Art Dolls Only is so pleased to have Johanna Flanagan of the Pale Rook as our guest artist this month. Johanna has become a household name in dolls circles, no matter the type of dolls you are generally drawn to, you’ll have seen, and been moved by, Johanna’s extraordinarily beautiful and sometimes haunting textile works of art.
Johanna tells us when she began making dolls that she used “The Pale Rook” as a secret name to hide behind, but tells us “now I’m Johanna Flanagan, also known as The Pale Rook”.
I was so surprised by that answer, but thought perhaps the need to hide behind the name was because her work does evoke such strong emotions in some….
Johanna told us, when asked about memorable response to her work, sadly that it was the negative that was most memorable for her, saying, “I’m fascinated by how uncomfortable some people become around dolls.”
Some write them off as unimportant or childish. Others become incredibly unsettled around them. Those who do react to my work tend to have quite intense emotional responses, and sometimes they can even get quite hostile. I’ve literally had people challenging me as to why I’ve made something that’s made them feel so distressed.
Children’s responses are always interesting because they tend to be very accepting of anything that draws them. I find that adults can be a bit less willing to feel things that make them uncomfortable. “What’s odd for me is that I’ve never set out to unsettle anyone with my work!”
“I mentioned the negative ones because they baffle me. I’m more intrigued by the negative responses rather than anything else. The positive emotional responses are wonderful and far out number the negative ones, and I’m amazed at how much my work can resonate with some people”
I’ve been making dolls in one form or another for as long as I can remember. When I was a little girl I made clothes for dolls, and had a go at sewing leaves and flowers into clothes for fairies, hoping that if I left them in my garden the fairies might show up and hang out with me.
Even though I have made dolls my whole life, I only started to create them with real intention about five years ago.
I studied textiles at Art School then went on to study post-grad fashion in London. The fabric I use for many of my dolls is the same calico that fashion designers use to make toiles (trial garments) during the design process. I was always a bit rubbish at pattern cutting when I studied fashion, and was more drawn to sculpting cloth and fibre rather than cutting and constructing it. The same applies to my doll making.
My Masters degree is in knitwear and I’ve started working with knit in my doll making, although it’s being kept under wraps for now. I also love collage, but like my doll making, didn’t really take it seriously until the last few years. Collage is my meditation
Johanna, can you please tell us a little about your doll making and the process you use to create your amazing art?
I work mostly with cloth and fibre, I always prefer natural materials and dyes, and I almost never buy new fabric as almost everything I use is salvaged from something else. I like the idea of the fabric having a life before it comes into my work. I love making my own dyes. I use nettles, onion skins, clays, acorns, lichen. Gathering and processing the dyes is one of my favourite parts of my making process. I also have a massive collection of shells, stones, lichens and drift wood that sometimes make it into my work, but I don’t actively research any of my dolls, I usually visit an interesting place, or have a particular experience and then a character starts to emerge in my mind.
Recently I visited the Calanais Stones on the Isle of Lewis, rather than think about how they could influence my work, I simply spent time with them and allowed my mind to be still. Two weeks later I can feel how the stones are starting to make their way into my work.
One of my favourite parts of doll making is also the most challenging – the hands. I tend to spend as much time making hands as I do on the rest of the doll. They have to be exactly the way I want them and often this means the best part of a day spent on making them.
I’d say though, that my favourite part of the doll making process, is the moment where the doll has its own life. There’s always a point, and it can be different for each doll, where it has a life of its own, beyond what I’ve contributed. It can be the eyes or hands, or more often than you’d think – the nipples, but there’s always one point where it says “I’m here”.
Every artists seems to have a dream project, or someone they would love to collaborate with, how about you?
Lisa and Brian Henson. I don’t even need to ponder that one.
Finally, what are you currently working on so we know what to look forward to next?
I’m currently getting ready for my Autumn doll making workshops here in Glasgow and preparing for a teaching tour of Australia next year. Teaching is one of my passions and I’ve wanted to set up these kinds of workshops for a while. I’m still working on dolls, but I’m spending as much time on lesson plans and homework projects.
It’s been great to learn more about Johanna and her fabulous art, we hope you’ll find and follower her online if you don’t already have her bookmarked.
You can find Johanna Flanagan, “The Pale Rook” here: