- Thu Jan 19 2012
Local artists create lifelike collector dolls
Jan Czuba’s home is a baby factory.
Every year the Burlington woman gives birth to more than two dozen babies. She names each one and lovingly places them in a cradle in her living room before sending them off to new homes across Canada and the world. She remembers her favourite children in a brag book that includes their birth dates, weights and close-ups of their tiny features.
Czuba is a reborner, an artist who specializes in creating dolls that are so realistic they look as if they may start crying at any moment. First developed in the ’90s, reborn dolls have earned a cult following of collectors who pay anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand for the painted babies.
Adored by some, the dolls repulse others who are put off by their realism, a reaction psychologists attribute to the uncanny valley hypothesis. In essence, if an object looks too human the response it generates switches from empathy to repulsion. When it comes to reborns, the word “creepy” is used just as much as “cute.”
Among admirers, however, the dolls are highly sought after and have been known to stimulate positive hormonal releases from “cuddle therapy.”
To Czuba, the dolls are simply works of art to be valued no less than a hyperrealistic portrait.
“It’s like a canvas,” she explains. “I just love seeing the doll come to life and making someone happy.”
Czuba has long been a doll collector and used to make Cabbage Patch dolls in the past. When she retired five years ago she decided to try her hand at creating reborns. Each doll takes upwards of two weeks to make and requires hours of delicate hand work.
It starts with a doll mould that Czuba washes in baby soap to prepare for painting. The surface is then painted in layers to give the look of real skin, including veins. Each piece of hair, which is actually mohair, is inserted individually, a process that takes 10 to 14 hours per doll.
“I can do it with my eyes closed now,” says Czuba.
Then come the eyes and body filling, which is formulated to mimic the actual weight of a newborn. Finally, Czuba puts a real diaper on the baby and selects an outfit from a closet of baby clothes she’s collected. The dolls are then sold on eBay and through Czuba’s website fairydustbabies.com.
Czuba, who has made more than 100 dolls, has customers across North America and Europe. She waits anxiously by her computer to hear from a buyer whenever she sends one of her dolls away.
“Everyone says that they open the box and it just takes their breath away.”
She catches herself when talking about her “babies,” correcting herself to say “dolls.” Czuba is well aware some people find reborns creepy and don’t understand the attraction. Public perception of her craft hasn’t been helped by a tiny segment of collectors who treat the dolls like real babies, sometimes to replace a dead child. Numerous media stories have profiled women who take the dolls out in strollers and sing to them.
“I try to steer away from that. They’re making reborners out to be weirdos,” says Czuba, noting she believes all her customers are simply collectors.
Czuba is waiting anxiously for Stoney Creek doll sculptor Sherry Rawn to create another reborn mould. The mother of two boys started sculpting dolls years ago while staying at home. She wanted a doll collection, but couldn’t afford the hefty prices. She grabbed some clay and decided to try to make her own. After years of selling her work on eBay, she took a leap of faith, buying a ticket to Florida she couldn’t afford so she could show her work to doll companies at a convention. The first day she landed a contract.
Now a full-time doll sculptor, Rawn works for Ashton Drake Galleries, making upwards of 40 dolls a year in her home. When she has a spare moment, she works on her private collection of reborn models. Once she’s captured a baby face she thinks will be popular, Rawn sends her model off to China, where it is mass produced. She then sells the kits to reborners, like Czuba, on her website sherryrawn.com.
Her most popular model, Sarah Lynn, was a limited-edition sleeping newborn she made four years ago. She only produced 500 and was sold out in a few months, with each kit costing $89. One artist garnered more than $2,000 for her version of the doll.
Rawn hopes to have another reborn kit to sell soon, and is considering mass producing the doll she created in the vision of her granddaughter. The key to success, she explains, is creating a face that connects with collectors.
“It’s got to pull the heart strings,” she says. “If you get something that people say I must have that, it’s gone.”
Though the dolls’ realism makes some uncomfortable, Rawn notes it’s the ultimate compliment to a creator to be told their doll looks real. She was once out for lunch and left one of her reborn dolls in the back of her car. When she went out to get the doll to show it off, other diners were horrified and thought she had left her baby in the car while eating.
“They are so real,” she says, noting that for collectors that’s what makes the dolls attractive. “It’s a personal preference.”
Monika Buschkiel of Vancouver has bought two reborn dolls from Czuba, and credits her massive doll collection with making her feel better when she’s down.
“All I have to do is cuddle them,” she says, explaining it helps release stress. “It gives me a lot of pleasure.”
With a laugh she admits she’s a “52-year-old grown-up child.”
Giselle Muench-Walter of Oakville, another client of Czuba, also takes joy from her doll collection, which she considers works of art. She has multiple reborn dolls and displays them around her home in vintage carriers. They don’t replace real connections, she notes, but add beauty to her home.
“I have grandchildren to cuddle.”
She’s gotten used to others calling her reborns creepy, though most visitors to her home are amazed by the dolls. Her children have all stated they have no interest in inheriting the collection. She’s warned them not to toss the reborns along with her many porcelain dolls because of their value.
When it comes to collecting, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder, Muench-Walter says, noting her passion for reborns is no different than another collector’s interest in sports or stamps.
“They are so beautiful … and they don’t cry and I don’t have to feed them.”