subjected to, the objectification of her very self that this wretched state of affairs propagates: There is indeed a mental health condition called the ‘Marionette Syndrome’, for which I substitute the doll: ‘an emotional complex of feelings of powerlessness, emotional rigidity and ego alienation’. My images of the doll/female pretty much embody these conditions. The doll is also, however, the human substitute as perfection, as idol, as simulacrum to be worshiped. More on that in another post.





Look the Doll in the Eye

baby skin‘Look the Doll in the Eye’ is a working title of a new project that will explore ideas around women’s self-image, funded by Arts in Essex:

‘…the more women self-objectify, the more likely they are to be depressed.’

(The Guardian 10th June 2012)

The title relates both to the idea that images can ‘unlock’ intuitive responses in the viewer and to the complex relationship women often have with their own self-image.

‘Self-objectification’ is perhaps particularly prevalent in Essex with its ‘TOWIE’ mass media identity and stereotypical ideas of a certain ‘beauty ideal’. This project will serve as an ‘antidote’ to negative self-image. It will offer an opportunity to take part in an art event to make a playful, creative response to such objectification, which will empower women by encouraging them to ‘own’ their self-image. To support this there will be a number of new workshops with teenagers, building on the success of ‘Superstrumps’, my previous female stereotype project with Syd Moore.


I will be producing a large print run newspaper of the same title:

I have found the ‘free newspaper’ format to be a very useful one: I am interested in its all-pervasive distribution, its accessibility and availability. Rather than trying to bring an audience to the artwork ie into the usual gallery setting, the artwork goes out to the audience – the wider public.

I will also be presenting a ‘live drawing event’ at First Site Colchester:

This will present dolls and mannequins as subject and muse. Although reflecting on complex themes, the emphasis during the event will be on ‘imaginative play’, this will include:

Projecting drawings back on to the self (you literally ‘become’ your drawing) and a collaboration in making life size paper cut-out doll’s clothing, ‘dressing-up’ and documenting as Polaroids.

My work explores feminine identity through my representations of the female figure and the complexities surrounding this image.

‘Look the Doll in the Eye’ refers to the idea that the doll is a perfect vessel in which boundaries dissolve between ‘self’ (human) and ‘object’ (other) and for exploration of our relationship to body image and objectification of the female form. In this way I use the doll as a motif in my work. I’m interested in its role as a silent witness to female narratives, it has a special place in the female imagination and can communicate complex ideas around identity.


I am currently engaged in research which explores the inter-relationship between drawing as an act of transformation and the female doll as representation of the human ie something that looks human but is not human. This work reveals my perception that drawing itself can be considered to be inherently ‘uncanny’.