Carson City dollmaker Christine Shively-Benjamin looked to birds building their nests near her home for her creative ideas. Like the winged creatures, she considers herself an “opportunistic” creator putting together tidbits into her artwork, she says. And like anything, she shares with others, it’s taken time to develop her eye and talent for it.
“People can master a technique, and they can’t master what’s in my head, but they can master what’s in their head,” she said.
Shively-Benjamin’s vision has driven her artistry locally and nationally, and she says it’s inspired her to bring out the best of what she imagines. She recently was inducted into the National Institute of American Doll Artists, which supports those who craft original handmade dolls. She also is part of the Original Doll Artist Council of America and now this month, her work is on display at the Carson City Library for the month of February.
The NIADA honor in particular, according to Shively-Benjamin, 67, is part of her life’s irony considering she had a challenge learning how to sew when she was younger. She barely passed her seventh grade sewing class in Denver but now she’s free to create in unconventional ways without someone standing over her shoulders grading her work, she said.
“The irony is I make a living sewing, but it’s the art background that propelled me to explore the possibilities,” she said.
She always has others asking if she creates Cabbage Patch dolls, and she responds that it’s an educational process to share with them that these dolls aren’t intended to be played with or moved. She’s also frequently asked about her knowledge of antique dolls, but those aren’t her focus, either.
The dolls she and many other NIADA artists create are more accurately represented by the term “figurative sculptures.”
“All art is autobiographical,” she said. “We’re all storytellers. We tell stories every day. This is just an extension of what I do. I do it dimensionally.”
She’s created dolls such as “Birds of a Feather,” a figure 18 inches tall made with a cotton fabric body and wool stuffing with a dress hand-stitched with Gutterman’s and Sulky thread. The skirt features black birds made of wool felt and flower buds with leaves weaving in and out. Shively-Benjamin topped off her hat with blackbirds because of her fascination with birds and their resourcefulness, and each one on the dress carries something unique in its beak.
Her creations, like the other artists who are part of NIADA, she said, all reflect very personal experiences, whether they watch documentaries on nature or study culture, fashion or something significant to them.
Every doll is unique and took anywhere between several weeks to several months to perfect, and even then, to be critiqued by other artists meant crafting each doll to a greater level of artistry to bring out the absolute best, Shively-Benjamin said.
“I was a successful doll artist prior to pursuing the NIADA membership, but I thought it was time to pursue something that was going to scare me,” she said. “And I thought, no matter how many times I’ve done something, can I do it better? Is this the best I can do?”
She spoke about becoming a part of NIADA with a nephew and decided the effort could elevate her work. NIADA, founded in 1963 in Tennessee, has held an international presence among doll artists throughout the years, according to president Cindee Moyer.
Moyer said she first found out about it herself attending a workshop with a former dollmaker, Akira Blount, from Tennessee. She began making cloth dolls and soon began creating with paper clay, or air dry clay.
“Seeing all the unique work done by these talented artists was so inspiring,” Moyer said. “Every year I feel the artists raise the bar from the previous year. It pushes you to do better yourself and you go home with fresh enthusiasm and inspiration.”
Moyer said artists wishing to become members of NIADA must attend the organization’s annual conference, present pieces for critique by two or three other members and receive feedback to improve their work and if they proceed with their membership from there, they submit photos of five original dolls with an artist statement. A committee further examines the dolls and the artist returns to another conference with more pieces for the artist membership to view in person.
“We are looking at workmanship, originality and identity of design,” Moyer said.
The membership will typically vote in one to three artists each year.
Shively-Benjamin said her NIADA experience was highly productive, though it took her about six years to finally be inducted due to some personal setbacks. After being twice widowed and deciding to wait to attend certain conferences, she said it took focus to go to Alexandria, Va., Orlando or even as near as Monterey, Calif. However, it was always an investment, she said, and that first critique was crucial.
“I told myself, ‘What’s the worst that’s going to happen?’” she said. “‘Your work’s going to get better?’”
For those who might think about pursuing similar work or want to improve their projects in another field, asking for feedback from others they admire and trust is important, Shively-Benjamin advised. She said she’s been selling her work since 1984 and realizes there are many times when others’ suggestions greatly enhance her projects.
“I’m so close to my own work … and you can get too focused that you forget where you can refine it,” she said. “Ask someone you know to take a look and take that chance. People would be willing to help you. ‘There’s an online conference or did you think about this?’ Here’s a little push, get to that next level.”
Shively-Benjamin has her own blog, http://christineshivelybenjamins.blogspot.com/ on which she displays her works, anecdotes about her favorite collectors and upcoming events about regional doll clubs. She also was one of 32 female artists to be featured in local author Mary Lee Fulkerson’s book “Women Artists of the Great Basin” published by the University of Nevada Press.
Her display at the Carson City Library will remain through the end of February for the public to enjoy. She said keeping art and the process of collaboration going are important.
“We have to keep it alive in a way and you have to bring more people into the process,” she said. “It’s always better and doing it in appositive prod way so that everything meets the standards but still is open to anyone.”
To see more of Shively-Benjamin’s work, visit www.niada.org.