Diana Thompson’s show reflects passion for dolls

June 20, 2014

My relationship with Salt Spring Island began by visiting it several time before deciding to move to the Gulf Island with my son, Luke. On one of these visits I discovered an installation artist named Diana Thompson. She had put out a call for art and writing about dolls. 

I had a poem that is referred to in the following article about a Barbie doll. Sooner or later it will appear in this blog when I re-discover it in my suitcase of published writings from which I draw a piece almost every day to feature in a post on this blog.

I also knew a wonderful elderly woman named Helen Betz who had written a piece, as part of her life story, about a doll that she had owned in a time when a girl owning a doll was often a special, rare thing. My mother, who is in her 80s now, never owned a doll. The closest she got to owning one was holding someone else’s for a photograph.

I knew Helen Betz because she attended one of Writing Your Life Story workshops which I facilitated for a decade in Winnipeg.

Gail Suberg, long time managing editor of The Gulf Island Driftwood, wrote the following article. Two years later, when I was hired to work as a reporter on the newspaper, she thought I had lived longer on the island than I had because she knew I had participated in Diana Thompson’s art show. I had only been visiting the island as I now am once again after leaving my residence on it sixteen years later.

Here it is:

Gulf Islands Driftwood

February 26, 1997

Diana Thompson’s show reflects passion for dolls

by Gail Suberg

Diana Thompson’s Salt Spring studio usually pulses with work in progress, even when she doesn’t have an exhibition due to open in a week.

But tiptoes were in order while walking around her studio Friday.

Along with stacks of canvases and materials for an autumn exhibition, floor space was clogged with 1950s vintage, graphite painted suitcases turned into crowded cribs for dolls. Pink-skinned,blonde and blue eyed babies dominate the cases that’s what the manufacturers have marketed most of forever, it seems. Thompson has altered many of the dolls in one way or another, though, adding lace bows, patches, rouge, genitals, dresses; giving them haircuts or dye jobs; illuminating possibly hidden aspects of their characters in the process.

There’s a collection of twins and a nurse’s training doll, which is so lifelike its head needs support when you hold it.

Each doll has a story, life and spirit of its own. If only they could tell us their stories, what they have witnessed, in words.

The doll collection is only part of Thompson’s Memory’s Children exhibition which opens Friday night at XChanges Gallery in Victoria and runs through to March 22.

In addition to the 150 plus dolls arranged in 20 suitcases, there are 29 graphite on paper drawings of dolls, most completed in 1995, plus 32 short stories and poetry from a variety of contributors. Thompson solicited dolls and stories about them from friends and acquaintances. They range from pure fiction to all fact, and some with elements of both.

One woman was the youngest of five children. When a new baby came along, the next oldest child was given this special doll. As the baby in the family, by the time she received the doll it had been the charge of four other siblings.

“This doll had been loved to pieces,” says Thompson, “and she gave me these pieces of the doll” including its stuffing.

Thompson ended up doing two drawings of the segmented doll. Islanders contributing stories and poetry to the exhibit are six year old Ruby Black (with a dictated story), Robin Clarke, Athena George, Chris Smart and Susan Wright.

Another doll came to her assailed with the scars of love and life. “When you took her clothes off she looked like she had seen the world.” She was one of the dolls Thompson felt compelled to clothe or swaddle, so she covered her in a baby dress which the doll’s owner had worn. Thompson also made a drawing of this doll, called Doll With Closed Eyes.

MemoryMs Children uses three stories sent to her from a 93 year old woman who lives in Winnipeg. Helen Betz was a student in the writing class of Tanya Lester, who came into the Crossroads store where Thompson works part time. They started talking about Thompson’s exhibit and Lester exclaimed, “Oh, I’ve got a Barbie boobs story.” She later sent it to Thompson along with Betz’a China doll stories.

Why would a woman who says she never played with dolls as a child be smitten with love for plastic and nylon babies in her mid 30s?

About two years after the birth of her son Dexter in July 1992, Thompson felt a compelling urge to have another child. But her first birth had caused such havoc to her body she and husband Lari Robson decided against it.

Thompson’s anxiety about not having another child was so intense that Robson one day brought her a doll for comfort. It worked wonders.

Even before that, Thompson found herself drawn to the unwanted, abandoned dolls at garage sales. Something made her bring them home. “I was just being motherly to these dolls,” she recalls.

A couple of the exhibition’s drawings were completed as early as 1992. Little Torn Doll, a small, cloth bodied figure with a tear stretching from its crotch and down the left leg, was a garage sale orphan. Viewers cannot help but feel pathos and a desire to reach out and touch the hand of the helpless infant.

“There’s a lot of emotion attached to dolls,” notes Thompson. “When people see dolls they drop a defence and it brings them back into a childlike state.”

Everyone has some kind of memory of dolls as children,” she adds, which provokes another set of emotions….




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To read earlier posts on this blog go to http://www.writingsmall.wordpress.com

Confessions of a Tea Leaf Reader by Tanya Lester can be purchased from the author or go to amazon.com to read its first pages and/or buy it.




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