Art From The Heart: Doll-Making & Painting
Dolls and Paintings ... Heart and Soul, Art and Soul
I had the unique pleasure of interviewing an extraordinarily talented Mississippi-based folk artist, Mrs. Sybil Butler Reddick, who passed away in 2017. Sybil's artwork takes folk art and creativity to an elevated, "folksy level," the level I work hard to reach with the characters I create when writing fiction. I am a writer who is also a self-proclaimed "connoisseur" of art, and folk art captures my attention mainly because of the "folk" part of it. I remain fascinated by the elements of racial, ethnic, and cultural identity that folk art embodies. Sybil's artwork will always echo all of these elements in ways that I believe will always be fascinating and unexpected.
How did she do it? By tapping into her life, by staying in tune and in time with her thoughts, feelings, and emotions, as she created. She looked deep inside herself to find the most honesty she was capable of finding and showing to others through the making of her dolls, and through the painting of her paintings. "There are many things that inspire me," she said, years ago, during our interview. "It may be the color of a flower, a sunset, a face I see in a crowd, or a memory from my childhood. I am motivated by the pleasure of just creating something that will outlast my existence, and I've done that. My dolls live in many places now, because people have purchased them as I've traveled around the country, and my paintings too."
The Art of Dolls . . .
Beautifully simplistic and soulful, Sybil's dolls will always be fascinating to behold. Many of them have eyes conveying emotions that will hold you spellbound (just like "Miss Jane Hartwell" in the photo above). Others might seem comedic in presentation, but upon closer look, you will find they have a compelling story to tell.
"I didn't have a lot of store bought things when I was little," Sybil said, "but one thing I had was a store-bought, Caucasian rag doll. I'm from a pretty big family, and rag dolls were inexpensive, so I had one of those. I remember that she was pink, and that's because she was a white doll. I loved that doll, and some of the dolls I make resemble her. I was a little girl, and I really loved that doll."
Every doll Sybil Reddick made has a story to tell that is connected, in some way, with something from her life. They are expressions of something or someone who has made a lasting impressions on her mind; something that made an indelible impression on her, a mark strong enough to become part of her art. In addition to making the dolls, Sybil also designed, made, and styled all of the clothing, hats and accessories for her dolls."I have always had a desire to create," she said. "I learned to sew and make my own clothes at a young age. I made clothes for my daughters until they were old enough to buy their clothes."
Sybil admitted to me that some of her creations might have been influenced, a bit, by the range of "skin colors" within her own African-American family. Sybil was my first cousin, and, as first cousins, her family was like my own family, with skin colors that span the color spectrum, from very, very dark brown, to a color so light it can only be called "pink" or "white."
While she loved making dolls of all colors, most of the dolls Sybil made were black. "When I make white dolls," she said, "I usually stain the 'skin' with tea, to give it just a hint of color. But I mostly think of about the 'personality' I'm working to express through a doll. That's more important to me. I don't really think about color all that much when I'm making my dolls. I'm sure I probably think about color on a subconscious level, but it's not uppermost in my mind. I will tell you that, growing up, I endured quite a bit of teasing by other children over my own skin color. I was teased because I had very fair skin and freckles. I remember that, as a child, I nursed a lot of hurt and pain from being teased about that."
At this point in the interview I shared with Sybil how the beautiful range of skin colors within the black race is something that will always intrigue and interest me, since it is part of the fabric of our families and our culture. You see, as first cousins (our fathers were brothers), Sybil Reddick and I shared a paternal grandmother whose beautiful skin color was the darkest of dark brown. We also both had maternal grandmothers with one similar quality: their skin was the lightest of light tan. Therefore, she and I both grew up in families with a broad and interesting range of skin tones/colors.
Sybil and I talked about how, even if some might want to deny it, it is true that we live in a race- and color-conscious world. Unfortunately, skin color is not only something we think about (even those who lie and say they don't "see" color), it's something that is used to separate or to distinguish us one from another, because it's something that creates noticeable differences among people. In my color-coded novels, my African-American characters come in all shades of the color spectrum, because I don't just think, I know that color makes life and drama more interesting.
