The Creative Spark: Milagro Pin Dolls

Here’s another story about a creative spark~~

The inspiration for the Milagro Pin Dolls came from The French Quarter in New Orleans, as well. In fact, all three stories I’m going to tell you–the Voodoo Dolls, the Milagro Pin Dolls, and the Journal Skirts–all have their roots in the French Quarter. The latter two have nothing to do with New Orleans or the culture of the city or anything that’s tied directly to that place, but, for me, it’s always been magical. From the time I was a little kid and my dad brought me this charm bracelet from one of his business trips:

Yes, that's cat fur you see.

I’ve been entranced not only by the city itself but by what it evokes in my head, something I can’t even explain. I get Ideas there, ideas that are only tangentially related to anything I see or hear or smell but that are, nevertheless, sparked by something, something intangible to anyone else but richly evocative for me. I don’t know what it is, and I can’t explain it. I’m not interested in the noise and trash of Bourbon Street or the high-priced antique stores on Royal Street or the bars or the food, yet I love them all. It’s as if walking around the streets somehow flips a switch in my brain. Everyone needs a place like that, whether it’s a room in a house or a forest path or a garden or a shop or library or desert. Someplace that makes your brain spark. You may not make anything that has any obvious relationship to the place, but it matters. It really does.

We were walking along Royal Street one August, wandering in and out of shops, mostly in an effort to cool off. In one shop there was a glass case with some pins, pins made of old photographs set in bottle caps. Now, this was back before everyone on the planet was using old bottle caps, and the notion of using them for pins was intriguing to me. I looked and looked at these, turning them over in my hand and kind of spacing out.

That’s what happens, you know, when you’re looking at something but your brain is a million light years away.  Because here’s the deal: I loved these pins, but not for what they were. I have no real interest in bottle caps or old photographs glued onto stuff. What sparked the ideas were two things: “old photographs of faces” and “something you can wear.” And I was off.

Because I work mostly with fabric, the idea that was buzzing around in my head was making something of fabric that used old photographs. I had yearbooks over 50 years old, but remember, this was in the days before you could just pick up a magazine and read a how-to about transferring images to fabric or go online and find a video tutorial. I had to hunt for information about how to get images on fabric, and then I had to find t-shirt transfer sheets and learn how to use those and then figure how to get rid of the shiny plastic surface. I started making little people, and I wanted arms and legs that would move. I hit upon the idea of using milagros, the tiny metal offerings used in Mexico to ask for protection or blessings, and Los Milgritos (The Little Miracles) were born. I discovered that I could buy the milgritos in the gift shop of the local “Mexican Catholic Church” (that’s exactly how it was listed in the phone book) and I went there to check. I definitely didn’t want to use these for anything that might be offensive, so I talked to the people there and told them what I was doing, and they thought about it and said that as long as I was using them in a respectful way, not with ill will or bad intentions, it was OK.

The problems I had to solve in creating these were the fun part, of course: how to make the arms and legs secure but still allow them to move freely, how to bead the pins as fully as possible without spending years on each one, how to attach the pin backs (hint: not with glue). Each one had a name and a back story. This is Melvin, who is in charge of Juice Things–anything that requires a battery or a cord or gasoline, that’s what Melvin takes care of. He hangs by the iMac, of course:

Clarence, who takes care of Big Stuff and protects against things like tornadoes and terrorists, bankruptcy and audits by the IRS, hangs on the inside of the front door:

I have pins I made of my husband and his daddy,

and one I made of my mother. I think all the rest are gone–they were in shops and galleries across Texas and in Taos, in Ft. Collins, CO; Albuquerque, and Seattle. For a while I offered them at shows, but as I began to use more faces from the yearbooks of historically black colleges, I found that people would buy the dolls with white faces but not the ones with black faces. So I quit making them altogether, because life is too short to get irritated at potential customers, you know? When that happens, it’s time to move on.

And then, that autumn, at my annual trip to the International Quilt Show in Houston, I walked down one of the aisles and found, hanging on a pegboard, milagro pin doll kits. The plastic bags contained everything you needed to make your own Milagro Pin Doll, down to the “flesh”-colored tacky plastic arm and legs, which were supposed to look like metal milagros, to the face transfer to iron onto the fabric body. I was shocked, sure, but I wasn’t nearly as upset as you might imagine. How come? Yes, I was pretty sure I’d been copied–Los Milgritos had been widely shown by then. But the reason it didn’t make me really angry was because I’d already moved on, which is as it should be. We’d just gotten back from our annual trip to New Orleans, and my mind had already moved on to something new and–it turns out–even more exciting to me. Of course! That’s the beauty of the creative spark.


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2 Responses to The Creative Spark: Milagro Pin Dolls

  1. Caatje says:

    I can so relate to what you say about having a place like you have New Orleans. To me it’s the city of London. Whenever I’m there it’s like coming home to a place that just inspires me 24/7. I got to stay there for four weeks the last time I was there and people just didn’t get how I could fill so much time there and when I explain it, it doesn’t help. Because all I do there is walk. I walk the streets, I walk the markets, I walk the parks, I walk the different burroughs and neighbourhoods, I walk the museums (some can actually make me cry with awe), I stay away from the touristy spots, I don’t do the theatres or club life. I just take in the atmosphere and observe, observe, observe. Sometimes I take pictures, but more often I don’t. It’s about being there and being a part of it. What ‘it’ is, I couldn’t tell you, but I need a regular shot of it to feel alive 😉 Somehow this city has been under my skin ever since I first visited 17 years ago. (oh and writing about it makes me ache to go back, thank you very much, haha)

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      That’s it EXACTLY! I’m so glad someone else has this reaction to a specific place. Most people don’t understand how I can walk around the French Quarter, year after year, walking and walking and walking. It’s the air, but not the air. It’s the heat, but not the heat. It’s the buildings, but not the buildings. There’s no way to explain it because even I don’t understand it. But something happens, and it’s marvelous. Something similar-but-not-as-strong happens in Santa Fe. XO