James Carrington is an IGMA Fellow. Even though he's an accomplished master in the field, and known internationally, he's a very accessible, nice, friendly and vivacious person . He kindly agreed to be interviewed for DHB while I was in Chicago, in April 2010. The resulting interview is a memorable lesson of life, joy, packed with tips that are precious to those who want to learn how to make dolls or to artisans in general. Despite the time gap until it got published, it is still completely relevant and inspiring.
Here is your chance to learn some more directly from this great master in this art!
Pictures in the end (next page).
Well, before I started with doll's house dolls I had been a dancer, which gives my dolls now movement; I had been in costuming, so I can dress the dolls - as I have always been in fashion.
In 1984 I needed a change. I had met a lady who made larger dolls, called Jill Bennett, we got talking and she invited me to become her partner and make doll's house dolls, which I knew nothing about!... It was the very early days… I went up to Birmingham to see the first doll's house show I'd ever seen, and discovered this huge world! So Jill and I started a business that was porcelain dolls. In those days they were very pretty and like Victorian original dolls. I wanted to do more realistic dolls, but the collectors weren't ready for that sort of thing… I went back into the theater for a little while. I did fashion again, I did other jobs from my 'past life', until one day I broke my ankle.
I had been trying to find a medium to work in, other than porcelain, because I don't feel comfortable in that… I was in bed, with my foot supported, I couldn't move for a long time. A friend came to see me and I remembered that down in my chaotic cellar, the basement, was a block of Fimo that we had bought seven years before, a plaster mold, and he brought them up. And suddenly I discovered what I had been looking for! It's been like that all time: the 'fates' were holding it on, very, very tightly…
I started to sculpt them, and experiment, and I found I could do them! I did a collection using new Fimo blocks. I contacted some people I had know from my 'past life' and one lady spoke to me that she couldn't see me then, she said I'd have to see her later. It turned out when I phoned her she wasn't there, so I had to phone somebody else. Now, this one invited me over to her shop and she had an assistant there. I still thought that people would like the pretty dolls. I'm a man, I like 'character' people; I'm an older person, so l like to do more realistic, more 'passionate' figures, to bring on my 'theater and drama' and dance, into it. I took them down, she bought a load of dolls from me and her assistant played with them, in a very interesting fashion!
Her assistant turned out to be Carol Hilbert and her husband was Steve Hilbert, form Chapel Road, who, I then discovered, was a famous man who did very working-class Dickensian pictures of disreputable public houses, and he had been searching for someone to make very realistic, dramatic figures. I made 5 and I sent them to him just to ask for criticism. He was so excited! They were going up to the Birmingham show and they asked if they could take them. That was during the week… I had a phone call on Monday morning to say that a riot had broken out, that there had been a fight with two ladies fighting over some of those dolls. They said: 'your new career has just started!'
And it has been like that ever since… I suddenly realized that the 'gods' were with me and they have directed me and I relaxed!
DHB: James, tell us about the beginning… How did you start sculpting dolls?
first published on 03/17/2012
I studied at Nottingham Art College, in the 'old days', when you had anatomy classes, live classes, you drew nudes, dances… I'm very, very aware of the structure and the balance of the figure. That, to me, is the most important. Things like hands are vitally important because they are the punctuation into the story. They make sense out of it. Even figures in absolute silence must tell a story!
DHB: Do you have any drawing background on anatomy or something to help you when sculpting?
I'd like to think that the next doll is going to be my favorite one but… I had a book on dances, photographs of dances, and there was a photograph of a very, very old Japanese dancer, in terrible pink tights, an awful old kimono, frizzy hair with fans in them, his make-up was broken and cracked, and he held the most magical pose! He's called Katsuo Uno, a Japanese dancer. In the book they described him as being in his eighties, his work is very abstract, and he teaches very specialized groups of people around the world. And it was the joy of seeing this wonderful old man who wanted to share his things, I made - to me… - one of the most successful dolls. I took it to a show and people were mystified, quite shocked by him, and I realized I could never sell him. He was my 'special thing'. He inspires me! He's beautiful, almost tragic…
DHB: Among all the dolls you've made so far, which one is your favorite?
