A Doll Maker Takes Over Maine Craft Portland

Figurine queen Deb Butters tells us about going wild for her October solo exhibition.

dolls by Deb Butters
As told to Sarah Ann Donnelly
Photos by Dave Dostie
From our October 2023 issue

“Making dolls has been my lifelong pursuit. I always dreamed of going to the Portland School of Art [now Maine College of Art], but back in the 1970s, the logical choice was to get an office job. I worked as an insurance agent and for an export company, and doll making remained a sideline for me until I retired, two years ago. Then I went full bore with it. 

This series of dolls for display at Maine Craft Portland is called “Wildlings.” They’re just regular childlike dolls, made with paper clay heads and cloth bodies, but I’m felting animal masks for each one that has a story to go along with the doll. I feel like making up stories is my gift. 

As a child, I was always a bull in a china shop. We’re told things are related to animals — you’re eating like a pig or eating like a bird. I was never sure which I was. I was a good student growing up. But I didn’t like school. My mother once ran into my teacher at the grocery store, and my teacher said, “Has Deb been ill?” My mother said, “Why do you ask?” And my teacher said, “She hasn’t been in school for three days.” My mother found out I was leaving with all the kids to go to school and I would break off and spend the day in the field. I went home for lunch and then went back to the field. I don’t know, maybe I’m a wildling. 

This series is about stories we’re told about ourselves and how we take them on in our persona. While I’m working, things are running through my mind, almost like a meditation, of what each character will be. I’m working on a doll of a little boy that will wear a hedgehog mask. Making him, I thought of all the prickly people we meet in our lives who just need us to be patient. 

I use a set of dental tools, like what dental assistants use to clean your teeth, to do fine shapes and lines in the paper clay. Then, for the masks, there’s a lot of sculpting with needle felting, and I add colors using wool and fine needlepoint. For the clothing, I use vintage fabrics, like some of my grandmother’s batting and lace. Each character will have a small satchel I made from the tips of a leather gardening glove. I may put a beach stone from Maine in each one — like the dolls were out foraging. And I want them to be kind of smudged. You know, like kids.”

Deb Butters’s exhibition, “Costumes and Masks,” is on view October 6–31 at Maine Craft Portland. 521 Congress St., Portland. 207-808-8184.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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