Like many artists, Dianna Matthews' works require layers of paint, a little patience and a lot of passion.
Her canvas, on the other hand, is a little unusual — it's more likely to be found cradled in a little girl's arms than resting on an easel.
Matthews, 49, an independent insurance agent from Corpus Christi, is what is known in the doll making and collecting world as a “reborn” artist or a “reborner” — someone who transforms a regular doll or a doll kit into a collectible that looks like a real baby.
“I have been doing this since 2001,” says Matthews, who will be one of many reborners at the 20th annual Hill Country Doll Show and Sale on Saturday in New Braunfels. “I had been taking care of my mother; she had cancer, and I just happened to be at work looking at eBay and I came across a reborn doll.”
Matthews bought the reborn doll for her mother “so she could use it to keep her mind off her pain, and then I turned around and had to buy me one.”
“If I kept on doing this, I was going to go broke,” she said with a chuckle. “So that's when I decided that I was going to start making them.”
Her first attempt was memorable, if less than stellar.
“Back then ... you went to Wal-Mart or Kmart to get an Ashton Drake or some other kind of doll, and you'd take it apart and take all the paint off and start painting it from scratch,” she says. “And then I went to Hobby Lobby and got some yarn for the hair, which you're not really supposed to do; you're supposed to use mohair.
“When I showed my husband the first doll I did, he said, ‘I hope you're not going into the doll-making business because she looks like Chucky.'”
Reborners like Matthews — whose creations now look much like real babies, not killer dolls from a horror movie — will be featured in a segment of NBC's “Today Show” that will be filmed at the doll show Saturday. Their art form has rapidly expanded since its debut in the early 2000s, when Matthews estimates reborns accounted for about 10 percent of the doll making and collecting hobby. That number is now closer to 40 percent to 60 percent, she estimates.
People often think reborn dolls are real babies when they first see one.
“Oh yes, they laugh about it and some people are kind of scared to touch them because they look so real,” Matthews said.
Because reborns look so real, one San Antonio artist had to do some fast explaining at a fast-food restaurant.
Tanya Sada, 41, says she was sitting at a McDonald's and working on a reborn's hair one day when a woman came up to her and demanded to know why she was “poking that baby's head.”
Sada, a graphic artist who has studied in Florence, Italy, also paints murals in private homes and churches. She says she enjoys the realism of the reborns she's made since 2005.
“I like them because of the art in them,” she says.
Because of the intricate work and attention to detail that go into reborns, they aren't sold cheaply — prices can run into the hundreds of dollars.
Reborn artist Patricia Jarrard, 66, of Fresno explains the process:
It begins with washing a kit and getting all the oils off of the molding. Next come dozens of layers of heat-setting paint to give the reborn a mottled or veined effect. The vinyl — Jarrard recommends German-manufactured vinyl — must be baked. Then there's more painting, drying, gluing, rooting of the finest shearings of mohair strands for hair, filling parts of the reborn with glass beads, polyester stuffing and poly pellets, and more attention to detail, such as the adding of eyelashes and eyebrows.
Jarrard said that artistic process attracted her to reborning.
“I used to paint on canvas, and I used to do wedding cakes and catering,” she says. “Some art (people) hung on their walls, and some of my art they ate.”
Dolls are different.
“People my age played with dolls and we never just stopped playing,” Jarrard said. “You don't grow old playing with dolls — you grow old if you don't play with dolls. We're all still little girls at heart”