Some things never change...like Black-Eyed Susans edging the roads every summer. The farms here in our predominantly agricultural valley routinely fight these "field pests." Every year before they plant their cornfields, the farmers spray the fields, the levees and the roadsides. I think there must be a lesson here in constancy and determination, for as I drive along, I see field after field of corn, completely encircled by vigorous bushes of Black-Eyed Susans. I can't help but love them as they nod their lithe heads, keeping tune with the breeze. Something about them symbolizes summer so much more eloquently, to me, than all their carefully nurtured garden sisters.
Constancy is something to which we give much consideration, at Lawtons. Consistent quality is one of the rules to which we are committed. Each of our craftsmen is dedicated, above all else, to creating a beautiful doll. We use stringent quality controls and our standard is admittedly high, resulting in many dolls being rejected during the dollmaking process. But, we believe that the end result is worth the cost. We know that each doll may be treasured for generations to come, possibly long after we are gone.
That's not to say, of course, that each doll is a carbon copy of the others in the edition. One of the best things about working in porcelain is that no part of the process can be automated. Each doll is made entirely by hand. For instance, there are no masks or stencils used in china painting the faces. Every face is hand-painted by a highly skilled artist, who carefully develops the depth and shadings over many different paint and fire cycles. Although we work toward painting each head to look exactly like its sample, a wonderful thing happens along the way - no two dolls ever turn out exactly alike.
Just a month ago, one of our dealers returned two dolls with the following comment, "These two dolls do not look alike." We gave no argument. She was right. But I can't help feeling that this is the very reason that collecting dolls is unlike any other collectible - you can find that special doll, out of an entire edition, that seems made just for you. So, even though each doll may be uniquely different, the constant in a Lawtons Doll is the quality.
Because some things never change, I expect to see Black-Eyed Susans lining the road each summer, for many years to come. And I hope that with the same constancy, Lawtons quality will greet you each time you unbox your newest doll.
A Lifetime of Dolls
One of the questions I'm most frequently asked is "How did you ever get started making dolls?" It's usually easier to omit all the years of experimentation with different media. I made jointed cloth dolls, tried to carve soap dolls and even used bread dough as a dollmaking medium. My "breakthrough" came when I discovered porcelain dollmaking. I was staying at home, caring for our long-awaited baby, and I had a profound desire to somehow capture Rebecca at that moment in time. I found my teacher and began my journey into dollmaking. Needless to say, that first doll was less than impressive, but it was a start and not a single day has passed since then when I haven't been up to my elbows in dollmaking.
But that's not the whole story. My dollmaking actually grew out of my lifelong love of dolls. I can't ever recall a time when dolls weren't an important part of my life. My very first dolls were a pair of 2 l/2 inch, hard plastic, Renewal jointed babies, purchased at Woolworths for 5¢ each and carefully sewn into a twin bunting made of soft cotton flannel.
My mother understood the importance of having a doll scaled to fit in a tiny pocket or a child-sized hand. I can still remember the comforting feel of the soft flannel bunting as I'd suck my thumb while holding the babies in the other four fingers. Those battered little babies are still a treasured part of my doll collection to this day.
I went through some of my photo albums to see if I could find photographs of some of my first dolls. I realized that it would have been difficult to find a photo of me without a doll!
Dolls highlight all my childhood memories. My younger sister, Linda, and I played dolls hour after hour for years (from Tiny Tears though Barbie). We sewed for them, cooked for them and curled and styled their hair. We even took our dolls along in strollers when we went shopping downtown. We were blessed with a magical childhood, rich with make-believe and "let's pretend." My parents believed in the importance of creative play. We were provided with the tools of childhood - which for me were dolls - and plenty of time in which to learn to exercise our imaginations. Who would have guessed that all those years of play were actually job training for me.
Some dollmakers insist they are making "people figures", others are creating "representational art" or "three dimensional portraits", but I must confess that I make dolls; nothing more, nothing less, and to my way of thinking, nothing could be more satisfying.
Sharing with Children
What a wonderful interest we share. I can't think of a single collectible that is more universally loved than a doll, especially to those of us so steeped in the magic of childhood that we barely qualify as adults. Dolls seem to link us to those halcyon days of tea parties, dress-up and make-believe.
While I don't think we ever lose sight of that special link between children and dolls, I do think that many times we forget what a wonderful communication tool we possess with our collections. Our workshops here in Turlock are regularly visited by field trips of school children anxious to see how dolls are made.
