Cynthia Toy, based out of Greensboro, NC, makes dolls that look as if they could turn around and wink at any second. Her ability to construct the faces and bodies using natural fibers and still ensure each mystical beauty will hold up well is a talent she was interested in sharing. Cynthia lives and works green prioritizing the environment and constantly striving to find better, more Earth friendly alternatives to her already eco-conscious palate.
Describe a day in your personal or professional life.
I am so lucky to be able to work from my home…of course that does have a down side in that I can be easily distracted from making dolls by the myriad of things that always need to be done around a house. I’m a morning person so after I finish the garden chores, I do try to spend the rest of the morning in the studio and leave the daily household chores for the afternoon. My youngest son is still at home so evenings are family time, we eat dinner together every night and then play games, read, or just hang out together. Yeah, not too exciting!
Who or what influences your work and why?
I grew up in a family where sewing was second nature. My maternal grandmother was a professional seamstress and my mom was always making or altering clothes for us…with 4 kids that sort of frugality was a necessity! I made my first doll when I was 6, a simple cookie cutter shape with yarn hair that my sister and I started playing with before she was even finished. The poor thing never did get more of a face then one button eye! In our household, home made presents were considered an absolute and I picked up a lot of needle crafts from my mom over the years (as well as her fiber addiction!) but I wasn’t very good at any of them for a long time. I loved the feeling of cloth and yarns in my hands but I couldn’t quite figure out a way to use them that worked for me until I started making dolls. In college I majored in theater where I not only learned costume construction but also the fine art of creative illusion…a very important skill for a doll maker!
Is it your personal belief that creativity and the ability to create art are innate?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I believe that there are some people that are driven to create and for whom the creative process comes much more easily, but I can say as a teacher, that I have seen children who were considered “not artistic” find their creative voice when they were exposed to the process of making art. Perhaps it isn’t that there are people who are not innately creative but that their creativity has never found its outlet. Maybe the ability lies in all of us and it is our duty to make sure that all children are exposed to different ways of creating. And who’s to say that such exposure won’t lead them to creative work in fields other then the arts such as science or mathematics.
Explain your art- what exactly is it you do? How do you describe it?
I wave my magic wand…no? Actually I have several ways that I make my dolls. One is to build them from the inside out by making a wire armature and then wrapping it with wool and thread to build up the musculature. Over this I stretch a cotton knit “skin” The other method is to sew woven cotton fabric for the individual body pieces and the wire and stuff them. I actually combine these two methods for a third type of doll by stretching a “skin” over a doll made of the woven cotton.
When did you first become interested in doll making?
As I said I started early! But it was always just a “for fun” thing until I had kids. I made them several dolls over the years and they were a huge success with their friends. Before long people were commissioning me to make them a doll and a business was born!
Where did your first inspiration come from?
I would say that my earliest inspiration were Fairy Tales …the brother’s Grimm and all those various colored fairy books by Andrew Lang, I devoured them all. Growing up in a rural area surrounded by the beauties of Nature just seemed to fit right in. My sister and I believed we saw the work of fairies everywhere. Dandelions in the spring grass were put there by fairies, the twisted roots of trees were fairy houses, and the frost patterns on the winter windows were obviously fairy work. To this day I find nature to be one of the greatest inspirations for my art; there is nothing like a walk in the woods to bring out visions of fairies. As an adult, I am also inspired by the many wonderful doll and fairy artists that can be seen on the web. Brian Froud and his wife, the incredible doll artist Amy Froud, are my all time favorites.
Where do your ideas come from? Can you tell me about your creative process?
My head is so full of characters that just have to come out. I can find an idea for a doll in a piece of fabric, a funny looking mushroom, or the way the sun dances on water. I have two ways of processing these ideas. The first and most usual is that I have to let the piece “percolate” in my thoughts for a bit…I try out various colors and fabrics in my mind until suddenly something clicks and I can visualize the way I need to proceed. Usually I can work on other dolls while this happens, but sometimes I’ll get really stuck in the “percolating” phase and I’ll have to do something completely different for a spell. My recycled sweater wallets were the product of one of these periods!
Then there are times when the idea for a doll arrives in my head full blown and it’s all I can do to make it fast enough. In a lot of ways those are my favorites.
