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The Doll's House: Carver earns recognition for keeping traditional craft alive
By Jackie R. Broach
In a small studio at her home in Parkersville, Anne Reiss is tackling an enormous goal one hand-carved doll at a time.
“I’m keeping an art form alive,” she said, as she used sandpaper to smooth the rough surface of a tiny arm for one of her projects.
“I always wanted to do something with my life that has meaning. I’m not a doctor or a lawyer, helping people, but I think this has meaning. I think I’m doing something relevant.”
Reiss, a classically trained painter with a master’s degree in fine arts, is one of a scant few in the world devoting her skills to reproducing antique-style wooden dolls, including Grodnertal dolls, as they were made centuries ago.
Her methods earned recognition in the latest issue of “Early American Life” magazine, where she was listed in the Directory of Traditional American Crafts.
Those who made the cut are ranked the top craftspeople working with traditional tools and techniques by a national panel of experts convened by the magazine. Experts included curators from institutions such as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the National Council on History Education, as well as antiques dealers, independent scholars and professional instructors.
It was a big honor for Reiss, 60, who only started making wooden dolls about two years ago.
“The art world, I don’t think they have any idea what I’m doing,” she said. “You say dolls and they’re like, ‘What?’ To them, they’re not art. But ‘Early American Life,’ their judges thought what I’m doing is worthwhile. I’m glad to have some affirmation.”
A native of New York’s Lower East Side, Reiss has been an artist for as long as she can remember, working predominantly as a draftsman and a painter before she decided to switch from two-dimensional art to three-dimensions about a decade ago.
She took up porcelain making and mold making after coming across photos of 19th century porcelain dolls from famous French doll makers Jameau and Bru.
“The workmanship was just beautiful,” she recalled. “That was the pinnacle of doll making, and Jameau and Bru were the masters.”
She was inspired and, ultimately, pleased with the results of her work with porcelain. However, after a while working with that medium, health issues associated with breathing in porcelain dust led her to reconsider.
“It’s a very dusty process,” she said, and ailments that result from breathing the dust can lead to death.
“Art is important to me, but living is important, too, so I said, ‘Well, what else can you do with three-dimensional? ’”
She went through all the options from sculpting in bronze and other metals to casting in pewter, and opted for wood carving.
“It seemed like the most basic thing in the world,” she said. “People were whittling at wood millennia ago.”
Plus, it had the benefit of allowing her to continue her work with dolls.
Reiss started making Queen Anne style dolls, a type of wooden doll with bendable arms and legs that was popular in England in the 18th century. She first saw them while browsing through a history of dolls and “it was love at first sight.”
Intended more as display items for adults rather than toys for children, Queen Anne dolls were traditionally made by expert wood carvers and dressed in elaborate costumes.
Reiss’ Queen Anne dolls were featured in an issue of “Art Doll Quarterly” last year.
Starting with a block of basswood, Reiss uses a lathe to create the general shape of the doll, then a variety of hand tools, including a Swiss steel carving knife, to refine and define, and create the details of the face.
Carving a “beautiful, life-like face,” is the “true challenge,” she said.
Then Reiss paints the dolls, using a crackle medium and woodstain to make them look older, and adds glass eyes, hair and clothing. She sews the clothes herself, dressing them in layers that include petticoats, corsets, stomachers, underskirts and aprons.
To fashion the hair, she uses an old 19th century cast iron yarn winder she picked up at a flea market for $10. She didn’t even know what the yarn winder was when she bought it, she said. She just liked the look of it.
“If you believe in reincarnation, I believe I was probably born in an earlier age and I’m not over it yet,” Reiss said. “I think that’s why I like antiques and making these old dolls. It reminds me of an earlier era that seems more real to me than the one in which we live right now.”
Reiss went from Queen Anne style dolls to Grodnertal dolls — also known as peg, penny wooden or tuck comb dolls — and that’s where she’s put most of her focus recently.
“They could rival any Queen Anne for beauty and craftsmanship,” she said of the 19th century dolls.
Originally, like the Queen Anne dolls, they were painstakingly carved by masters of the craft, but they became so popular that makers started mass producing them.
“The quality of the carving went downhill,” Reiss said. “The actual craftsmen in Germany who really loved woodworking said, ‘These are junk,’ and refused to carve dolls. It became shameful and to this day some still won’t carve dolls. But I don’t have that bias. I think they’re great. I love them and they can be so beautiful. I’m trying to bring them back as an acceptable subject to carve.”
The process for making Grodnertal dolls is very similar to the one Reiss uses for Queen Anne dolls, but she prefers Grodnertals because they involve more carving than Queen Annes. With Grodnertals, even the eyes and hair are wooden.
“Queen Anne dolls are almost more of a seamstress’ art form,” Reiss said. “This is a carver’s art form and I can get into details I don’t get into with the others.”
While she is still learning, Reiss said she has reached a level where she is comfortable with both types of wooden doll.
“My first efforts were pretty crude,” she admits. “I was doing a lot of things wrong.”
Figuring out how to set the glass eyes in the Queen Anne dolls was one of her biggest challenges.
“It doesn’t seem like it should be very difficult, but if you don’t know how to do it, it’s hard,” she said. “I made a lot of dolls with very poorly set eyes.”
Luckily she found an instructional CD or she probably never would have figured it out, she added.
It takes about 10 days for Reiss to complete a doll. A week of that is spent on getting it shaped, sculpted and ready for painting.
“I could do it faster if I worked harder,” she said. But she likes taking her time and working two or three hours a day.
Wooden mermaids will be Reiss’ next project she said. She already has one — topless with flowing green hair and colorful tail — on display in her shop and plans to make more of the whimsical creatures to see how they sell.
It’s a fun project for this area, she said. And as a painter, she enjoys painting the tails more than she does making clothes to dress her other dolls.
She wants to sell her creations, she said, but it’s also important to her that she have fun making them and keep hers a labor of love.
Reiss’ dolls can be seen on her website.