It's not unusual to see a school bus or two waiting at the park down the block while an excited queue of school children file into Lawtons. Within each group of children we find those children who are kindred spirits. They squeeze in next to our dollmakers, ask scores of questions, delight in holding eyeballs in the palms of their hands and seem to absorb every piece of information. They tell of their own Barbies/G.I. Joes/Cabbage Patch Kids, and they want to know if they, too, are "collectors." We take this interest very seriously and by the time they leave, each child is armed with information, brochures and their favorite postcard (painstakingly chosen and then traded two or three times
While this kind of group sharing is a revitalizing experience, nothing compares with sharing one on one. I'll never forget those grown-ups in my own childhood who took the time to share their interests with me. One of those, Mrs. Miller, was the owner of a rare piece of real estate in our very urban San Francisco neighborhood-a garden. Hers was not simply a bed of flowers surrounding a patch of grass, her garden was a lovely pocket of greenery tucked between apartment houses, surrounded by an ornamental wire fence and gate. Mrs. Miller spent many an hour of every day working in her garden. She was always gracious in allowing pesky little neighbors to join her. It was in that very garden that I first became acquainted with Scotch Broom, French Lavender, and Wisteria. That garden, with its iridescent abalone shells set throughout to catch the rain, was a place that could have easily been home to all kinds of fairy folk. Mrs. Miller knew each plant by name and each was cared for according to its own needs. Her garden was a grouping of well loved individuals, so different from our modern "landscape plans." Those days in Mrs. Miller's garden awakened a deep appreciation of gardening for me. Now, as a busy adult, I'm touched that she was willing to give up her gardener's solitude to share her knowledge with a child.
Another dear mentor, Miss Lowe, lived alone, across the street from us, in a small house that was brimming with treasures from her native England and her travels around the world. She invited me into her home with as much graciousness and ceremony as if I were an old friend. She patiently showed me all her beautiful things, carefully taking each delicate piece off its resting place and placing it in my clumsy little five-year-old fingers. I still vividly remember the feel of those delicate objects long after the visual memory has faded. On four different occasions she gifted me with a piece from her collection; once an exotic snuff/bottle from China with a scene painted on the inside of the glass. Another time I took home a heavy bronze pot that just fit into my hand. A little cloisonne enamel bowl that was perfectly doll sized was given to me on another occasion and for Christmas, the last year of her life, she gave my sister and me our copy of Kate Greenaway's Marigold Garden. I rely on that one book for inspiration more than any other book in my library.
As you enjoy your dolls or when you decide to "weed out" your collection, think about that little child who can't stay away from your doll case, whose eyes light up every time they see a doll. And if you do decide to gift your young friend with a little treasure from your collection, help them to understand the import of it. Tell them the story behind it. Examine it with them, allowing them time to savor each detail. Make it an occasion. I often suggest to parents or grandparents that rather than simply buying a doll to give to their child/grandchild, they put it into their own collection for a time, carefully enjoying it with the child over many different visits. Children love to "yearn" for something. When the illusive doll is finally presented to the child, it is so imbued with memories of the time spent with the giver that it becomes doubly precious as the years go by. An appreciation of beauty and the time spent together actually rival the gift itself in value.
So continue to enjoy every minute of our wonderful hobby and keep in mind that it can be made even more enjoyable through its sharing.
This year I keep hearing a recurring lament from our collectors, "There are too many good dolls in the 1991 Lawtons line...how can I choose?" I think there can be no finer compliment to an artist, and I am honored that so many of you love the line. I know that we're on the right track if it's hard for you to choose.
But, it is a fact of life that most of us must indeed make choices. And I firmly believe that the process of making choices is half the fun. If you could buy every doll on the market, collecting would be no fun - it would be nothing more than a warehousing operation. Your collection would tell no stories nor would it reveal anything about you, as the collector.
Most of us are limited by some external limitations first and foremost. The two I hear about most often are lack of available space and limited doll money. Those are the type of limitations we collectors can usually do nothing about, so let's think of those as our boundaries. Those boundaries can actually be a blessing in disguise, because without them we may never have to refine our tastes or develop a personal criterion for our collections. Inside of those boundaries we have complete control over what kind of collection we build. That's where the fun begins.
