Some Dollyshop Theatre works: From left to right

Bringing imagination to life

Being a kid is a scary-wonderful, powerfully imaginative time — just ask Tim Burton or Maurice Sendak who built their careers on plumbing the dark depths of childhood.

Being a kid is a scary-wonderful, powerfully imaginative time — just ask Tim Burton or Maurice Sendak who built their careers on plumbing the dark depths of childhood.

Central Alberta art doll makers Charity Beasley and Kristin Guttridge are drawing on the same edgy whimsey that inspired the Beetlejuice filmmaker and Where the Wild Things Are author/illustrator, for their own collaborative off-kilter creations.

The one-of-a-kind cloth characters in their Dollyshop Theatre line make up an intriguing cast of oddballs.

Among them is Spitting Tacks, an angry, white-faced Victorian lady doll, with real tacks protruding from her mouth and piercing her Gothic gown.

There’s the Rumpelstiltskin doll, with his features made up entirely of embroidered sentences. Beasley said she translated the Brothers Grimm fairy tale into English and painstakingly stitched the words all over the doll.

There’s Tooth Fairy, with a painted row of sharp teeth, fur vest and real bird feather wings; a horned Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum with arms and legs made of chicken bones; and The Mother, who is crawling with painted insect life and sporting paper dragonfly wings.

Nature motifs appear on their art dolls, whether painted on by Guttridge, or applied as real fur, bones, and feathers. Beasley, of Red Deer, feels it’s funny that some people avoid nature by staying indoors. “We are nature,” she added, with a laugh.

As a show of environmental respect, she “up-cycles” old, high-inch-count bedsheets to make up her doll bodies.

Beasley hands some of the blank dolls, or “fleshies,” over to Guttridge, who waits for an idea to strike her fancy before she begins her oil painting process.

Neither of the doll artists has formal artistic training — in fact, they met playing roller derby at Springbrook. But both share an irreverent sense of humour and a big interest in children’s literature.

Guttridge, of Innisfail, is a self-taught artist with a molecular biology degree and experience in anatomical drawing. The Calgary native grew up in the Middle East, where her father worked in the oilfield, and now runs her own art company, painting murals for pre-schools and designing windows for businesses.

Edmonton-born Beasley, who studied sociology, homeschools her kids and also operates her own sewing and design business.

After their children became fast friends, the two moms realized they share a view of childhood that’s more along the twisted lines of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events than sugary Walt Disney films.

“Children encounter a lot of scary things,” said Beasley — whether it’s anxiety about new situations, or worrying about global warming. “Adults in life often don’t believe them. There’s a constant diminishing of their humanity.”

Guttridge agrees that “nothing about childhood saves you from the dark stuff” — except maybe having an escapist imagination.

Their Dollyshop Theatre creations, with purposely asymmetrical faces and edgy looks, aren’t necessarily intended as playthings for really little kids (although they are sewn sturdily enough to be man-handled, said Beasley). But they are about hanging on to the imaginative power of childhood.

The art dolls sell for $250 to $400 from the Frame-It Store in Red Deer.

The Central Alberta dollmakers plan to launch an animal-faced series of new dolls by next spring and hope to get their creations into galleries around Alberta.

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