Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Touched by Time and Marked by the Traces of a Child's Play" : Interview with Leaf Whispers, Doll Photographer and Collector


Dolls have served as the muses and children of artists since time began.  Leonardo da Vinci, Cranach, Renoir, A. Marque, Picasso, David Levinthal, Jarvis Rockwell, Joseph Cornell, Tasha Tudor, and many more have been influenced by dolls, androids, and figures, or have created them. A real automaton inspired the film "Hugo."  Frida Kahlo has been the subject of dolls herself, but she also collected them.  She enjoyed repairing dolls as well. For me, even broken antique dolls have potential; there is a mystique about their imperfect state that inspires poetry. This month's interviewee is an artist, collector, and doll photographer who prefers to be known as Leaf Whispers.  I met her on Flickr while maintaining our albums for Antique Doll Collector Magazine.  As a poet and a doll lover, I find her interview refreshing and inspirational.  Enjoy this most  artistic interview from a true lover of antique dolls and their history.


When did you start collecting?


I’ve always loved dolls. My friends find this weird. I explain to them that although I forced myself to stop playing with dolls at the age of 12, in reality, I never did stop because it’s what I do for a living – I work as a film editor, which means that all day long, I play with tiny digital figures (AKA dolls).


In the past, I’ve gone on purges in which I unload my dolls onto the first child that crosses my path. Then, years later, I regret having done that. I especially miss Nicole, the artisanal cloth doll, I found in Quebec in 1982. During the last five years, I’ve gotten serious about dolls. Now that I’m old, I realize that I simply must have the dolls that I want, like right now.

PASK, Argentina- Spain, c. 1850,



Have your tastes changed over the years?


My tastes have changed a lot over the years. I’m presently drawn towards old dolls; the older, the better. Touched by time and marked by the traces of a child’s play, antique dolls are soulful and poignant. Perhaps their most potent gift to me is the whisper, “Memento Mori”.


My dolls’ broken limbs and time-ravaged faces remind me of my own mortality. This frightening and melancholic awareness is assuaged by the knowledge that my dolls have survived a very long time – beautiful in their decay – and that they will continue to live on, long after I have died. Will my old dolls carry a little bit of my spirit with them?


ALIS, by Joel Ellis. 

LUCE, Door of Hope

Another View of Luce

Another View of PASK


What are your favorite types of dolls?


China head dolls are my guilty pleasure. I adore their full, red cheeks and find myself spending hours and hours online, gazing at them, fantasizing about having them live with me. However, my true obsession is for antique wood dolls, such as Grodner Tal and Joel Ellis. To me, an antique wooden carries sensual elegance, without artifice or contrivance. Sturdy, strong, functional and dignified, a wooden doll also has an ethereal and whimsical quality.


I think their other worldliness stems from the organic material – the wood – that is constantly transforming, becoming more and more elemental and amorphous.

A wood doll breathes with life. It is as if she or he “never quite forgot the great tree of which [they were] once a living part." (Alice K. Early, “English Dolls”).

I live in a rain forest that has been devastated, simply to make trash. Giving back the life that was taken from a tree, through the creation of a skillfully crafted doll, makes me happy. Handmade by an artisan and constantly morphing and recreating herself through entropy each wooden doll is unique and precious.


Do you sew for your dolls?

I don’t sew for my dolls because I don’t know how. Also, I tend to prefer dolls naked, sans clothes, because a doll’s body speaks to me, as much as her face. That said, I am in total awe of the exquisite, detailed stitching and construction of antique clothes. I’m also emotionally moved by the mending and repairs; the traces of the mother or aunty or sister who so lovingly stitched together the torn clothing so that the little doll owner could continue to play.


I do intend to acquire more antique, hand-sewn doll clothes, regardless of whether or not the articles of clothing fit my dolls, because these antique clothes are Art. Since I am unable to sew clothes for my dolls, I express my love and adoration for them, through photography. Perhaps I dress them in light and shadow. When I’m preparing to take a photograph, I don’t usually place my dolls inside scenes. Instead, I use the setting and the background to reflect the emotional or psychic space of the doll. In this expressionistic style, the doll’s interior world is reflected in the world around them.


Looking through the lens, I keep moving around the doll, until I finally get a connection. When I see her looking back at me, smiling or perhaps blinking, I take a photo.

I get lost inside this play. There’s no real goal or purpose. It’s simply about the pleasure of connecting with something that I find intriguing, and towards whom I can radiate affection.


My dolls are always elusive. Yes, we communicate, but they do actually live in another world, where I cannot enter. This is why they often have a mysterious, distant, and eerie expression in my photos.


What are the characteristics that attract you to a certain doll?


One vital requisite is that the doll shouldn’t be too loud. The contemporary doll-maker Menya Shoho says, “Dolls unlike sculpture are meant for admiration in private. As it is a private space, I don't like my works being overly talkative. I wish them to be still and gentle, as if I could casually talk with the dolls in everyday life”. I too prefer quiet dolls.

I also listen for the ones who still carry the child’s whispered secrets; the dolls that are haunted.


When choosing a doll, I simply stare into her eyes and wait to see if we connect.

I also have a weakness for round faces and for those dolls whose open eyes announce eagerness to play.


I’m charmed by dolls that are broken or missing parts of themselves. To me, they are full of character, with lots of stories. My china doll Leaf’s limbs are disconnected from her torso, but I don’t want to make her a new body. I like that her torn body will continue to degrade because it is this quality of falling apart that makes Leaf so endearing and special. (I also prefer not to impose myself, to just let the dolls be, as they are. Perfect in their imperfections.) However, in spite of being broken, a doll should feel whole, i.e., the body and head need to be integrated as one. 


For example, my doll Twig’s cloth body has been repaired into a very strange, eccentric form, and yet Twig is a complete self, she exists as a whole, connected to her body. This connection between head and body is a difficult sentiment to explain, but it’s a characteristic of dolls that is important to me.


Are you looking for anything in particular?


Because I long for so many dolls, I have to control myself. Therefore, my next acquisition will be

for a doll that I will seek out, specifically. In the not too distant future, I will set out on a quest for a Grodner Tal, a Milliner, and a Mitsu-ore.


Wish me luck.

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