Vermont artist Beth Robinson is not your usual doll maker, and her uniquely grotesque “Strange Dolls” are not meant for kids.
Puking Princesses, Soul Eaters, Madonna Whores! These strange creatures and more are among the Strange Dolls that comprise Vermont artist Beth Robinson’s unique collection. Robinson created her beloved Strange Dolls in 2003, after a close friend opened her eyes to the art of Japanese doll making via a twisted fairytale-themed exhibit. “The doll artists were creating characters, and capturing moments and expression in certain environments,” Robinson says. “But the environments were played down. I felt like it was more about the interaction between the characters. It was the first time that I had seen a childishness that was paired with the grotesque, so that really clicked in place for me in terms of where I wanted to go with my own work.”
A self-taught artist, Robinson played with several mediums before realizing doll making united all her artistic loves. “When you’re doll making, you do bring them all together because you’re sculpting, painting, sketching, designing, sewing,” she says. “That’s another way that everything clicked into place. I could explore all these different things that I loved to do and combine them into one art form that made sense.”
Robinson’s dolls are made of polymer clay, vintage fabrics, acrylic paint, and—yes—sometimes real human hair or teeth. While some might find her use of human body parts repulsive, others find it endearing in a seemingly absurd and eerie way. Robinson has a personal connection with each and every Strange Doll because she molds human-like qualities directly into their characters and expressions, she says. “My work is pretty intense, emotional, and self reflective.”
So where does the inspiration for each Strange Doll come from? “It could be a conversation with a friend, or it could be something that’s going on in the world,” Robinson says. “It could be my own memories and reflections. It could be current relationship stuff that’s going on with me, or I could just be driving or doing laundry, just doing something really mundane, and then it’s almost like in the quietness of my mind that it all just comes together in my head.” Robinson’s art does not try to make a statement about a controversial political event or create the next movie monster directly. Instead she feels that, “artists are introverts so I think that we process things in a different way than most everybody else. I feel like this artwork is a way for me to process whatever that is.”
After moving around a lot, Robinson finally settled in the Green Mountain State at the age of 18. She and her Strange Dolls live in the quaint town of Essex, Vermont, where she has built a bit of a cult following. The influence of New England on Robinson’s work is especially clear in a new exhibit at Burlington’s S.P.A.C.E. Gallery called Conjuring: She Rises. In the exhibit, Robinson and 12 other women artists will use their art to reflect on the 325th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials relative to the current political and social climate. “I really feel like, as an artist, we filter all of that external world into our artwork,” Robinson says of the dolls that will make their debut there. “It is everything around me and the way that I process it all that makes my work.”