Conversation with Kerry Wright Zentner.
Today, I sat down with my mother to talk about the fact that she sculpts tiny people and dresses them up. No, it wasn’t an intervention: she is a doll artist, and has been for the past 12 years or so. Initially, I was going to interview her, and then she suggested that she interview me on what I thought about her. Eventually, we just had a conversation that skirted the boundaries of each, and I dug up the deep, dark secrets of my family’s past.
Dale Zentner: What are your first memories about my dolls? Do you recall anything?
MONDO: I remember being afraid of them, when you were making the larger-sized ones and I was smaller at the time. It frightened me to be comparable in size to something so lifelike, yet so utterly inanimate. I guess it was reminding me of mortality, even though I wouldn’t have known that that’s what it was at the time.
DZ: I used to have to turn the dolls around so they wouldn’t face you at night.
MONDO: It’s funny because they aren’t frightening visually, they’re cute. I think the characters I draw are like a twisted nightmare parallel of yours. Somebody once commented that there’s a similarity between the faces we create. I think it’s because any artist employs some degree of self-portraiture in their own work. Since we happen to look alike (why is that again? Genetics or something?), we make similar-looking faces. Your’s aren’t as hideous or grotesque, of course.
DZ: Yeah, if my dolls looked like your creatures, they wouldn’t be selling (laughs). They could, but it would be a different audience.
MONDO: Do you ever think about doing imaginary (as opposed to representational) types of sculpture?
DZ: Sometimes. It would be a bit easier for me now. The first several years, really, of doll-making, were just perfecting a skill. Now I would like to do something a little less traditional. I don’t think I would do fantasy, but something edging out there a bit more, even just in terms of the fashions.
MONDO: Right now, they’re idealistic, wouldn’t you say?
DZ: I sculpt a lot of children, and children are sort of idealized versions of people already. There’s something appealing about sculpting something that is more beautiful and ideal, as opposed to too realistic.
MONDO: Do you feel like you make your dolls sort of as mannequins to showcase your fashions?
DZ: Yeah, for sure.
MONDO: Because you made children’s fashions before doll-making, right?
DZ: Yeah. And now because I’m also doing doll fashions for ball-jointed dolls, it’s almost literally that.
MONDO: How did you segue from children’s clothes into doll-making?
DZ: Um, I wanted to make money. (laughs) I wanted to make some object that would be considered art, or even high craft. Something one-of-a-kind. Doll-making presented itself to me as something that used a lot of my skills in needlework and design, and it seemed to fit. When I was starting out, this was back in the eighties, there were already some dolls being made as art pieces. A lot of artists were using porcelain and experimenting, and they were making them as dolls for adults (instead of as toys). So, the fact that people were designing collectable dolls, some of which were selling at very high prices, I think really appealed to me, and made it possible for me to get started. Of course, then discovering polymer clays made it more accessible because all you needed was a hunk of clay and a home oven, no moulds or anything. I remember having thought for a long time that I’d like to find something that incorporated a lot of my natural skills. So it was great. Except for the heads that blew up. (laughs)
MONDO: I remember those. It takes a lot of courage to jump into doing something that doesn’t seem immediately very lucrative as a business venture. Do you think that you kind of structured your life so that you’d end up doing something creative and forcing yourself to make money that way?
DZ: Well, I think the thing that saved me was being really poor. (laughs) I wasn’t working at the time, so I wasn’t losing anything by starting doll-making. I wasn’t giving anything up. I also was really determined that I should use the few natural skills I had. I hadn’t up until then, and I was not young anymore. I was, I think, around forty. So, in some ways, there was a lot of pressure as well. But I really wanted to be doing something that I really enjoyed because, for me, that was the real mark of success. I just decided I could do it. I decided on some spiritual level to let nothing stop me from that kind of success, and that determination helped me figure out all the little hurdles I faced on the way.
MONDO: How do you think having kids affected your creativity? Was it a source of inspiration? I remember you used to make us model our arms as reference for you when you were starting out.
