Dolls that reflect their creator

Francis Espinoza is an artist and dollmaker living in Ajijic, Jalisco, but she is not an expat retiree. She inherited her artistic streak from her father’s side, a Monterrey family with more than a few painters and musicians. As a small child, she found it easy to draw, and her father’s canvases intrigued her.

As an adult, she enrolled in CEDART Alfonso Reyes, one of a number of art colleges run by the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA) in the early 2000s. Among her other classes were those in sculpting, including sculpting in cloth, but it was her community service work that led her to dolls. (All Mexican university students must to community service in order to graduate, and most do service related to their majors.)

Espinoza did hers with a local puppet theater called Baúl Teatro that catered mostly to children. Here she started with support roles such as creating scenery and doing make up, but the puppets attracted her, and she began experimenting making these.

During this time, she met notable art doll maker Mayra René. She and her musician husband were collaborating with the theatre group for a show. The two women became friends and began to share their knowledge. René introduced Espinoza to the world of art dolls, on which she comments, “…it was exactly what I was trying to do without realizing it.”

Espinoza took the patterns and ideas from René and publications from the United States to learn from them, but soon began creating her own designs. She had already been drawing characters, so three dimensional versions were the next logical step. Still working with the puppet theatre, she was able to collaborate on the principal puppet for the production, which was based off René husband.

During the rest of her college years, Espinoza continued to make both dolls and puppets. She began with pure cloth, as this is readily accessible, but soon expanded into paper mache, wood and clay, especially for the heads. Her thesis was a show of 50 dolls and puppets, with both Mexican and US influences.

Her work with dolls attracted attention, and she began to sell then, at first to friends and family, as well as those from school. One of her early dolls was commissioned by a dancer, who wanted a doll with movable arms and legs to dance with for a show. Completely made of cloth, facial features are cleverly hinted at, while hands and feet are very basic.

Upon graduation, Espinoza was not sure how she would start an art career, but the doll making was enough of a success that she decided to register a trademark for her work and protect her designs. The result is Francis Dolls (MR) in 2006, under which she still makes and sells.

Dolls made for Espinoza’s young daugther

In 2010, she and her soon-to-be husband visited Ajijic as he had a gig to play there. They fell in love with the natural beauty and the international vibe of the area, deciding it was a place that would welcome both of their talents. (Espinoza’s husband is a versatile musician, mostly jazz but also traditional Jalisco music as well as some from India as well.) Today, she continues to work on dolls and other projects at her home studio.

Doll made for the dancer

As her formal training was that of an artist, her sewing skills came through trial-and-error, rather than from classes. Over time, she has expanded her range of materials to include not only the clay, wood and paper mache mentioned above, but also found items like bottles, wire, Styrofoam and more. It has been a natural progression based of the needs of a project and the effects she is trying to achieve. Most of  her works are mixed media… some combination that usually includes cloth, filling, and either paper mache or clay, but she has made some rather innovative dolls integrating other local handcrafts, antique bottles and even making jewelry stands in the form of dolls. One surprising aspect of her work is how light the heads are, even though they are clay. This is because the basic shape is carved from a Styrofoam ball which is then covered with paper mache or clay. She still makes some dolls entirely from cloth, especially the collection that her six-year-old daughter has. But often heads will be made of some other material because it is much easier to capture fine details.

There is a definite international influence in her work, as well as her artistic training. Many of her characters are of the fantasy type: fairies, gnomes, witches, dancers, etc. She has also done many doll “portraits” of people who commission them for weddings, quinceañeras and the like. Most of her works are dolls, because of the market, but she still makes puppets as well.

At one time, she was making as many as 100 dolls a year, working so much that she missed sleep. However, the demands of family life mean that she has taken on a steady teaching job as well as allocating the time and attention her daughter needs. She still makes and sells dolls, but is more selective about what projects she will do, and projects take longer to complete.

One cute incident during our interview was with her daughter. As I was looking at her dolls, I also wanted to see the ones Espinoza made for her daughter. That made me suspicious to the daughter. Espinoza explained that every time a stranger comes to the house to look at dolls, they buy one and it “goes away,” which the daughter did not like. We had to assure the girl that no dolls, especially not hers, were going anywhere. Just pictures of them.

Francis Dolls are available upon request through her Facebook page

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