Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pat Spencer’s ‘Painted Ladies’ Make Beautiful Dolls


What is going on here?
Tufts of hair – human hair? – are evident around the table in the high-ceilinged dining room of Pat Spencer’s turreted Victorian home on upper Main Street.
Are those little body parts?
And these ladies:  What’s the snipping and sewing all about?
If double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and caldron bubble comes to mind, well, set your mind at ease.
This is no coven.  These are highly skilled craftspeople involved in an innocent hobby:  High-end dollmaking.
“I’ve always loved dolls,” said Spencer, who in 1986 acted on that life-long affection and took a doll-making course at Seeley’s,
the Oneonta doll company (now New York Doll Products in the Pony Farm Industrial Park.)
“I took it and I loved it.  I bought a kiln,” said the Massachusetts College for the Arts art major (she met her husband, Ted, there).  “It was perfect.  Artistic.  You have to paint them.  Then the dolls.  Then the beauty.”
Soon, she was a member of the Doll Artisan Guild, an international organization that celebrates dollmaking, and she was travelling to conferences all over the world – in Japan, in Australia – as well as a regional one at The Concord in the Catskills.
“There’s actually a huge group of people who do this,” she said.
Once a year, Pat hosts the best of the best, a half-dozen pals who have been making dolls together for years – they call themselves The Painted Ladies – and that’s what was going on around her diningroom table that morning in mid-March.
Heather Levy, Marieke Kuiper and Karin Svahn – “the best modern-day dollmaker I’ve ever seen,” who recently retired to Doylestown, Pa., with her husband – are among some of the local participants.  Patti Putnam participates from West Winfield.
But some of The Painted Ladies come from as far away at Huntington, W.Va.
Pat Spencer teaches dollmaking classes weekly, but really looks forward to the annual get-togethers.  Each year, The Painted Ladies pick a project and immerse themselves in it, a three-day marathon.  Meals are catered, so they can concentrate on the work at hand.
While chatting, Pat has been pointing out some of her favorite dolls in the glass-fronted cabinets that line her downstairs walls – there’s a lovely girl from “Lord of the Rings.”  There’s the doll that won Pat a “Millie,” the Oscar of dollmaking, named after Mildred Seeley, the Oneonta doll-company founder.
Now in the cellar, she points out four kilns she uses to make the ceramic heads and shoulders.  Over there are jars of liquid porcelain, the raw material.
Pat and the other Ladies seek to recreate examples from 1860 to 1910, the heyday of fine dollmaking.  Pre-plastic, the bodies are made of leather, with sawdust and glue among the ingredients.
All the years this was going on, she and Ted, now retired, but then chief curator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, were raising three children.  (They now have three grandsons and a granddaughter.)
Daughter Jennifer loved the dolls, her mom said.  “My granddaughter loves them.  My husband is very supportive – he thinks its a great art form.
“My sons” – Matthew and Lucas – “they think I’m a little nuts.”

Jim Kevlin/
The Painted Ladies, above, are in the midst of their annual three-day doll-making marathon in Pat Spencer’s Cooperstown dining room.  Upper right is Pat and the doll that won her a “Millie.”  Center right is a princess from “Lord of the Rings.”  At right is the bisque head and shoulders that dolls are built around.

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