DZ: Well there was inherently some degree of inspiration from having kids around. But even more important than that was that, as a parent, I wanted my kids to see that I had done something that I enjoyed doing and that that is a possibility in life. That was really important for me. And, well… I hope it worked. (laughs)
MONDO: Yeah, except for the unrealistic standards. (laughs) I remember it was inspiring to me to see you make all our Halloween costumes and little toys for us and that sort of thing. You’ve come full circle in a way, making kids clothes originally, then dolls with clothes, and more recently you’ve started making clothes for ball-jointed dolls. Do you feel, since you’ve started making just fashions again, that it’s changed your sources of inspiration?
DZ: I think it’s allowed me to try out some more interesting fashions that maybe wouldn’t have sold as part of a doll. As for inspiration, I’ve never really had trouble finding it. It’s good to surround yourself with interesting things. I have a stockpile of trim and different materials. I look at fashion magazines regularly. Even just a colour combination will sometimes inspire a certain idea or emotion.
MONDO: So you want to convey specific emotions with your work?
DZ: Well, I want to make beauty. But it’s funny because I sort of — I think of it as food in some way. Like it looks delicious to me. And I want to make it look delicious so you get the sensation of it looking like, you know, ice cream tastes or that sort of thing. Yeah, it’s often about food. (laughs) I don’t know why.
MONDO: It’s almost like you’re a synesthete or something. You feel your colours, or you taste your textures. The city must be delicious to you.
DZ: Well actually, yeah. I need a lot of activity surrounding me. That’s why, when I disappeared for that year and lived in the country in the winter; there wasn’t enough to feed me there. And see, here I’m using the word feed again. There wasn’t enough stimulation, enough visual activity.
MONDO: You didn’t eat any wild mushrooms then, I guess?
MONDO: You draw a lot of inspiration from your environment. Are there any specific artists that you like?
DZ: Well there’s a type of artist I like. Mark Ryden or Ray Caesar, Audrey Kawasaki. Those are all painters, but there’s a certain innocence to their work, child-like figures, and lush environments. Again, it seems edible to me. Everyone comments on the innocence of my dolls, and yes, that’s important to me.
MONDO: Do you want to talk about your own childhood and growing up? You grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan for, what, your first ten years?
DZ: Yep. Um, well, when I look back, I remember liking the stimulation of the city and the sort of lushness. My childhood was kind of stark. Everything we had to entertain ourselves kind of had to come from our imagination, we didn’t have toys. Hardly anything at all. So I was, you know, the biggest daydreamer going. I remember it was exciting when our mother would make us dresses. That was really exiting because she had to order stuff from a catalogue. We would open these packages full of fabric and we’d get to watch her make them into clothing. She taught us to sew. She always liked her daughters to look pretty, soÉ She had nine kids and the first four were girls, so she was quite busy. I remember making cardboard dolls when I was quite young and then making clothes for them. Playing with them in the chicken coop. (laughs) I used to watch my father working, fixing machinery. I liked the idea that when you designed something you had to figure out how all the parts go together. My dad was good at that.
MONDO: What is your process like? You work largely intuitively, right?
DZ: Yes. I can’t plan ahead what something will look like. Some doll artists do portraits, but I would find that very frustrating. My best work is done organically, and comes from a space that you have to find in yourself. I think all artists have that. I feel a lot of satisfaction seeing a finished work. It’s surprising to see that you’ve created something unique that hadn’t existed until recently. Doll-making for me is about little comforts like this. I think people are looking for a little bit of beauty when they buy my dolls. I’m not going to change the world with my dolls, but I can contribute to people’s individual comfort and sense of beauty. Maybe one day I’ll try to make an ugly doll, but I don’t think it would work.
MONDO: Maybe one day I’ll try to draw something that’s not hideous.
DZ: (laughs) Alright, we can switch.
MONDO: Do you have any advice for people who might like to start making dolls?
DZ: No. (laughs) If there’s something you love to do, then just do it. If you really love it, you’ll do it. My art is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Part of it was lucky timing, but you also have to put your heart and soul into it.