The necessity of making choices allows us to explore our tastes and develop our own personal style. My dream has always been to own an old house. Fulfilling this dream would have been no problem had we lived on the East Coast or in the Midwest, but California is a relative newcomer when it comes to settlement. Our area didn't come to be settled until after the turn of the century, and when it was settled it was settled by down-to-earth Scandinavian farmers and dairymen, so there are certainly no romantic Queen Anne Victorians or stately Mansards in our valley. But we love our community and wanted to stay put. Those boundaries, coupled with our monetary parameters should have been enough to discourage anyone with an ounce of sense, but that was where our challenge began. We settled our sights on the oldest house in our community - a homely 1902 American Foursquare surrounded by aged gardens and set in a beautiful almond orchard. Since the house had been lived in by three generations of the same family, the house was left, essentially, as built. The fact that it was not for sale didn't daunt us (fools rush in, where angels fear to tread). We visited the owner almost every week for a year before we worked out an agreement. Even now, with two years of restoration behind us and probably eight years still facing us, we're glad we followed our instincts. Our limitations served to help us focus and define exactly what we wanted in a house. Our home is certainly unique and, when it is done, will reveal a great deal about us. In the same way, your doll collection tells a lot about you.
If you could buy every doll on the market in a given year, what you would have amassed is a broad history of the doll industry for that year. How uninteresting. Or if, instead, you chose to buy every wooden doll made this year, you'd have a pretty good picture of the direction the wooden doll designers have taken this year - a more interesting collection, surely, but still rather impersonal. But if you've set up a certain collecting criteria based on buying only what you love and then subject to your space and monetary limitations; you'll have a collection that reveals a great deal about you.
Collecting is actually an art form, built like a collage, and art always reveals the artist. If you set up your criteria and accept your limitations, doll collecting becomes a real adventure. The challenge is to spend delicious hours debating, deliberating and deciding. And I believe that the process of selection is almost as much fun as adding the chosen doll to your collection. So next year when I hear the words "How can I ever choose?" I'll know that you're just beginning the process that makes you a discriminating collector.
I love beautiful things. I find myself drawn to the richness of old fabrics, to the play of light on deeply textured surfaces. The interplay of intricate patterns in weaving, or the ageless art of an oriental carpet intrigues me. There is just something about the patina of gently aged silver or antique brass. And, of courses there are dolls...
I've loved dolls since before I could talk. Perhaps because a doll is a reflection of our human form, it has a powerful appeal Over the years I've collected different dolls at different times. I've always loved Rose O'Neill's little Kewpies. Keith and I have a much-loved collection of Kewpie-ana, especially the bisque action Kewpies from the early decades of this century. I've always been intrigued by the all-woolen. Schoenhut dolls made in this country in the teens and twenties. We have several of them in our collection At the other end of the spectrum; I have quite a nice collection of Barbies, including a #1 Barbie. Those, along with my Ginnys and Alexanders, represent my own era of dolls. I also have doll artist dolls; John Wright, Blythe and Snodgrass, and needless to say, every Lawton edition issued.
But every once in a while, I look at all my collections and wonder about the desire for beautiful things. Perhaps it is my Puritan heritage that occasionally prompts twinges of guilt. Or maybe it's my growing up and being educated during the "socially- conscious" sixties. Regardless of what prompts it, every now and then I feel a twinge and wonder if I should be striving for a more Spartan simplicity in my life. Am I guilty of crass consumerism?
But when I spare the time to reflect, I am more convinced than ever that collecting is a good thing. Not only does it enrich my life, but also it is good for all of us, for a number of reasons. There is a solid tradition to collecting. Since earliest recorded history man has created beauty, interpreting the world around him. In the preservation of these objects (which is what collecting is, in its simplest form) we have actually preserved a slice of history. So as collectors, we are the archivists of our society.
And consumerism, per se, is a positive economic force. Our country is in danger of becoming nothing more than a service-oriented economy. We need to go back to the days when we made things. It seems that all we, as a nation, do is repair things, maintain things, warehouse things and sell things that are mass-produced in other countries. By buying beautiful, handmade things we are putting people to work. When I look at our own staff here at Lawtons, I see more than 30 highly trained artisans working to make the very limited number of dolls we make each year. One of the benchmarks of a collectible is that it is highly complicated to make, and requires intensive labor expenditure. It is gratifying to consider how many actual jobs are represented by our collections especially knowing that work that gives dignity to people.
And perhaps more than anything, our collections define our own uniqueness. Man has always had a need to express his sense of self through art, whether it he art of his own making or of his personal appreciation. One of my favorite collections of art is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller collection of folk art. I have enough insight into the person of Ms. Rockefeller-through knowing her collection-to guess that we are probably kindred spirits. 'The same applies to your own collections. Even if you only collect Lawton Dolls, you tell a tale about yourself by the dolls you choose out of the collection. And that's a good thing; it's part of the history of your own existence.
So upon reflection, I do love beautiful things...no apologies necessary.
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The Lawton Doll Company
Post Office Box 1227
Hilmar, CA 95324
Phone 209 632-3655
Fax: 209 632-6788
info @ lawtondolls.com