Try and see as many photographs as you can, and see why one in particular moves you. It's so personal! You may try and copy another doll maker. There's no harm in that in the learning process… But relax and allow your own natural doll maker to emerge. It won't happen instantly.
And be very careful who you show it to. Show it to somebody who is like yourself, who is a relaxed person. Don't show it to 'school teacher' who will disapprove.
The one thing I would say is: the doll makers I love most are the ones that never 'yet' feel they have made the perfect doll! That there is always, always, room for change and improvement. It is vital! I've seen some people who are just satisfied with what they do and they don't develop their skills.
Find other doll makers that you like, who are kind and supportive, and share your things. You might be very new to it, but you have got something to offer.
Try and keep your proportions correct. The only thing that I really do is to work from a chart. Stick to that. Because if you forget the chart and start a new doll, and compare it to the one you've just made, very soon you'll be a quarter of an inch out, a few millimeters out. When you copy that one, each time you'll get more and more distorted.
I did a talk for a doll club in England and I asked for questions. One French lady asked something that I did not know the answer to it until I thought about it. She was asking about the 'high parts' of the face: if I wanted 'high' cheek bones, did I create the hollow first or did I add the cheek bones? After I thought about it I realized I was making mistakes. I was adding cheek bones, hoping that the high part would make the rest of it hollow. And what I was actually doing was making the head bigger and bigger! And I suddenly thought 'I must remember to create the hollow part first, and maybe the high part will be enough! It's only a tiny bit. It's very easy to have your dolls become 'cartoon' dolls and get out of proportion. Have 'props' that you rely on, well-proportioned furniture, for example. And sit them in that to get the sense of proportion.
Don't measure yourself! When Jill and I first showed a group of dolls, people bought them, but a very good buyer came and said: "I love your dolls, it's such a pity about the 'orangutan arms'". Jill and I were most annoyed about that, because we measured them according to ourselves. And the lady who bought them said: "but have you seen how long your arms are?"… And actually we had been complaining how short the shirts all were in the sleeve… I saw one of those dolls many years later and I was horrified that we thought that that looked normal!
If you want to make yours based on you, you do it! I get criticized by some people who say 'my' hands are too big. Actually, they are rather large. But I have large hands and I love the drama of the large ands. Make sure that men have got strong hands and good big feet. Nothing worse than having them in tiny looking feet.
DHB: As you might know, we have few miniaturists in Brazil, and even fewer miniature doll makers. What would be your advice to those who would like to give it a try, to start sculpting human figures? What would be your tips for beginners with very few resources around them?
Think about strength! Women are softer, rounder; the man is more angular. That gives the appearance of masculinity.
DHB: Some dolls are actually hard to get what they are. Sometimes it feels that the dresser has used a female doll and dressed it as a man…
I think that if I have a story to tell, it doesn't matter. Somebody asked me, just before Chicago show, if I could make a drunken old man for her public house. She gave a description that was just so clear, that I love him dearly, for the moment! It's the moment that is most important.
DHB: And which one do you prefer to make, female or male figures?
Yes! It's the story. It's the 'drama' side of me, the 'acting' side of me… I like to try and get that information. It's something that my customers tell me, I sometimes achieve… They often tell me the story that the doll is trying to… which conveys to them. It's not my story, but if they tell me that, I know that I'll have a successful doll, because they are involved with it.
DHB: So it is the story that inspires you…
No, I have a group of tools, and learned very quickly that one tool may only do two good things. And I keep that tool for those things. And I sometimes just experiment with others, and find that they have one or two jobs. I don't try to make one perfect tool to everything, nor have 20 tools. Because like every doll maker, I work in chaos… And if I only have three tools, it's easier to find the lost three tools than try and find them amongst the twenty tools… (laughs…)
DHB: And in a more technical level, do you use many tools for sculpting?
I'm now doing 1/24th scale…
DHB: And as we are in the measures topic, have you ever been tempted to try smaller scales?