Old Tat speaks to artist Sally Whitworth about her amazingly quirky, handmade dolls.
How would you explain your style?
Painty, colourful, handmade, storytelling. It is in equal parts cute and creepy.
How would you describe your art and what you do?
I make character dolls based on stories and situations that I create from people that I see and places that I visit or imagine. Sometimes I make jewelry, fabric, clothes and accessories.
Who do you create work for? Who is your audience?
I enjoy making my art so it is for myself but also for anyone who wants to look at it! Lots of children like my work. I think that’s really funny because the back stories are quite dark. Then again, children love things that are a little bit sinister; just look at Roald Dahl!
What does art mean to you personally?
Art is a form of expression. I have a need to make my ideas into something solid otherwise I get really frustrated! I find art most interesting if it communicates and idea or if it is technically very skilled. If a piece has both of those things together then it really is very good in my eyes!
What inspires you?
So many things! I love David Hockney’s paintings of Yorkshire because of their boldness and am quite obsessed with anything by Vermeer. I think that’s because it is easy to imagine hidden story lines behind a lot of his work. Writing is also very important to me. Angela Carter and Dylan Thomas in particular. They create such beautiful, rich images with their words. Oh and of course anything remotely linked to Wes Anderson! He is fantastic!
What is your best work and why?
The work that I am most proud of is a set of four dolls that I made based on some drawings that I did a year ago in the Tyrol region of Northern Italy and Austria. It began as just one character and then built into a group of four personalities which were inter-linked. There was lots of drama and oddity in that storyline and I was very obsessive about it – even down to creating whole family trees for each character. They almost became real in my mind.
How did you get into art and what you do?
My family is really arty so I learnt to sew, knit and embroider really early. I always loved making things and me and my sister used to spend a long time making dolls houses and big dens from boxes and what not. I studied surface design at university and then near to the end of that course I started turning my drawings into 3D.
How important is nostalgia in your work?
Lots my work is about family and relationships so that’s quite nostalgic. Often the story lines of my characters have some sort of personal connection too – whether it be a place I’ve visited or the traits of someone I know. Everything is influenced by something of the past so I suppose it is impossible to escape nostalgia.
What are some of the important themes behind your work and where do they stem from?
I am really interested in people. The way our minds work and our relationships with one another. My art is often an expression and exploration of that. I am not sure where that comes from. For the past couple of years I have been working with children and it is interesting to see how they play and what they imagine. They can create such incredible worlds! That has definitely had a huge influence on my work.
What kind of skills have you developed by doing your art?
Obviously my making skills have got much better. I’ve started working with clay and wire which is new for me. Perhaps I have also become more observant.
What materials do you work with and how do you source them?
I used to have a huge stash of fabric which I had collected from charity shops and markets but I recently moved house so had to get rid of most of that. I’ve had to become more selective with the materials which I keep. I have a big box of paints which I’ve collected from DIY shops and other places. There’s a nice art shop called Paintworks in Shoreditch which once had a good sale and I got a lot of pretty paints from there. For drawing I use biro pens, ProMarkers, wax crayons and whatever else I can lay my hands on. I have just found a fantastic haberdashery shop near my new home so shouldn’t think it will be long before I replenish my supplies.
How important is scale and size in your work?
I like to work in small sketchbooks – A5 ideally. That’s because they’re small enough to carry around in a bag and they don’t become too heavy. If I need to work bigger than that, I don’t use a sketchbook, I use loose sheets and pin them together later. My other work is also small because that’s what comes most naturally.
How do you explore colour within your work?
I’ve never been scared of colour. Unless it fits the piece, I don’t like using much black because it’s dull to me. I always think about which colours are best suited to a project and then work from there. I am most drawn to warm tones like red and orange.
How do you express emotion through your work?
Of course the facial expressions of my dolls have a lot to do with that. I think I read that Quentin Blake pulls the faces of the characters that he’s drawing and I think that’s difficult to avoid! Colours and outfit choices add to the emotion of my characters. When I am drawing I like to use text and scratchy lines of colour to communicate a feeling.
How do you go from an idea to a finished piece – what is your artistic process?
90% of the time I begin with drawing. Drawing is so important because it gives energy to a final piece if it has a strong beginning. From there I will sculpt the doll and make it clothes. I usually do a lot of drawing and surrounding research for different characters. These sometimes sprout into pattern designs, textile pieces or accessories.
How long does a piece take?
It’s very variable. The time really depends on how much research I put into it. On average a doll takes around 2 days to make (will lots of distractions).
What is the hardest/worst part about what you do and is the process gruelling?
Of course not! I enjoy making pieces with my hands so that is not in any way a chore. The part that I dislike is if I decide to do some digital work on my laptop. I get really obsessive about Photoshop which isn’t good because it hurts my eyes and I end up having dreams about it!
Some people might not understand your style. How would you persuade them to understand and appreciate it more?
Art is so subjective to personal taste so I don’t think that you can make someone like it if they don’t already. However, sometimes at galleries I don’t like a piece because I don’t understand what the thought process was behind it. So maybe having more information is a way to enjoy a piece more.
What is the point and meaning of your art and how is it unique from others?
My work is a way of telling a story and making an idea real. I make things which look like they could be childrens toys but really they are too fragile for that.
What is the importance of fantasy in your work?
When I think of ‘fantasy’ I think of aliens and fairies. My work isn’t like that but If fantasy is about other worlds then my work is about fantasy.
What is the dream?
There are lots of things that I would like to do! I think that the underwear in the shops is really boring and I just did a course in lingerie construction so I’d like to make some underwear which is actually interesting and not just pastel florals! That would put my pattern design skills to good use. I’d like to have a shop with toys and prints and a studio at some point in the future. Lingerie and kids toys is a bit of an odd mix so I have to think about how that would work!
Words by Loo Loo Rose