In the early part of the 20th century the hobby of doll collecting as we now know it was taking shape and gathering momentum. Into this active collecting world entered a number of talented women who combined their interests in figurative art and traditional folk-art forms to make some spectacular dolls. Among the many artists of the early years of the 20th century were four women who helped set the standards for all doll art to come and who helped shape the face of modern art doll collecting. They were Dorothy Heizer, Dewees Cochran, Helen Bullard and Fawn Zeller.
Dorothy Heizer took her interest in the study of historic portraiture and costume, and combined it with her delicate needle and painting skills to create awe inspiring dolls. Born Dorothy Quincy Wendell on February 25,1881 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she exhibited her artistic nature right from the start. In 1889 she saw a French mannequin in a shop window which planted in her the desire to have a fashionable lady doll of her own. At the age of ten she drew and painted paper dolls which she sold to Schwartz’s Department store for $3.50 each.
In 1899 she entered the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts where she studied portrait painting, human anatomy, and some sculpture. She married Charles Edward Heizer in 1906 and by 1914 she and her family were settled in Essex Falls, New Jersey. After making some simple cloth dolls for her church bazaar she began developing a style of doll uniquely her own. In 1924 the Newark Museum commissioned her to make Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh, this was the first of many Queens made by her over the next forty years.
Through the 1930s she participated in a number of exhibits including those of the Arts and Crafts Guild of Philadelphia, the Arts and Crafts Guild of the Newark Museum, the Art Alliance of Philadelphia, and the Arden Studio of New York, always working to perfect her techniques. Heizer’s dolls started with a scaled drawing of the skeleton of the figure based on contemporary portraits of her subject. Next, she made a wire skeleton which was then covered with strips of cotton eiderdown and then a cotton or silk crepe skin. The hands for her smaller scale dolls were of fine glove suede, the hands of her larger dolls were of the crepe fabric. The head and face were then built up and needle sculpted, she used bits of cotton to build out the nose and beads to form the eyes. This was covered with the crepe “skin” using a seam at the chin area.
The crepe fabric skin of the dolls was painted using water colors in two separate shades to give added definition to the doll’s shape. When this base was dry, she painted the doll’s features. No detail in the costuming was too small to overlook. Heizer often used vintage fabrics in dressing her dolls and whenever possible while making the doll’s jewelry, the exact number of gems was counted from the original portraiture. All together these painstaking efforts produced not only breathtaking works of art but also historically accurate three-dimensional portraits. Her 1948 rendition of Princess Elizabeth in her wedding gown included the use of 45,000 seed pearls and beads.
Her dolls were featured in articles in magazines such as the Woman’s Home Companion, Look, Family, and Life. She made patterns and rag doll kits which she sold through Modern Pricilla magazine. In 1962 she became a charter member of National Institute of American Doll Artists (NIADA), this was also the year that she stopped making dolls due to her failing eyesight. Dorothy Heizer died in 1973.
In much the same vein as Dorothy Heizer, another American artist would choose to express herself through dolls. Ella Dewees Cochran, born in 1892, was a highly trained and gifted artist. Cochran’s education included the study of art at The School of Industrial Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, both located in Philadelphia, and the study of economics in Elsinore, Denmark. While in Europe she studied sociology, political science, psychology, and anthropology, all of which would serve her well in creating her beautiful and life-like dolls.
In 1934 Cochran returned to the USA from Europe and started her own business making cloth character dolls and dressing china dolls which were sold through exclusive shops in New York City and Philadelphia. One day while with a buyer in a New York shop she discussed a new idea she was considering for making portrait dolls of specific children. The next day she received a call to go to the home of Irving Berlin to make portrait dolls of his 2 children. These first portrait dolls were made with carved balsa wood heads and stuffed silk bodies. Six weeks after completing her first orders Harpers Bazaar ran a story about them, after that the orders poured in. Using her background in art and anthropology she determined that the majority of American children had one of six basic facial shapes, she sculpted these 6 basic head models and then by carefully and artfully painting in their features and suitably coifing each doll a very accurate representation could be achieved.
During this same period Dewees signed a limited time contract as a designer for Madame Alexander. Her designs for Alexander included doll heads, whole dolls, characters, and animals. In 1935 Dewees signed a contract with Effanbee Dolls to design four different models for them which were produced in 15″, 18″ and 21″ sizes. This series was called the American Children or America’s Children. The body design used for these dolls had a slimmer waist than most previous child dolls and had beautifully modeled and proportioned hands which enabled the dolls to wear gloves. Some of the names used for these dolls were Peggy Lou, Gloria Ann, Barbara Lou and Ruth Ann.
Cochran would continue making portrait and look-alike dolls using plastic-wood for the heads. In 1946 she moved to Vermont and started to experiment with a latex composition to use in making her dolls, the end result being a product she called Voltex. In 1947 she entered into a short-lived partnership making a doll called Cindy. These were only made for less than one year as Dewees quit the company when her partner insisted on mass producing their dolls. Cochran eventually developed what she called her Grow-Up Series of dolls. This series consisted of three girls and two boys and were modeled to depict these children at the ages of five, seven, eleven, sixteen, and twenty. The names used in this series were Angela Appleseed, Peter Ponsett, Jeff Jones, Susan Stormalong, and Belinda Bunyan. Each doll was a complete character with its own family history and story. These dolls were meticulously sculpted and very accurately show the changes in development of each child as they grew.
Dewees Cochran was an active member-at-large of UFDC and in 1963 she was a charter member of NIADA. In 1960 Dewees moved to California. It was there that she wrote her autobiography, As If They Might Speak. Dewees Cochran passed away in 1991 just short of her 100th birthday. In her many years as a doll maker Dewees never stopped trying to improve her work and did much to bring attention to the fact that dolls are art.
