Doll artist paints new face on Harvard Law


The closest that most lawyers come to toys is fashioning a products liability suit. A recent visit to the HLS campus by acclaimed doll-artist Nancy Wiley aimed to change all that, though.

“I like to think of my dolls as three-dimensional paintings,” Wiley said to an eager group of HLS students and local Boston residents who attended a lecture, slide show, and exhibit featuring her doll art last Friday in Hauser 104. The event was sponsored by the HLS Arts Panel.

Wiley has won media attention, as well as critical acclaim, from a broad base of art gallery owners and art collectors. “Many people think of dolls as play things. And that’s fine with me. But I also like to take dolls to another level,” she said.

Dolls used strictly for play are typically made of plastic or rubber, have synthetic hair and are mass-produced. By contrast, Wiley sculpts one-of-a-kind and limited edition pieces in porcelain, resin and paperclay – she also experiments with nontraditional fabrics such as burlap and tulle for hair. She then invokes the age-old techniques of Dutch painter Jan Vermeer: applying gesso – a fine acrylic which imparts a distinctly characteristic quality to the colors painted over it – to the surface before painting the face. “The face is the most important part of the piece. And the way it is painted determines everything. No matter how you sculpt the face, it takes on a totally different mood and character depending on how it is painted,” Wiley said.

Wiley explored her love of painting in the mid-1980s as an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It wasn’t until 1989 that she combined this love with an interest in doll-making. Raised by a mother who went on doll collecting forays throughout Europe and having grown up with an elder brother who became a professional doll-maker, Wiley at first resisted the idea. “I felt saturated in dolls,” she said. But as she spent more time with her brother William, she fell under his influence and discovered that she too could express herself through doll-making.

From the very beginning, Wiley distinguished herself from her brother by creating fantastical figures as opposed to his realistic ones. She confesses, “I love shellfish. I was born under the sign of Cancer. They are a recurring theme for me.” Wearing a silver satin gown fit for Oscar night, “Lobster Lady” has the dignified face of an elderly woman and the torso, legs and claws of a lobster. Her companion – “Crab Man” – resembles a frowning Buddha who skeptically eyes the world through his gold-rimmed spectacles.

In addition to what Wiley calls her “Crustacean People,” there is the “Panniere” series, which features fully-human figures. But just because they are fully-human does not mean that they are any less out of this world. A panniere is a kind of skirt worn by French noblewomen in the 18th Century which opens outward toward the middle to reveal a second, different layer of fabric beneath. Wiley explains, “I saw the dress as a stage set. In my mind the skirt became the open theater curtains for marionettes who perform before a painted landscape as a backdrop.” Each “Panniere” doll holds a female marionette in one hand and a male in the other.

Actress Demi Moore, an avid doll collector, admired Wiley’s “Striped Panniere” so much that not only did she buy it, she also decided to pose as the doll for the June/July 1996 cover of George magazine, with George Washington as the sole marionette. Reminisced Wiley: “A private black limo appeared at my front door, and the chauffeur delivered the message that Demi wanted to show the doll to John F. Kennedy, Jr. so that he could understand her idea for the cover. There I was, putting my doll on the empty back seat of a stretch limo and watching it being driven off to Manhattan.” Wiley laughed, “It was weird, surreal!”

The “Panniere” series illustrates Wiley’s artistic preoccupation during the mid-to-late 1990s with darker themes. These dolls personify Fate controlling the lives of human beings as represented by the smaller-sized marionettes. With the arrival of her first child two years ago, Wiley’s interest has shifted to fun, whimsical themes incorporating scenes from fairytales. But as with the “Panniere” series, she continues to explore the juxtaposition of different scales in order to create “a doll within a doll.” Two recent works, “Dorothy” from the Wizard of Oz and “Alice” from Alice in Wonderland, feature the girls wearing dresses with multiple pockets, each of which holds a supporting character sculpted in miniature. Alice’s dress is particularly interesting because it is supposed to resemble a chessboard, with each pocket representing either a black or white square. While another recent work, “Circus Lady,” is inspired by the contemporary art of Alexander Calder rather than by fairytales, it exudes a child’s fascination with the circus and recreates the circus stage in miniature at the base of the doll’s “skirt.”

Wiley afterwards commented, “I came away with a great impression of Harvard … there is a great amount of creative, as well as academic, energy.”

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