The wonderful thing about cloth dolls is that there are few limits to an artistan’s creativity in making one. Materials for construction of all kinds abound to be purchased or even found. For this reason, most doll makers find their niche through the kinds of materials they use, a particular style, or both. In some cases, a doll maker will also look to bring something they believe into the making.
Isabel Monter has always liked rag dolls because, she says, they have a warmth that plastic dolls like Barbie can never have. Her interest in collecting dolls began young. Her father was a gem miner who travelled all over Mexico and the world. Every time he traveled, he brought a doll back for her. Although born in Santa Rosalia, Baja California Sur, her family also moved around a lot. She spent her childhood in 17 different places until the family finally settled in Mexico City.
Monter’s need to be creative also began young, doing things with her grandmother such as knitting and embroidery. She moved onto wire, palm fronds and even learned to cut stones to make jewelry.
In college, her interest in crafts did not stray far. She majored in anthorpology, with a specialization in linguistics, but she became interested in traditional Mexican textiles. This led to her eventually amassing a large collection, along with researching, exhibiting, buying and selling. While putting on a exhibition of Mexican textiles at George Mason University in Washington DC, she came in contact with artisans who painted on silk cloth.
Fascinated by the process, Monter learned to paint on silk, making clothing items and accesories … and producing scraps of precious painted silk. What to do with these scraps was answered by a “free spirit” by the name of Dahlia, who lived life her own way. She made a living by doing ritual cleansings in the Mexico City main plaza but also by creating and selling dolls. Dahlia’s work inspired Monter to take these silk scraps, along with her grandfather’s old hankerchiefs to make two dolls. She has been making dolls ever since and started selling her creations in Coyoacan in 1989
She found that making dolls from scraps fit in with another passion, collecting small items that are attractive to her, but no one else wants. The dolls give her a way to use the boxes and bags of buttons, old jewelry, ribbon and of course fabric (new and used) that piles up in her house. Some she finds, some she gets from friends who are seamstresses, but much comes from people who hear of her penchant for collecting and give her stuff.
Essentially, Monter has been “upcycling” since long before such a word entered the popular vocabulary. Her repurposing work also includes creative patching of clothing and other items, as well as teaching clases on how to repair and otherwise save clothing, but by far the most successful activity has been the making of her dolls. Her goal is to make the dolls entirely from recycled materials when possible, although that is often difficult when it comes to stuffing them. But for the making of the dolls’ bodies and in particular dressing them, her large, wholly disorganized collection of stuff forms the basis. She even does dolls by special order when a client asks her to take something of sentimenal value, such as a child’s old dress and use it to make a doll.
However, most dolls are completely from her own mental and material resources. Her dolls often are not made to imitate reality, but rather fantasy. She particularly likes to make dolls she called “female shaman protectors, those that protect dogs and other animals…” Her repertoire also includes ballerinas, elves, fairies, archangles, mermaids, ladies-in-waiting… She also makes more stereotypical Mexican images such as La Catrina, Aztecs as well as Frida Kahlo, although she has mixed feelings about doing the latter. She recognizes Frida’s popularity and her positive effect on promoting Mexican culture but worries that commercializing her image also commercializes her suffering in life. Her answer to this dilemma is to reinterpret the image of Frida (keeping the trademark eyebrows of course) instead of just copying how she looked in life. Notably, Monter states that she “cannot” make dolls that represent men.
Monter’s faces are always embroidered as they matter much to her. However, her work is better defined by the use of recycled materials, especially in the heavy decoration and the use of silk, often as the “skin” of the dolls. This silk skin is often painted and does not represent any kind present in nature, but most dolls contain at least 30% silk in one form or another. When the silk is colored, it is her own work, using various techniques such as batik. The individualization of the dolls does not come from the construction of their bodies but rather in their dress and decoration. Inspirations for the heavily decorations comes from her father’s work with gems, her own work with jewelry and her love of baubles.
As much as Monter is a creator, she is also a businesswomen. For a number of years, she owned a craft and novelty store in the historic borough of Coyoacan. She still does a lot of buying and selling, especially related to items she has a personal interest in. This activity provides her income as well as chances to travel. Dolls have always been an important part of her inventory. In addition to Coyoacan, she sold for many years at the Saturday handcraft bazar in San Angel. However, most of her selling today is to small retailers in various parts of Mexico includine one client who has resold her work in Queretaro and San Miguel Allende for over 14 years. Today, Monter makes only about three to seven dolls per week. Making dolls of this quality is a highly laborious process, she refuses to streamline it. She has also cut back on the number of hours she works for quality-of-life reasons. However, there are no indications that she is to retire anytime soon.
Photos used with permission by the artisan and photographer (photographer credit: Ricardo Suárez)