Helen Bullard was born in Elgin, IL, her family later moved to Chicago. After Helen graduated from high school, she got a job at the University of Chicago, which allowed her to take classes at the University. She married and had two daughters; this marriage ended in divorce. In 1932 she and her second husband Joe and her two daughters moved to Tennessee.
They lived in a log cabin which belonged to friends of theirs. They traded work on the cabin for rent. The family struggled as Joe tried to support them as a free-lance fiction writer. By 1949 Helen was looking for a way to earn income while working from home. She had seen examples of the wooden folk dolls made at the Pleasant Hill Academy and learned how they were made which led her to try carving a wooden girl doll of her own. Once she had developed a doll she liked, she taught some of her neighbors how to sew the little dresses for the dolls. She later related that the dresses were piling up faster than she could use them so she began to teach the women how to carve the bodies as well. Within three months she had developed a full-fledged cottage industry. The dolls were marketed under the name Holly Mountain Dolls. After about two years this was changed to Holly Dolls. Holly Dolls’ products included Miss Holly and the Tennessee Mountain Kids. The first year of the business they took orders for 300 Miss Holly’s. The dolls were turned out at a very high rate of production considering that they were all handmade in a very small workshop, eventually they would make 6,000 Tennessee Mountain Kids.
In 1951 Helen attended her first UFDC Convention and saw for the first-time artist dolls made by people such as Fawn Zeller. She had never before been exposed to the idea of dolls as works of art, the concept changed her life. In 1954 she began to carve one-of-a-kind dolls and small editions for her own satisfaction. She created the Rebels series, a set of women who depicted the awakening spirit of independence that led to the women’s rights movement. She created Barbry Allen and her dulcimer, and many other dolls and doll sets depicting historic characters. She carved her own version of the doll Hitty.
Her dolls were carved of Horse Chestnut. She felt that the beauty of her work lay in the simplicity, control, and understated style she preferred. Her dolls had features painted with casein paint and oil stained hair but the skin was not painted, only sealed with lacquer so that the natural color and beauty of the wood could be seen. She carved the various pieces, peg jointed them, painted features, sealed them, and costumed her dolls. She said that rather than trying to create actual portraits of specific people she tried to capture the characteristics and spirit of the time and type of person she was depicting. In 1958 she studied Sculpture with a Paris trained sculptor and after that time did much work in the area of wood sculpture although she still made some artist dolls.
Fawn Zeller was born Goldye Fawn Atkins on April 15, 1907. When she was 3 months old her father died of lung disease leaving her widowed mother with 5 children to care for and no means of support. The family struggled on for about a year and then Fawn’s mother made the decision to give up her children for their own good. The eldest was sent to live with relatives and the 4 younger children were taken by train to an orphanage. During the train trip Fawn, then 14 mos. old, became seriously ill. A Brakeman named George Timms working on the train took pity on the family and convinced them to get off the train and come to his house. It was discovered that Fawn had meningitis and after a few months of care Fawn recovered, by then Mr. & Mrs. Timms had fallen in love with her and asked her mother if they could adopt her.
Fawn grew up in a loving home living in Minok, Illinois and then Freeport. She always loved dolls and exhibited artistic talent from an early age. When she was about 6 or 7 she made some little dolls out of tar and fabric scraps to live in her doll house. After high school Fawn married and had a son named Robert. She did portrait painting in her spare time. When her son was 10 years old Fawn’s marriage ended in divorce and she and Robert moved to Chicago where she found work as a commercial artist. In 1938 Bob was studying the book Treasure Island in school and he asked his mother if she could make a doll depicting Long John Silver that he could take to school. Fawn ended up making a 10” tall cloth doll with a painted face.
In 1941 Fawn married her coworker, Wilbur Zeller. During WWII Bill’s work took the family to NYC where they lived in Greenwich Village. Fawn took a job with the Department of War Information. During this period, she became aware of antique dolls and began collecting them. After the war the Zellers moved back to Chicago and it was then that Fawn learned about the national doll collectors’ organization UFDC. Through doll club she met other doll collectors and learned about doll artists including Dorothy Heizer. Encouraged by her doll club friends she experimented in doll making, using many different materials such as soap, wood, self-hardening clays, oven bake clays, and plaster of Paris before finally settling on porcelain.
In 1950 the family moved to Florida and in 1955 UFDC asked her to create a doll head to be given as a souvenir at the 1956 convention. Fawn had decided to make the 250 heads for this project out of porcelain even though she had never made a porcelain doll before. The next year was one of intense experimentation, learning, work, & stress but the finished heads were delivered on time and were quite a hit with the convention attendees. From this time on porcelain would be her preferred medium. Fawn began making portraits of renowned people, she would eventually call her dolls Famous People in Miniature. She was a talented portraitist and her attention to detail in costuming was amazing.
In 1961 she and her husband opened a museum in Inverness Florida where her dolls were displayed to the public. Zeller became well known in the doll world and in the world at large making appearances in NYC and on the Today Show. She created poured porcelain editions such as the dolls made for UFDC conventions in 1955, 1961, & 1991 but the majority of her dolls were direct porcelain sculpt. This process of sculpting the doll directly into moist leather like porcelain made each doll a one-of-a-kind piece and allowed Fawn creative scope for including a multitude of hand applied details to each porcelain head. Eventually she would develop her own process called “Pate Sur Pate” which involved allowing the porcelain clay to dry out and then applying thin coats of liquid slip which could then be carved – the resulting finish after firing had a very satiny texture to it. Fawn Zeller died in January of 1997.
Each of the talented women left an indelible mark on the world of artist dolls and their ground-breaking accomplishments continue to influence the artists that have succeeded them.
Author – Linda Edward
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