The Creative Spark–Voodoo Dolls, Part 2
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I made a test voodoo doll–a maquette, if you will, or a muslin–to get an idea of what I wanted. I actually did use muslin, tea-dyed and stained. But the doll needed to be black. Maybe a sort of rusty black–so I dyed some fabric black. But that came out a little blue. I tried black cotton fabric, but it looked too new and shiny, and although sanding it helped, I was afraid it would form holes. I finally settled on black flannel, which had the texture and softness with no sheen. Throughout all this, I was refining in my head what I wanted the doll to look like.
Then there were the eyes. I wanted them to look real. I tried stamping a realistic eyeball on muslin and heatsetting it, coloring it, cutting it out and sewing it on. I tried doing the same thing but using a coverable button, to give the eyes dimension.
This is the only photograph I can find of any of the voodoo dolls. I don’t have any of the dolls, either–they’ve all gone to other homes. Anyway–the eyes you see here were stamped onto polymer clay, which was then cut out and baked and colored and glued in place. I went through several more experiments with eyes. Same with the stuffing–I read somewhere about using dry rice, and I made a couple of the voodoo dolls filled with that. But then someone sent me a voodoo doll they had made, and eeeeeek! Weevils were coming out of the seams. Dry rice will have those. No more dolls stuffed with grain, thank you very much.
Once I got the basic body and eyes and stuffing, I began thinking about what I wanted to put on the dolls. I knew I didn’t want that tacky plastic stuff, so I started going through my stash of Stuff, pulling out and setting aside anything that seemed like a possibility. Some things eventually worked, and some I had to put back, but the key for me was not to limit what I was looking for at the very first. At the first, I was just making a pile of stuff that might work.
And then I started making voodoo dolls. I made one, and then I’d look at it and think about what I might have done differently and make another one. As I talked about making them, people began to give me their hair when they got a haircut. I figured out an elaborate process of securing the hair so thoroughly that I was even able to use it on a voodoo doll I sewed to one of the Journal Skirts–more about those later–and laundered.
It was all about learning. Trying something, tweaking it, trying something new. I’d get excited each time I started a new one.I started collecting more of the things I was sewing on the bodies: old Scrabble tiles, wheat pennies with holes drilled in them, glass beads, tiny worry dolls, bones, tiny plastic baby dolls (someone bought that one to protect the crib of their new baby). As I did all the handwork, I thought about the back story, where these might have come from, who was making them, what purpose they would serve. I discovered that Mama Goode was making these. She lives in the swamp and is very powerful. She makes protective voodoo dolls and sends them out into the world to protect people from The Bad Man. As I worked, stories unrolled themselves in my head. Some I stamped onto clothes; some I stamped onto the cards that accompanied the dolls when they left.
For the doll in the photo–someone gave me a box of bleached bones–once people find out you’re making voodoo dolls, they give you all kinds of things they’ve had but haven’t known what to do with: a box of rattlesnake rattles, tiny bones. While I was working, I was reading everything I could find on voodoo dolls and voodoo, reading about the history of Marie Laveau in New Orleans and the psychological studies done on people who believe that voodoo works. What interested me wasn’t the religious aspect, but the idea of a helpful talisman. It was about making these little dolls and thinking about how we all like the idea of something made to protect us from whatever is scary out there–The Bad Man or snakes or pride or warts. Whatever.
The a couple of years later, when we went back to New Orleans for our annual Satchmo Summerfest trip, I took some of the dolls with me and went to the voodoo shop I’d visited in vain. I showed the dolls to the owner, and she bought some from me wholesale and sold them in her shop. The next summer, we walked into the shop on our way to dinner, and there, hanging from the ceiling, was one of my dolls. I can’t tell you how exciting this was: I set out to find something, searching everywhere, and had no luck. I learned how to make what it was I’d been looking for, and the place I’d looked for it now had what I’d created. Someone else looking for the same thing could walk in, see what I’d made, and take it home.
When we walked back out on the sidewalk, I told my husband, “If I got hit by a truck right now, I’d die perfectly happy.” And it was true.
You can imagine the rest of the story. The voodoo doll obsession eventually faded. I sold a lot of them for a while, especially considering that they were expensive–everything was done by hand. I’d done what I wanted to do–make an authentic-looking voodoo doll–and more, and I was pretty much over it. Once I’d figured out all the techniques and solved all the problems, it wasn’t nearly as much fun, and I moved on to making something else.
But while I was obsessed, making dolls constantly, experimenting and refining? It was just the best, and I can’t recommend it enough: make something you don’t know how to make. Try stuff, change stuff, tweak your ideas. You’ll never be bored.
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