Keeping your head at the doll show
by Inara Verzemnieks, The Oregonian
Monday February 16, 2009, 8:59 AM
Olivia Bucks/The Oregonian
Aspen Read, 18, of Portland brought her doll, named Deskri, to The Crossroads Doll & Teddy Bear Event.
A doll show is no place for the cynical. Nor is it a place for anyone who ever delighted in popping dolls' heads off, wrenching loose little arms; all those Barbies you "made over" with scissors and permanent markers, they have come back to haunt you.
The dolls stand at quiet attention in the Oregon National Guard Armory in Portland, their cat-eyes whispering that they have found someone far more deserving of their love -- a whole hall full of people in fact: Hundreds of women (and a few blinking men) who have turned out on a Valentine's Day afternoon for The Crossroads Doll & Teddy Bear Event.
The parking lot is packed; you have to circle three times to find a space.
There is no Depression here. No depression either. "This is a very, very loving bunch," as Dorothy Drake, the show's organizer puts it. And so, as the outside world crashes down, we take refuge in the armory; frankly we could use a little love right now.
But pretty quickly, the guilt starts to kick in, memories of all the dolls we treated less than kindly. Drake tries to make us feel better: "My daughter ripped the heads off every doll I ever gave her. She would look at my collection and say, 'Mom, they scare me!'"
So dolls seem to draw out our cruelty as fiercely as our kindness. But that's what makes all the older dolls on display so interesting (and, in some cases, so expensive), Drake says: "They survived that cycle."
And as their reward: They've arrived here, to a place where all that awaits them is genuine affection. "Look at that face," a woman says. And there is a face here for everyone: sleeping infants, folk-costumed misses, rickrack-heavy Raggedy Anns.
Over at the stall belonging to Bearzabout, a store in Duvall, Wash., we run into the dolls that would never talk to us in real life: haute-couture minxes made of luminous resin. These are the dolls that own you.
Carol Graham, Bearzabout's president, does her best to explain why these dolls are among the hottest to collect right now -- "It takes seven days just to sand down one doll," "These dolls are ball-jointed," "You can change their eye color, their hair" -- but clearly she can tell we are out of our league so she searches for something an outsider might grasp: You know Jason Wu, the man who designed Michelle Obama's inauguration ball gown? Well, long before that, he was making these high-end fashion dolls, using them as an outlet for the designs in his head. Now that he's famous for his life-size work though, there is talk he may leave the dolls behind. "Who knows?" Graham says.
Because the truth is, there are a lot of people who just can't leave them behind. "Did you see the average age here?" says Jeanie Hartson, one of the vendors (she makes dolls from people's old linens -- family quilts and lace and embroidered tea towels). "Mmmhmm," she says. She means there are very few children. Most everyone is older. And you could go off like some kind of armchair psychologist about second childhoods or empty-nest pangs, but it all feels cheap and reductive and even a little cruel.
The woman from Medford, a retired teacher, who's telling you about the dolls she crafts to look like newborns, with the faintest of veins painted on their eyelids, mohair standing in for baby fuzz, and hospital bracelets on their wrists -- she's the first to admit that they are just dolls. Susan Frey lifts the corner of a blanket. "I carry them in these plastic bins in my truck."
She says you can pick one up, if you like. And she catches you hesitating. "You don't have to -- they really do creep people out. I have friends who want nothing to do with them." Maybe it's guilt, maybe it's wanting to know what everyone else here knows that you don't, but you surprise yourself by awkwardly taking one in your arms.
It doesn't speak to you, but you still find yourself oddly compelled to be careful with it, to guard the flopping head, which, Frey warns you, smiling, can easily be torn off. And that idea might have delighted you at one time in your life -- what an ending! -- but today you have no stomach for it. It doesn't make up for earlier destructions, but it occurs to you, as you watch the mill of the crowded hall, that maybe we reach a point in our lives where we're done tearing things apart.
Upcoming doll shows:The Doll-Lightful-Day Doll Show, April 4, The Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at The Quay, 100 Columbia St., Vancouver; $4; The Crossroads Dolls, Teddy Bears & More Show, Sept. 5, Kliever Memorial Armory, 10000 N.E. 33rd Drive, Portland; adults, $6 and children under 12, $3 -- Inara Verzemnieks: 503-221-8201; firstname.lastname@example.org