|Keeping Company With Helen Kish|
|By Scott Wood for Doll Reader magazine|
It is in the eyes. Helen Kish eyes. Yet it is not only the eyes. The mouth too. Some dolls have accurately full, pouty lips. Others smile, unself-consciously sharing their crooked smiles. And some, wonderfully, reveal a hint of a smile, one that you know is almost here and that the child- that is, the doll- knows that you know is almost here. And look at the hands. A doll dealer once emphatically declared that to know just how good Helen Kish is, all you have to do is look at the hands of her dolls.
The fresh attitude of the body, a particular pose, the shyly expectant tilt of the head-just so-all are distinctive characteristics of Kish's dolls. Her dolls don't need any sort of certificates of authenticity. Her dolls-if they could talk-speak for themselves.
In The Beginning
Kish & company released two licensed dolls this year : Starlight from the Michael Hague illustration in The Children's Book of Virtues and Virginia for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation.
Kish says she was fortunate she started making dolls before it became Big Business. Doll makers were more isolated and she couldn't help but develop a strongly personal style.
"Of course, all artists draw on inspiration from the work of masters, work that touches us at a deep level. From there, we must learn to tap into our own resources in order to be true to the art that only we can make," she adds. "Power cannot be borrowed. I believe that at some point, I was able to find this source for myself. Although it is hard to put into words, this source is the wellspring for what I guess you could call my 'look'."
Kish, a resident of Colorado, began making dolls-or trying to-more than 20 years ago, just as her first child was about to be born. She experimented with different materials, took classes in porcelain, and "worked at it and worked at it..." From the late 1970s for more than a decade, she made more than 100 designs. Her one-of-a-kind porcelain dolls brought acclaim. In 1994, she introduced her first line of mass-produced vinyl dolls.
Never Enough Time!
Success now competes for time with what created the success in the first place. She doesn't complain; widespread acceptance of one's work is what one works for, but ...
"There is never enough time to sculpt. Because I am a sculptor first, it's a need--like breathing. I just read something about a painter who kept careful records for several months and reached the conclusion that even at best he could free up only six or seven days a month to actually paint, the remaining 20 or so days a month went to business, paperwork, UPS runs, studio cleaning, and the like. This resounded with me," Kish says. "In fact, I am so often overwhelmed at the business of the business, having operated with no support staff for years, that I finally persuaded Tamas (her husband) to join me full-time. He is Vice President in charge of everything I don't have time for or am incapable of doing. I think he's going to need a secretary!"
Liberated from many of the more demanding facets of running a business, Kish will have more time to create-a process fraught with its own countless and uniquely strange obstacles and demands, especially if the artist himself or herself is demanding. Getting it right and making that appear natural, even easy, is never easy, according to Kish.
Knowing When To Stop
"One of the most critical lessons an artist has to learn is when to stop working on a piece," she says. "I do this pretty well with regards to the finishing of a doll- the costuming and so on. You reach a point where you just know that adding one more silk rose will spoil the balance."
She must be leaving off that spoiling silk rose. Kish says acceptance and approval from collectors are powerful motivators. The emotional intensity that many collectors invest in her dolls- as well as the dolls of other makers- "is very touching." Sometimes, laudatory reactions, since they are so satisfying, can also be slightly dangerous. "The pitfall is in becoming dependent on the compliments to the extent that it begins to direct the work," she notes.
The worst response, however, is no response at all. Nothing is like being ignored. It is difficult not to take it personally, since art is personal. That is especially apparent with dolls. Dolls, specifically artist or collectible low-edition dolls, not only reflect the maker's psychological baggage, but sometimes even look like their makers.
"People have commented on this since the early days of my career. At first, I thought this penchant for familial likeness would diminish once my skills as a sculptor improved. It didn't. At times, it annoyed me to think that I was so self-involved, that all my work would inevitably resemble me (or someone in my family)," she says. "Then I sculpted a male figure (Sweet Home Chicago) of a different race and saw my brother Michael staring back at me."
"If a figurative artist is working with an authentic voice, it makes a kind of sense to me that the work would be infused with something of that artist's physical as well as spiritual make-up," she adds.
Dolls, the best of which, are portable embodiments of facets of their maker's personality, do have to meet the demands of production and the marketplace. Some of Kish's dolls are editions of 750 and 500; others are limited to 250 (such as her fashion doll, Alexandra). Repeating oneself is a slight, but nagging, worry. "But once I get into the clay, that fear subsides. There are a limited number of ideas when conceptualizing 'the doll' but thousands of variations. Still, I try to watch out for repetition in the sculpting and avoid it," she says. "I will also say that the difference between a working artist and one who is not is being able to stare their fears in the face and get on with it anyway."
When she is not making new faces, overseeing her dolls, Kish ("...when I'm not entertaining an incipient nervous breakdown...") works out and reads. But even in her free time, she sculpts, making "little creatures obsessively." She is always learning; the past two years, she was a student of the master sculptor Bruno Lucchesi. While many other doll makers expand their lines with spin-offs, such as cards and books, Kish is headed in a different direction, sculpting to a different drummer. She reports she is building a body of figurative bronzes and mixed-media pieces.
And she still makes the porcelain dolls for which she first made her name in the doll business. "I began my career with porcelain dolls and even though keeping kish & company running demands the bulk of my time, I have never wanted to give up making porcelain dolls. Small editions ... allow me to stay in touch with the craft of my art and gives me the added pleasure of finishing a piece with my own hands," Kish says.
This article was written by Scott Wood and originally published in Doll Reader magazine in October 1997.
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