When did you first discover your talent and artistic ability?
That’s an interesting question! I was actually never considered artistic as a child; my sister was the “artsy” one. But in middle school I had this wonderful art teacher who opened up the world of three dimensional arts to me. I would putter in paper mache and clay all year with never a discouraging word. It was a marvelous experience! I still didn’t feel like I had any talent but I did discover how good it felt to create. And that has been something I’ve never forgotten (hence the above diatribe on exposing children to Art!)
Were you influenced by the Green Movement?
Not exactly. My parents are avid environmentalists and I was raised to believe that taking care of the earth was one of my responsibilities in life. You could say that recycling is a family trait. We’re the people carefully unwrapping our presents at Christmas so we can reuse the paper and you’d be amazed at how much fabric I salvage from old clothes. My favorite new “green” art project are the sweater wallets. I’ve had a blast felting old sweaters.
What have you done to incorporate an eco-friendly approach to your dolls?
I am particularly drawn to natural fibers. I love cotton knit for “skin” and silk for wings. Natural fibers just feel so lovely when you create with them. When I make toys I try to use natural fibers exclusively, including using wool for stuffing, because wool retains body warmth and makes the dolls feel alive. With the more detailed art dolls I have to use small amounts of polyester fiberfill to prevent lumping in tiny spaces but I am looking in to some natural alternatives for that as well.
What have you incorporated into your lifestyle to facilitate going green and conserving energy?
We have a garden as well as belonging to two local CSAs, we compost, recycle, use cloth bags and florescent bulbs, the usual stuff. One of our main goals is to live as locally as possible to reduce our carbon footprint and support our local economy.
Are there any historical or contemporary artists that you specifically admire?
Besides the above mentioned Frouds, I am a huge fan of children’s book illustrators like Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackam, Milo Winter, Nicola Bailey, and Eleanor Abbott.
What is important to you about conservation and preserving our environment?
The protection of the environment is the most important challenge right now. I want there to be wild spaces still existing in the future, not only because our survival as a species depends on it but because it is the right thing to do.
What is your favorite project or work you’ve completed thus far?
“The Woodwife” is my all time favorite. I love the feel she has and the expression on her face. Her lower half is curly willow and the material for her dress was made from bits and pieces of fibers and fabrics sandwiched between tulle and a green satin and then free motioned embroidered. Instead of tossing them in the trash, I have a box that I keep all these tiny scraps that are too small to use just for making this fabric.
What challenges have you had in your work?
Finding the time and space to work. I was working in a closet for years; we called it the sewing temple. But now that a couple of my kids have grown and moved on I actually have a studio…such luxury!
Do you feel that the Internet has a positive or negative influence on art? How does the Internet affect your work?
I think it’s amazingly positive! The exposure to new, exciting art is available at the click of a mouse. And the ability to get world wide feedback on my own work has been an amazing inspiration for me.
What is your greatest ambition as an artist?
To bring a little magic into people’s lives and make a living in the process!
What are you currently working on? Can you tell us about it?
I’ve been making a lot of the smaller dolls in preparation for upcoming shows and the holiday season but I’m planning on making a pirate queen and a fall version of the Woodwife as soon as I have a good stretch of time.
What advice would you give a young artist just getting started?
Don’t listen to nay sayers and be willing to be flexible. Let your art take you to new places and try new ideas and approaches with out worrying about the “finished” product. The best work can sometimes happen from a mistake.
What “Green” Product would you recommend to our readers?
Mesh bags for produce so you don’t have to use those icky, hard to open, plastic tear off ones for your fruits and veggies.
What is your best “going green tip”- for example turning off lights, or eating one meatless meal a week?
Compost!! It’s so easy and the result is black gold. We do have a conventional compost pile that we use in the spring and summer but, starting in late fall, we just bury our scraps in the garden. It’s SO easy, it keeps the earthworms fat and happy all winter, and as a bonus in the spring the beds are super loose and easy to plant.
How would your friends describe you?
Obsessive, outgoing (though that’s really a façade), silly, and loyal.
Do you have a website or online presence where people can view your work?
You can view a gallery of my past work
And currently available work can be found in my Etsy shop