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Creating Art From The Heart: Doll-Making & Painting

Updated on January 11, 2014
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Dr. Middlebrook is a self-publishing expert, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

Doll-making and painting comes from the heart for self-taught artist Sybil Butler Reddick.
Doll-making and painting comes from the heart for self-taught artist Sybil Butler Reddick. | Source

Sybil Reddick—Heart and Soul ... Art and Soul

Recently, I had the unique pleasure of interviewing an extraordinarily talented Mississippi-based folk artist, Mrs. Sybil Butler Reddick. Sybil's work takes folk art and creativity to an elevated, "folksy level," the kind 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 am fascinated by the elements of racial, ethnic, and cultural identity that folk art embodies. Sybil's work echoes all of these elements in ways that are fascinating and unexpected.

How does she do it? By tapping into her life, by staying in tune and in time with her thoughts, feelings, and emotions, as she creates. She looks deep inside herself to find the most honesty she is capable of 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 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."

Sybil's dolls have so much character, they all must have names. And this doll does. Her name is "Miss Jane Hartwell."
Sybil's dolls have so much character, they all must have names. And this doll does. Her name is "Miss Jane Hartwell." | Source

The Dolls . . .

Beautifully simplistic and soulful, Sybil's dolls are 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, they also 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 makes 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 she feels needs to become part of her art. In addition to making the dolls, Sybil also designs, makes, and styles 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's work room is filled with remnants of dolls, doll clothing, fabric, and the sewing machine she uses to put them all together.
Sybil's work room is filled with remnants of dolls, doll clothing, fabric, and the sewing machine she uses to put them all together. | Source

Sybil admitted to me that some of her creations might be influenced, a bit, by the range of "skin colors" within her own African-American family. Like my own family, skin color in her family also spans the color spectrum, from very, very dark brown, to tan so light it can only be called "white."

While she loves making dolls of all colors, most of the dolls Sybil makes are 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."

Some of the dolls Sybil makes, such as these, are not for sale. Holding special significance in the heart of their creator, they've become part of the artist's personal collection.
Some of the dolls Sybil makes, such as these, are not for sale. Holding special significance in the heart of their creator, they've become part of the artist's personal collection. | Source
"Tales from the Quarters" is a 10-book, color coded collection of novels by Beax Rivers (more at mybeaxrivers.com).
"Tales from the Quarters" is a 10-book, color coded collection of novels by Beax Rivers (more at mybeaxrivers.com). | Source

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, Sybil Reddick and I are first cousins, and we share a paternal grandmother whose beautiful skin color was the darkest of dark brown. We also both have maternal grandmothers whose skin was the lightest of light tan, so we grew up in families with broad and interesting ranges of skin tones/colors.

We 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, 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 the novels I write, my African-American characters come in all shades of the color spectrum.

My "Tales from the Quarters" collection of books address the concept of skin color within the black race. Each book in the collection is color-coded, and within the story is usually 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 brings these same kinds of influences to life in a beautiful, subtle, yet touchable form that helps to make the character and personalities of her dolls more vivid, realistic, and memorable.

Meet Mrs. Agnes Brown. Agnes is one of those people who is contagiously happy. She spreads happiness to others, saying, "it's a blessing  being free to be yourself."
Meet Mrs. Agnes Brown. Agnes is one of those people who is contagiously happy. She spreads happiness to others, saying, "it's a blessing being free to be yourself." | Source
Styled in the true beauty of ethnic pride.
Styled in the true beauty of ethnic pride. | Source

Self-taught in the art and craft of doll-making, Sybil makes all kinds of dolls, including rag dolls, dolls with clay heads, Santa clause dolls, and more. She began 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."

Sybil selects every frame, and does her own framing for her paintings. This painting was influenced by how Picasso uses color.
Sybil selects every frame, and does her own framing for her paintings. This painting was influenced by how Picasso uses color. | Source
A small, rural country church.
A small, rural country church. | Source

The Paintings ...

Although she never studied art, formally, Sybil says she's 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."

"Embracing newborn Joy," 1995, by Sybil Reddick.
"Embracing newborn Joy," 1995, by Sybil Reddick. | Source
"Two pairs, still." Painted in 2011.
"Two pairs, still." Painted in 2011. | Source

Thanks to an enduring desire to create, Sybil did come back to painting. These days, she is just as likely to be spending an entire day working on a painting, as she is on making a very special doll. "When it comes to painting, 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."

My camera cannot do justice to this beautiful painting. It was given to me as a "surprise" Christmas gift, 2013. I'm honored and proud to own this genuine work, by a genuine artist.
My camera cannot do justice to this beautiful painting. It was given to me as a "surprise" Christmas gift, 2013. I'm honored and proud to own this genuine work, by a genuine artist. | Source

From Rural Mississippi ... to Eternity ...

A Southerner, Sybil was born and raised in rural Lawrence County, Mississippi, in the town of Silver Creek. "I attend 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."

In the past, Sybil has taken some of her creations to the public--to events such as doll shows and art festivals. "I enjoy sharing my work," she says, "but--at this time, I have no plans for marketing my creations."

"Heading back home for a visit."
"Heading back home for a visit." | Source

Finally, I asked Sybil what it is that drives her to create, and she responded, 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.'"

© 2013 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

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    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Love the photos! These are such cool folk art pieces. I'd like to try some myself one day. Thank you for sharing. Voted up and beautiful!

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
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      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you so much, heidithorne. This is the work of a very dear friend, who is also my first cousin. Her work inspires me as much as her heart does. She is such a beautiful person, inside and out, and I'm glad to know you think the same thing I do, that these are very "cool folk-art pieces." Thanks for the votes up and beautiful!

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      Vegnspiration 3 years ago

      I don't know if I'm more intrigued by the art, or the story behind the art. I can identify with much of what Sybil spoke of, as an artistic person and a Southerner. Coming from a different generation, it amazes me that some things remained the same through the years with regards to skin tones. Like you, I find varying shades and tones to be quite interesting, even more so the stories that accompany them. Great read! I wish "Inspiring" was one of the voting options.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you Vegnspiration, for another visit! And thanks for the "Inspiring" vote, even though it's not an option (yet!). Sybil's story is one of my favorites. She speaks plainly, straight from her heart, just as she creates from her heart.

      I think the concept of skin tone/color always has and always will be with us, in some way. And I'm glad to know there will always be interesting people and stories in all the colors of the human spectrum.

      And, as inspired as I am by Sybil's story, I have to say I don't think any doll has ever had more of an "effect" on me as "Mrs. Agnes Brown." Not only is she a beauty, but she is truly decked out and is proudly wearing that outfit! Every time I respond to a post, just viewing the photos and the artwork here makes me happy.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 2 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Very inspiring and it has reminded me that I should be keeping a little notebook to jot down a thought of inspiration here and there -- as inspirations come -- for future artwork and stories. I used to do that and haven't for years and years now.

      Your cousin has done such good, unique pieces of art. Thanks for sharing. Voting way up and sharing.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 2 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you so much Pamela Kinnaird W! I appreciate your visit to my Hub, and thanks so much for your comment. You're right. My cousin Sybil is one of my inspirations! She is truly blessed with unique, artistic talent! I'm so proud to own one of her paintings. It greets me every day, inspiring and motivating me as I work on my own creative projects.

      Your other comment, about "keeping a little notebook to jot down a thought of inspiration," is something I have to work hard to do too. I keep pens and pads around the house, but a lot of times, just when I need one, I've misplaced them. You really have to work at it, but it helps to keep random pads and pens lying around!

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