We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In the 1970s, the Civil Rights Movement finally caught up with the doll industry, as companies sought to fill a demand from African-American customers for dolls that remotely resembled them. With an emphasis on “remote”: Many companies simply took white dolls and painted blackface on them. Shockingly, the new dolls didn’t storm the market.
But at “Doll Noir IV,” a recent state-of-the-art black-doll confab at Brookland’s Graham Collection, one line of dolls stood out: Lisa Queene’s eerily lifelike pile of babies who drool, yawn, and appear caught in midcry. Their verisimilitude is especially arresting given the Annapolis artist’s method for creating her dolls—she takes white babies and paints them black. “People are like, ‘How’d you get them to look so black?’ And I say, ‘Most of these were all white dolls,’” she says.
Queene, owner of Baby Mine Nursery (“Where Beautiful Dolls Are Reborn!”), began her artistic life as a doll collector. “I was doing a lot of my buying on eBay,” she says. “I often overbid—got too excited. I…didn’t get the diversity.” So she set out to make her own product—one that reflected a realistic range of humanity rather than just European descendants.
Queene’s dolls are nothing if not realistic. Made with mohair locks and eyelashes, many look like real children frozen in time. “Babies don’t look black or white,” she says. “You can only tell by their color. They’ve all got that nose, that flat nose, those universal features.”
The primary problem with the industry’s dolls, she says, was that they looked nothing like actual babies. “It’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that doll makers are making truly realistic dolls,” she says. Those doll makers, though, are few. The general trend is still toward dolls that are cute and cuddly, not ones that make you want to check their pulse.
Most of her dolls, she says, come from a Spanish company called Berenguer. They arrive in the mail either as a full doll or a set of head and limbs; if the former, she disassembles and discards the body. She then soaks five or six sets of doll parts in the same mixed dye. The length of time she lets each vinyl doll soak determines the depth of its complexion. Once it’s dyed, she puts eyes in. Without the eyes, she says, “they can creep people out.” Next comes the hair, some cheek color, and a lip coating.
Queene has a local seamstress make each doll a new body, which she stuffs until it has a realistic weight and feel. The arms and head are filled with sand, then the whole thing is stitched together and is effectively reborn. The dolls are sold online and at shows for anywhere between $70 and $200.
Not everybody’s willing to plunk down that kind of change, though. “I have a coworker who says, ‘They’re too real for me,’” says Queene. “These dolls appeal more to people than Mattel[’s], but there are people whose faces knot up when they walk by my table.” —Ryan Grim