My "Color of Love" collection of books address the concept of skin color within the black race. As I said above, each book in the collection is color-coded, and, often within the story is some kind of closer look at some of the ways the idea of skin color has affected someone as he or she has grown up and matured in a skin-color/race conscious world. By creating dolls with a range of skin tones, Sybil brought the same kinds of influences to life in a beautiful, subtle, yet touchable form that helped to make the character and personalities of her dolls more vivid, realistic, dramatic, and memorable.
Self-taught in the art and craft of doll-making, Sybil made all kinds of dolls, including rag dolls, dolls with clay heads, Santa Claus dolls, and more. She started making her dolls in 1993, for a very important reason. "My granddaughters were visiting for the summer," she said, "and they asked me if I could make some dolls for them. In my opinion, the earlier dolls I made are some of my best creations. I've made many, many dolls since then. When deciding on what doll I'll make, I might be influenced by people I've known all my life, people I've met somewhere but don't really know, or someone who caught my attention one day when I was walking down the street. All kinds of people influence the dolls I make. For example, when I make my Santa dolls, especially, I look at people's faces for character and ideas."
The Art of Paintings ...
Although she never studied art, formally, Sybil told me she had been painting on canvas since 1995. "I have never taken any art courses," she told me during our interview. "I started painting when I was living in the Mississippi Delta. I had become very depressed for some reason, and I thought that I could express my sadness through painting. It worked for a while but I somehow lost interest in it, and didn't paint again for many years. I sometimes lose motivation and I just don’t feel it. I think, as a writer, you can understand. It is sort of like 'writers block.' Sometimes you have to take a break from it, and come back later."
Thanks to an enduring desire to create, Sybil did come back to painting. In fact, on many days, she was just as likely to be spending an entire day working on a painting as she was on making a very special doll. Our interview continued. "When it comes to painting," she said, "I am influenced by professional artists such as Picasso and others. I go to art museums to observe how artists use color, design, and subject matter. But when it comes to putting brush to canvas, I've learned to paint by trial and error. If what I’ve done doesn’t suit me, I work on it more to correct what I think are mistakes. I use oil paints, and that allows me to make corrections easily, because it is slow drying. When I think a painting is done to my satisfaction, I sign it. I put a lot of me into my creations. I am fascinated by eyes and my paintings reflect my feeling through the eyes. The eyes always tell a story, whether it's happy, sad, or whatever I'm feeling when I'm creating."
Art From Rural Mississippi ... to Eternity ...
A Southerner, Sybil was born and raised in rural Lawrence County, Mississippi, in the town of Silver Creek. "I attended college in Illinois," she said. "Thornton Community college. There, I took courses in English, history, and speech, just basic courses. Back then, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but I changed my mind and did not complete my degree. I guess you can say I'm a 'free-spirit' type, and my artistic creations are influenced by where I am in my life."
Sybil took some of her creations to the public--to events such as doll shows and art festivals. "I enjoy sharing my work," she said, "but--at this time, I have no plans for marketing my creations."
Finally, I asked Sybil what it was that drove her to create, and she responded, by saying, "When the masters of art, like Picasso and Cezanne, when they did their work, they gave it their all hoping someone, maybe even generations to come, would be able to appreciate and to enjoy what they were creating. I feel that way too. I hope someone will know Sybil Reddick was here, and that she loved, she felt, she lived, she learned, she became, and she was blessed and grateful to have been alive. I want to leave something bigger than me for others to discover, to find inspiration in, and to learn something from."
"I hope something I've done will serve to motivate someone else to want to create," Sybil said, "to want to leave something behind too, that's bigger than them. I would like for what I've created to become a legacy of inspiration, not just for my family but for other families too, for generations to come. I feel proud and blessed that my grandchildren who are creative are much better in their art than I am, or ever could be. It makes my heart glad when one of them says to me, 'Granny, you are my inspiration.'"
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© 2013 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD