Shelley Thornton makes dolls, but they’re not toys for young girls.
Rather, they’re internationally acclaimed works of art, small sculptures created from textiles, wood and steel.
A dozen of them are now on view in “Shelly Thornton, Textile Art Dolls,” at the Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery in the Home Economics Building on the University of Nebraska’s East Campus.
A retrospective of sorts, the exhibition includes a pair of jointed wooden dolls with cloth and applied watercolor and pencil drawings from 1976, well before the Lincoln native turned to doll making as an art form.
The remainder come after 1992, when Thornton, who has a degree in printmaking and graphic design from Nebraska, made the move to making dolls. The earliest of those dolls is “Hildy,” from 1994, a piece that shows that Thornton came to dolls with a fully formed aesthetic and artistic vision.
“My dolls are stylized, neither extremely realistic nor overly embellished,”she writes in a statement on the website of the prestigious National Institute of American Doll Arts, which made her a member in 1995. “Their design evolved from my illustration style: decorative and uncomplicated, with carefully orchestrated colors. They are inspired by my love of fine textiles and beautiful patterns. Their visual appeal relies largely upon the juxtaposition of the patterns, textures, and colors of collaged fabrics. They offer a comforting serenity
“I aspire to an aesthetic grounded in beauty, sweetness, genuine emotions, intelligence, stability, passion, dreams and the unconscious, and the spiritual nature of human beings. I want each doll to express an individual 'presence.' I make dolls because they seem to be a uniquely accessible art form. When a doll is profoundly rendered, it mirrors the human spirit that is familiar to us all.”
The 26-inch-tall dolls are wool-stuffed, with wooden ball joints on cloth-covered metal stands, each varying in expression and dress. Here’s how Thornton describes the dolls creation in her artist statement:
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“Their heads begin as a seamed, stuffed basic shape made of hemp and cotton knit fleece. Facial shapes are refined with needle-sculpting stitches then covered with a cotton knit “skin” fabric. Embroidery defines the eyes and lips. The most recognizable element of my signature design is my stuffed cloth hair. A fitted cap made of the hair fabric is stitched to the head; then hair shapes are constructed piece by piece and stitched into place.”
And atop many of the heads are bows. Except for “Jean,” whose head is topped by a robin with a worm in its beak. Each of the dolls has a biography/personality that’s incorporated into her design.
“Harriet,” for example, is a painter who’s got a brush in her right hand. On her apron is an embroidered version of Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy.”
“Bess,” a doll from 1999, takes her design from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle, Diddle” with a cow jumping over the moon on her dress, an udder-shaped bag hanging off her shoulders and a stuffed quarter-moon with face tucked under her arm.
That moon turns up in “a Dollmaker’s Studio,”: the animation Thornton made for the exhibition that’s projected on one of the gallery’s walls. It shows the assembling of “Adrianna,” a 2017 doll that sits directly in front of the projection, who then joins “Remy” seen through the window of Thornton’s house.
The smartly designed exhibition contains four more elements -- seven doll costumes hung on a wall -- allowing the viewer to see something of the choices that Thornton makes when assembling the dolls, a digital slide show of more of her dolls, a “Crazy Quilt” she made from cloth scraps in her studio and a “Self-portrait as a dollmaker,” created by two life=sized collage cutouts that utilize a dress she wore on a visit to Freda Kahlo’s home in Mexico over a metal skeleton.
Thornton, who received the Mayor’s Art Award for artistic achievement in 2018, is widely recognized among the world’s best doll artists and has shown her work and/or taught in Russia, Japan, Ukraine, Ireland, Belgium and around the U.S.
But she rarely has an exhibition in her hometown, which makes the superb Hillestad show a must see before it closes on Labor Day.