Exclusive Q&A: Jill Penney’s Artful Dolls

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View an annotated slideshow of Penney’s work here>>

Doll maker Jill Penney says she inevitably ends up talking about her childhood when she talks about her art. Fascinated with the fairies and strange creatures created by the contemporary doll artists of her youth, Penney began making her own dolls in the 8th grade. “I like the idea of making something that otherwise wouldn’t exist — manifesting things that only live in the imagination,” she says. “The fairies and creatures that I started off making are the epitome of that goal, but the love of making real the unreal is in everything I do.”

Today, Penney’s dolls remain enchanting, fanciful, and evocative. From her Trogs and plush pets, to her whimsical sometimes eerie polymer dolls, Penney’s creations offer a tantalizing possibility to the child in each of us: maybe, just maybe, the creatures of our daydreams are true.

Curious about the woman behind the dolls, Flavorpill caught up with Penney to discuss the characters she creates, and her varied artistic interests.

Flavorpill: Why do you make dolls, and how do you make them?

Jill Penney: Dolls, characters and stories allow me to deal with and make sense of things. Playing with dolls when I was little — enacting things with them and finding comfort in holding them — was a way of learning and coping. Now that I make them they have become the facilitators for meeting people and having different experiences that help me grow and develop. Characters in books and movies that I enjoy act as entrances to experiences that I can observe and learn from. They allow for speculation and reflection. Dolls that have characters and stories are tangible touchstones that lead to bigger realms of exploration and have helped me learn how to engage with myself and the world around me.

When making a doll there are steps that require full attention — the initial idea, figuring out the methods and materials, and problem solving along the way — but there are steps that require little attention — the hundreds of hand stitches that make up a coat or sculpting the hands and various other body parts — tasks that I could do in my sleep but that still require massive amounts time and an almost meditative, out of body state to get through. It is in those steps in the process that I can give my attention to other aspects of the doll — where the story and character truly get developed. Most of my characters have stories or explanations that go with them. That is part of why I think I’m attracted to filmmaking and puppetry — because the stories play as equally an important a role as the character.

My sculptural dolls are made out of Sculpey — an oven-baked, polymer clay that I find quite easy and enjoyable to work with. I sculpt the necessary parts and then attach them to a wire armature around which I build the body and then hand sew the clothes on. My subjects range from cute to creepy, estranged to endearing but are essentially representational figures/fictitious characters that I merely introduce to the world in their creation.

FP: Do you find that there are one or two things you’re consistently trying to communicate or accomplish with your work?

JP: I would hope my work is a catalyst for imagination and exploration that comes in an aesthetically appealing, tactilely stimulating package that once engaged sets in motion and opens up the same realms of possibility in others that it does in me.

FP: What inspires or compels you to make different dolls?

JP: Sometimes I make a doll simply to dress it and sometimes I make a doll because it is a character that I want to work with and study. They are like portraits into which I stuff as much information and personality as I can, stopping short before I make them move or make the rest of their miniature world. I’ve never really gotten into the narratives behind the characters with anyone before and that is something that I am just now starting to work out and write down for myself.

My original plush pieces, the Troglodytes, started out as a present for a family member. Once I saw how cute they were I took them to my local designer toy store, Rotofugi, and asked if they’d sell them. They agreed and they were a big hit and I am still making and selling them, what is it? Five years later, it seems like hundreds of thousands of Trogs later! I like working in plush because it isn’t fragile. It survives shipping and being played with and allows for an interactiveness that my sculptural dolls do not. I still have limitations to my plush that I don’t seem to have with my sculptural dolls but I guess it is a different medium and has a different style entirely.

FP: Did you play with dolls as child?

JP: Yes. American Girl and Barbie were my favorites. They were “old enough,” I guess, to have more play potential — I didn’t want to just care for a baby I wanted a doll that created greater possibilities for me and with these types of dolls I could do so much. I started off just playing with them — collecting their clothes and furniture and accessories but as I got more into it I started customizing them and making things for them that I couldn’t buy. Necessity is the mother of invention and in my case it also helped me develop a number of diverse skills. I sculpted my own Barbie food, made avant garde Barbie clothing for fashion shows, and built everything from forests to snow covered mountains and an ice skating rink.

I think I enjoyed the building and planning and making more than I did the actual playing with the dolls. It used to annoy my sister a little I think because she would always ask me while I was working, “When are we going to get to play?” The making was so enjoyable I felt like I was playing. I could disappear for hours by myself working and making. It was the most peaceful most empowering time of my life.

FP: Much of your work is very small. What is it about that scale that appeals to you?

JP: I often wonder if I’m attracted to working in small scales because of that empowerment — the control it affords me. I was able to do so much with my dolls in my room because they were small. I could control whole worlds as long as the components were small enough for me to manipulate. Now that I am getting bigger everything else is getting bigger and I realize more and more how little control I have. There are bigger obstacles now to that creative security and tranquility I once experienced. Even as my own visions develop they often seem bigger than myself or my resources are capable of creating. When I was younger I felt like I had no bounds. Now I definitely feel limits or at least resistance to my imagination’s boundlessness.

FP: Do you find yourself responding to these limits either through your work, or in other ways? How has your realization of these obstacles, and the “resistance” affected you?

JP: I respond by doing the best I can with what I have and coming to terms with the fact that the sky is not always the limit. That’s disappointing sometimes, but as my work gets better and I get more exacting it inevitably leads to greater disappointment because I can always see more options and better ways to do things that aren’t always feasible. It is probably like the saying “the more you know the more you know you don’t know,” in that “the more I can do the more I realize I can’t do,” in terms of skills and resources and time. When the restrictions are too great I sometimes have to set aside the project to maintain its integrity. I often can come back to it later when my skills and resources have increased. Other times I have to compromise and because of the limits. Or, I get really creative and the solutions are even better than what I originally imagined.

FP: Have you considered mass-producing your dolls?

JP: I just can’t bring myself to do it. I struggle with issues of social and environmental responsibility. I could possibly fund more projects if I were to mass-produce some of my stuff but to do it responsibly is cost prohibitive and might not even be worth it. For now I am hand making everything myself, and my sculptures are all one-of-a-kinds. I find solace in the fact that there is transformation and magic in that — for me and for the people who buy my work straight from the artist’s hands.

FP: How are you incorporating your dolls into you interest in animation, filmmaking, and storytelling?

JP: Other than the films and animations that I made in and just out of college I haven’t really had the resources or opportunity to pursue that ambition further. The most recognizable art in my life are my sculptural and plush dolls. However, I have recently been pursuing my love of stop motion by doing character and puppet designs for a few possible stop-motion animated features. I’m getting to work with some of the people in stop-motion that I have most admired. I can’t say how the projects will turn out or if I will even ultimately get to be involved in them, but I am thrilled by the prospects and am working hard toward that end.

I am also writing and developing some of my own projects for a return to film and animation. Puppets, dolls, costumes, performance, story telling, cartoons, and moving pictures are my favorite art forms. I am insanely, sometimes even masochistically, devoted to them. I can’t stop my making even when it seems detrimental to my survival. Doll making has occupied a great part of my life and it is through it that I have developed personally and artistically. I will always make dolls but I hope that they are just the beginning of my artistic development and not the end.

I have some test animations that I’ve done within the last year to show the potential for plush puppets but I am least adept with computers and can’t seem to get the videos to upload to YouTube. I even made pose-able, magnetic plush maquettes for my sister who graduated from CalArts this spring. She was drawing her animations using my figures as reference. I liked working like a team. Through my small film making projects I have realized the potential of working as a team. The project exceeds the ability of any one person and becomes greater and bigger as a result of all the contributors. Doll making, like most types of art, is a solitary art form but I’m hoping for more opportunities to work as part of a team or do more collaborations and bigger projects in the future.

FP: Who, or what, has influenced your work?

JP: Henry Selick’s Nightmare Before Christmas came out when I was in 8th grade and that was hugely inspiring. I also came to appreciate Jim Henson through a number of research projects. I grew up loving Sesame Street, The Labyrinth and his Storyteller series, but it wasn’t until this research that I learned to truly appreciate him as an artist. Doll artists like Gail Lackey, Lisa Lichtenfels, and many other doll artists in Susan Oroyan’s books have inspired me and kept me striving toward greater perfection. The portraits of John Singer Sargent and the fairy tale worlds of the Brandywine artists have also played a hand in my love of the figure and narrative in my work.

And, although I never had cable and rarely watched it, the programming on Nickelodeon in the ’90s also helped get me into the colorful and slightly wacky. I probably don’t even need to mention that I was huge fan of Disney and loved the movies and the fact that I could then manipulate the characters once I got them as dolls and they could enter my world.

Check out Penney’s MySpace page and website for more information, and pictures of the dolls.

This September Penney is applying for membership to the National Institute of American Doll Artists; we wish her luck.