The Boys on the Sideboard

My wife Claudia gave her mother a life-like baby doll as a gift many years ago. Claudia liked the doll but she thought, “I could do better.” It’s a thought that has often caused her a lot of work.
I’d never heard about these sculptural, spooky dolls, sometimes called reborns. “I’m going to make brown baby boys,” Claudia said, “The world has more than enough peaches and cream girl dolls.”

Claudia applied herself to learning the craft with characteristic focus. She researched the different types of paints used to paint the dull vinyl doll parts, ordering special paints from Europe. She began to collect brushes and sponges and even bought a little oven for baking each layer of tint. She found out where the baby angora goats were to make the dolls’ hair. She cruised the websites of places that made artificial eyes (for humans), wanting the best eyes for the dolls. She took an unexpected interest in false eyelashes.

I was curious about where this hobby was leading her. I had a look at some of the reborn dolls for sale on ebay. This was quite an art. One line too thick and the doll became a grotesque gremlin. A few artists with an exquisite sensibility were able to create dolls that looked like they should be moving.

We lived in a regional area then — suburban, semi-rural. We scoured the local two-dollar shop for Claudia’s first model. She chose a big doll with a pleasant face and a poorly-proportioned cloth body. It was top of the range, cost eight dollars.

When I came home from work the next day, Claudia had scrubbed the colour off the doll’s head and hands with acetone so that it was a blank-faced shell. She had her thin colours mixed on an improvised palette, an icecream container lid blotched with pools of tans and pinks. Over the following months she mixed a hundred different browns: rusts, walnuts and ochres. She kept note of the recipe for each colour in a cryptic numerical shorthand. Our orderly house became her workshop, with puddles of paint and doll parts carefully balanced all over.

The two-dollar shop doll became Kim. Claudia gifted her first piece of craft to me. Kim is our clinic doll. He comes out for the children. Kim has a silky top of russet baby angora hair and kind eyes. Claudia inserted the hair one or two hairs at a time with a needle. His mouth is open for a bottle (he was a wetting baby) and many of the children want to feed him.

Claudia was the dedicated wife of a junior doctor when she began this craft, so she had plenty of work to fill her days. Her work on the dolls came in the evenings after the day of housework, cooking, organisation and documentation was done. The documentation she worked on then was a big job. We were working on her residency application, a multi-thousand dollar, painstaking, massively intrusive work, collecting evidence of the minutiae of our lives together. Friends who’d been through it said, “If you’re getting cranky it’s because of this. It’s all too much,” and “If your relationship survives this it can survives anything.” A barbecue with friends or family became a statutory declaration. Every financial transaction was made together. I recall saying to the young cashier at a department store, “Yes, I know it’s only a toaster, but I do need the receipt in both our names. Let me spell them for you again.”

Like so many migrants to Australia, Claudia found that her multiple tertiary qualifications counted for very little here and she was unable to get permanent work until she had her residency, a process which would take at least three years. She made many sacrifices when she followed her heart across the world for love, my Claudia.

After Kim, who is fair-complexioned, all of Claudia’s dolls have been shades of brown. She spent many hours reviewing the work of the artists who make ‘sculpts’ — they mold the drab piece of vinyl that becomes the doll’s head, hands and feet. I’ve known her to use sixteen layers of translucent paint to get the depth of the doll’s complexion right, with greenish veins just showing through and different shades of brown to show the peaks and hollows where bones should be. Each layer is baked in the oven. Claudia also created a system to weight the doll’s head, suspending a steel ball inside it (without smashing the glass eyes) so that the doll’s head lolls on your shoulder and has to be supported when you lift it. I enjoyed going with Claudia to the steel bearing factory to size and buy these. They didn’t see many people with breasts in that factory, you could tell.

These dolls are feats of ingenious engineering. She created a fabric tube of supported marbles to make a spine for some of the dolls, just palpable under your fingers as you bounced and patted them. She made the dolls bodies on a cheap sewing machine I bought her.

The brothers -- some of Claudia's dolls. Pic by Janelle Trees (c) 2016

The brothers -- some of Claudia's dolls. Pic by Janelle Trees (c) 2016

When she had made eight or nine dolls, Claudia began selling them. Some of them have sold for the highest prices you’ll see for reborns. The prices still did not approach the cost of her labour. The dolls have a lot of love in the making of them and it’s almost like they give it out to the people who play with them. Claudia’s dolls are treasured around the world now. One family bought a doll to be able to dress him in an ancestral beaded baby suit, after their youngest child outgrew it. A Native American family told us the story of how they had almost missed the ferry home to their island one inclement night. “But we have to get home, we’ve got the baby!” exclaimed the young ‘father’. The doll had been re-named Ni’pin. He was adopted into a Cree family. The ferry stopped and waited for them, with Ni’pin, wrapped in a blanket, leading the way to shelter, his goat hair head resting against his father’s smiling cheek.

Claudia has made more dolls since. They survived a series of robberies of our house several years ago while we were away on holiday. They were sealed in a vacuum blanket bag and stored away. The dolls were kept in different storage while we travelled, for over two years after that. They were a delight to see when we got them out again. They had not grown at all.

This week, after several days and nights of intense conversation and contemplation, one of the boys went to live with a new mum. We could tell she loves him. Josh’s mission is to attract lots of love into his mum’s life. I am confident he is well-prepared for his role.

Josh contemplates upcoming change. Claudia painted the silk cushion, too.  J.Trees (c) 2016

Josh contemplates upcoming change. Claudia painted the silk cushion, too.  J.Trees (c) 2016