Norma Jones - Dollmaker and Her Dolls

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Norma Jones - Alvin, Texas, Dollmaker and Her Dolls

Story and photos copyright Al Ruscelli.

         

What's the best kept secret in Alvin, Texas?  Well, actually there aren't that many secrets in AlvinSo, if we must pick one . . . how about Norma Jones and her dolls? 

When Norma made her first doll in 1990, she had no idea where her simple attempt at dollmaking would take her.  Norma was already an artist, although even this fact was not very well known outside of her home or beyond a close circle of family and friends.  When one visits her home, signs of Norma's artwork can be seen everywhere, although the overall effect is very subtle. Unless, of course, you visit around Christmas timebut that's another story.  

Norma works with polymer clay and sculpts dolls that could have come from another era.  Father Christmas, bearing his gifts.  The Mountain Man, clad in buckskin and furs.  The Cowboy, the Indian, the Eskimo.  Grandma and Grandpahe in his rocker and she at her Singer pedal sewing machineoccupying a snug, little room just right for their one-third scale proportions.  

In the six years that Norma has been making dolls, she has come a long way as an artist, craftsperson, and dollmaker.  Once the proper inspiration hit her, Norma's natural artistic abilities just seem to take over.  

Once, on vacation, Norma says, I saw some Prairie Santas and thought I would like to try my hand at it. Those Santas only had heads made out of clay, without facial features, so I thought that would be fairly easybut I had never tried to make anything out of clay before.  When I got home, I bought some clay and started playing around with it, and fairly soon I had a mans face looking up at me.  Although I thought it wasn't very good, I baked it, painted it, put a beard and hair on it, and we all thought it looked pretty good.  Now, I can look back on it and laugh, but it gave me the idea that if I just kept working one day I might just be able to make one that looked much better.  With much more clay pushed around and Gods help, I've been able to do much better than I had any idea I could when I walked out of the store that sold the Prairie Santas.  

She jokes about how crude her first doll turned out.  Lacking the style and finesse of her later work, the first Santa was pasty in appearance, unpainted and rather haphazardly pieced together.  It even had a solid clay head that must have weighed three pounds.  Norma didn't know how to properly attach a dolls head to its body then, how to construct the armature, or how to apply paint for realistic skin tones. 

While its true that Norma was already quite an accomplished painter by the time she started making dolls, transferring those same skills from two-dimensional canvas to three-dimensional sculptures was not necessarily an intuitive process.  

Her progress as a sculptor, however, was rapid.  Norma learns quickly.  As to how she learns so quickly . . . well, that is somewhat of a mystery.  Norma explains it away as a gift.  She has never received any formal training in art or craftwork.  She just seems to somehow pick it up.  

Shell look at something for awhilea painting, a sculpture, or other piece of art-study it, and usually come to the same conclusion: I could do that.  So, she does.  She once saw a picture of two beautifully depicted blue herons in a wooded and watery setting.  She inquired about the cost of a print of the picture. Its price was a bit out of her range at the time, so she did the next best thing and painted her own version of itNow, it hangs in her living room, a beautiful oil on canvas rather than the print about which she originally inquired.  

Norma takes much the same approach to dollmaking.  

As I became more interested in dollmaking, I bought books and magazines for research and study.  There are so many great dollmakerssome specializing in Indians, some in Santas, etc.  I would have to say of all the American artists, Jack Johnson stands out as one of the greatest.

              

In Norma's case, its just like what happened with the first Santa that she saw.  Norma knew she wanted to try to make a doll.  But, she didn't really know how to go about it.  Didn't know what kind of clay to buy or where to buy it.  Didn't know how to work the clay or finish it.  Didn't know how a face and features would magically and mysteriously begin to appear once her hands got to working the clay and once her mind began working the concept.  But somethingsomehow, some waybegan to click.  Something intangible happened, as must happen to at least a certain degree with all artists.  And pretty soon, the objects she at first somewhat clumsily pounded and clumped together began to take on a life of their own.  Faces were sculpted, features and appeared, and wrinkled lines of character, age, and wisdom began to show through in the dolls.  

Most of Norma's dolls are not childlike; rather, they are adult-style dolls whose appearance and dress fit together just so, forming a perfect fit of character and garb.  

I make Indians, mountain men, Eskimos, old men, old women, black dolls, young and old, Norma says.  

But, no, Norma's work doesn't stop with just the dolls.  Later, of course, each doll must be surrounded by the right accouterments.  All of the clothes and most of the accessories are made by Norma herself.  For shoes, she might scale down a pattern for a pair of moccasins, cut out the leather (even down to the thin strips that she uses to sew the patterned pieces together).  Hats, capes, shirts, pants, dressesNorma creates them all. She's just one of those people who has the right eye for it.  And the right hand, the right mindthe right imagination.

Norma doesn't necessarily make everything with which she surrounds her dolls.  She didn't make the rifle cradled in Mountain Mans arms. Or the Singer sewing machine in front of Grandma.  She didn't make the metal, wind-up doll at the feet of Father Christmas, although she might have made the small doll in his hands.  Sometimes its hard to tell, because all of the pieces and parts seem to fit so well together.  Norma and daughter, Julie, keep their eyes open for small items they know they needlike just the miniature thimble they recently found for her Grandma dollbut they are also constantly on the lookout for items with potential use as props for dolls that may be still in the planning stages.  

Where does all this talent come from?  Its hard to say, but Norma has a pretty simple explanation.  

Being married at such an early age with not much income forced me to create things out of very little, such as household decor to sewing for my girls.  I have always been interested in sketching, oil painting, decorating, making something from practically nothing, making my home as warm and beautiful for my family and friends as possible. 

Part of the problem is that Norma has so many ideas and so little time to pursue them all.  And not just ideas for dolls, but other paintings shed like to do and other crafts she like to learn how to do.

The time that Norma spends on each doll varies quite a bit, depending on her mood, time allowed by her other responsibilities, and inspiration.  

Dollmaking is not like a regular job, Norma says.  I don't get up in the morning and think that I will work a certain number of hours that day. I only work when I'm really feeling inspired.  I may make a head and set it up and then come up with an idea for how I want the doll to be posed, dressed, etc., later.  Sometimes I can make a doll in a week.  Other times it could take me months.  When I'm inspired with a thought for a new doll, I make the time for working.  Sometimes I will work most all night, then sometimes not at all for months. 

         

Norma admits that the most exciting part of dollmaking is standing back and looking at the finished doll.  However, she gets just about as excited seeing how others react to her art.  

One of the things that continues to inspire me is the reaction and comments people have when they see my dolls for the first time.  My first Indian doll was sold to a collector who entered him in the 16th Annual Modern Doll Convention in September 1994.  The show was held at the Windham Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.  That doll won 1st Place in the Original Art category.  

However, of all the dolls that Norma has made in the last few years, she has sold only a handful.  This is not for lack of interest in her workthere is certainly beginning to be plenty of interest generatedbut because she generally finds the dolls difficult to part with.  Each one is something like a new member of the family with a name and character of its own.  

I sometimes like to think that when I make a doll that it might have a significant monetary value. But, on the other hand, my attachment to the doll overrides any thoughts of monetary gain. 

Careful, folks.  The best kept secret in Alvin, Texas, wont be a secret much longer.  It might be just about to bust out in a big way.  But it wont come from Norma's lips.  This secret will speak quite well enough for itself, thank you.  You can count on it.

 

For more information on Norma Jones and her dolls, contact Al Ruscelli .

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