Visual Arts — May 12, 2015 10:46 — 0 Comments

Fascinating Figures: An Interview With Sara Lanzillotta

Sara Lanzillotta’s dolls have been sold across the country, at fine art locations ranging from the avant-garde MF Gallery in New York, to the on-guard Seattle Art Museum. Her portfolio of hand-sewn sculpture includes monsters, burlesque dancers, circus performers and the sideshow oddities traditionally exhibited alongside them.

Her studio is difficult to locate, but I found it, camouflaged beneath a blanket of wisteria… the face of a Japanese Oni hanging above the door. I knocked on the door just as Sara’s husband was leaving for a pool game, then tip-toed past the grimacing Oni as Sara (a 4’11”, pastel-Goth) led me into her boudoir. She’s known in the art world as a doll maker, but known privately as a doll collector, rounding up samples of everything from Monster High to Fairyland and her bedroom was host to the cornerstone of the collection, a harem of half-naked dolls from Blythe.

Blythe dolls are highly fashionable, hydrocephalic children and Sara loves everything about them. In most of the civilized world love was replaced by sex decades ago, but Blythe is trying to reclaim that lost sense of beauty by offering its customers the esthetic and innocence of youth. Blythe girls have slender bodies, plastic heads the size of grapefruits and colossal, mechanical eyes that change color with the pull of a string. “I really like the balance of something cute that has something wrong with it-” said Sara, and for anyone who’s seen Barbarella; Blythe certainly fits that description. Sara sells custom-made fashions to Blythe enthusiasts through her Etsy shop, but I wanted to ask about the plush dolls that made her famous, the handcrafted effigies that hint of the sinister and occasionally, the bizarre.

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Since the bedroom was full of Blythe, I asked Sara if there was an area in the house where her work was on display “I don’t have very much of my own stuff-” she said “But for a good reason… I’ve sold most of it!” and Sara knows what it takes to sell. According to her, most artists are great at being creative, but sometimes fall short when it comes to business. At her best she makes fine-art for group and individual shows, but she’s very conscious of the need to maintain a retail prescience and does so at places like Schmancy Toys and Gargoyles Statuary.

With a finger in so many pies, Sara’s work is in high demand, but she has managed to hold on to one item, left over from a solo show called The Big Sleep (a series of doll-decorated dioramas, depicting distinguished departures). I sat next to the piece on the couch in her living room while Sara explained  “That was Frida Kahlo. She did a painting of her own death-” Frida had a fascination with her own mortality and slept with a large, papier-mâché skeleton on the roof of her bed. The Dream was one among many of Frida’s flirtations with death and Sara’s version of it was uncanny, accurate, right down to the iconic uni-brow.

Our conversation turned from Frida to faeries… When she initially began working her focus was on the Goth esthetic: striped stockings, boots and other club-friendly accoutrements, but Sara has broadened her horizons since then and I asked her about the faery show.

Captured And Studied (exhibited at Gargoyles Statuary) presented a menagerie of faer-folk in both the typical and atypical variety. Each creation seemed to have it’s own back-story and I wanted to know more, but Sara was reluctant. “I know a lot of people would like to hear an intricate story, but I don’t want to give them too much, I want them to look at my work and explore their own ideas about it.” I kept pressing and wheedled-out a little more. “You always see faeries that are lovely, but there’s got to be a subculture; some of them are Punk, some are just rude.”

All of them have been sold to private collectors, but Sara and I looked at the Devout Dolls website and discussed the back-stories of morose faeries, flasher faeries and even an absinth faery brandishing a bottle of wormwood-enriched, psychoactive spirits. In much the same way that Seattle has its Mercury or Funhouse, dissonant faeries have a hangout of their own and Sara described a spooky old tree, craggy, overgrown with moss and hidden in one of the more unsavory corners of faeryland. She continued, “They play loud music, fight and don’t clean up after themselves-” I asked if the hangout had a name: “It’s a faery secret!” she said, and I agreed.

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I had hoped to reveal a few secrets though and Sara kept hinting toward one subject in particular; after the 5th or 6th time it was mentioned, I finally decided to ask about her two-headed dolls. “When I first started doing things I made dolls that had multiple arms or heads-” she said, and opened a gallery on her website entitled Two Heads Are Better Than One. “Who wants a regular old bunny when you can have one with two heads!” But instead of showing me a two-headed bunny, Sara clicked on the pictures of two congenitally-joined twins.

Much of what Sara does is commission work for individual clients, in 2007 she was contacted by The Tyra Banks Show and asked to make two special dolls as gifts for four special guests: Tatiana and Krista Hogan (joined at the head) and Carmen and Lupita Andrade (joined at the torso). The goal was to provide each set of twins with a doll that echoed their real-life physiology. The Tatiana and Krista doll was perfect and their mother keeps it at her bedside table with a collection of faeries, vampires and other figurines from Twilight, but Tyra’s producers didn’t give Sara enough info to design an accurate doll for Carmen and Lupita. According the artist, “I would’ve loved to make a doll that was joined in that way-”

To say the least, Carmen and Lupita are joined in an unconventional way, a condition known as Dicephalic Parapagus: two heads, four arms and two legs (each girl controls one leg). Apart from their fascinating figures, the Andrade twins are like most girls. They enjoy music, dancing and have a wide variety of interests, including gymnastics, jump-rope and a love of animals. Sara wasn’t put in touch with the twins after the show and never knew how they really felt about the doll, but I found Carmen and Lupita online and Sara tells me she’ll be contacting them soon. “They deserve something that’s unique, just like they are!”

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In the mean time Sara continues to provide dolls for collectors of all shapes and sizes (even boys). She’s constantly thinking of new designs and is looking forward to her next show… She’s not the only one.


Words and pictures by: Poster Bot

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney