Sunday, April 1, 2007

Getting To Know Dollmaker Nathasha Brooks-Harris

Imagine trying something new because you’re bored! That’s what the Brooklyn, New York-based Nathasha Brooks-Harris did one autumn afternoon in 1993. She saw a dollmaking class listed in a local fabric shop class catalog, and in the mood to try something different and new, signed up. The class was with the popular doll maker elinor peace bailey—a lively, mature woman who’s as fun and whimsical as the dolls she traverses the globe to create. Armed with a lot of determination, the desire to try something new, and a modicum of sewing skill, Nathasha went to the class and hoped for the best. What happened in that class changed her life!

Inspired by the dolls displayed all around the classroom, she made elinor’s Victorian Doll—a character that was perfect for creative self-expression. That experience showed Nathasha that the sewing skills she had as a quilter were enough to enable her to make her first doll. Enthralled with and proud of that effort, she quickly caught “doll fever,” and sought out doll-related events ever since.

After acquiring the tools of the craft, she embarked upon a series of fabric shopping sprees to build up her fabric stash, and she took every dollmaking class offered. That evolved into traveling across the country to study with some of the most celebrated teachers such as Gloria “Mimi” Winer, Jesse Chandler, Leslie Molen, Anne Hesse, Monika Shedden, Kat Bunker, Christine Shiveley, and more.

The turning point for Nathasha was having received a call from a Hoffman Challenge judge who told her that her doll would’ve placed (and traveled to 31 cities for exhibition), but the doll’s neck was weakened by bad packing by a professional shipping service. The judge praised her use of color and workmanship. Although the doll didn’t make the challenge that year, it gave Nathasha the confidence she needed that her work was worthy of being complimented by professional artists, and that it was more than just a hobby.

Over the years, Nathasha’s vision has changed from that of a hobbyist to that of an artist. Where she used to make “cute” dolls as a source of fun and to de-stress, now, she makes them for exhibitions, to sell, and she’ll even accept commission as her time permits. Her work has grown tremendously from making basic dolls with a few changes, to art dolls with many changes, or some degree of redesign.

Currently, the hallmark of her work is the use of bright, vibrant colors. She loves the use of funky-colored fabrics with interesting designs or patterns. She mainly works with cottons, but is now also experimenting with many kinds of fabrics, beading, unique fibers, found objects, and even textured papers where possible. She brings another interesting element to her dollmaking: writing and storytelling. Nathasha is also an award-winning romance author, so all of her dolls have stories. She brings them to life with her brand of characterization, upbeat dialogue, humor, and a fast-moving plot.

Indeed, dollmaking has become her vice of choice, and she goes at it full throttle when stressed. It has helped her get through the pain of a divorce, her father’s death, the loss of her baby, and family illnesses. The friends she has made through this art are wonderful, and she wouldn’t trade them for anything. Ditto for the places she has been to and seen as a result of traveling to partake of one doll-related event or activity or another.

She is presently the secretary of the 3D Doll Club in Mount Vernon and is a member of several on-line doll groups such as the Glitter Town Dollies, Art Dollz, Cloth Dollmakers, Allfibersaroundandaround, and African-American Doll Artists. Nathasha believes that she’s not too old to play with dolls, and that she can change the world (in some small way) through her art—one doll at the time.

Artist Statement

I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but my interest in quilting came from watching my grandmother piece quilts, and from her giving me several as gifts. The way they made me feel so warm and loved and secure always stuck with me. It was a feeling that only the quilts could give me. I knew then that I wanted to quilt someday, but my dilemma was how to do it and still look “hip.” After all, to my way of thinking, quilting was something old ladies did while sitting on the porch in their rocking chairs, with a good dip of snuff in their mouth, humming spirituals. Surely, I didn’t fit that profile. Little did I know that there was such a thing as a quilt guild, where people of all ages, races, and backgrounds could get together and quilt. I found one in 1992, was inspired, and joined on the spot, as well as two more.

My journey to quilting began with making crib quilts for AIDS babies. They were straight nine-patch quilts that were tied, and sometimes, either hand or machine quilted. At that time, I had minimal working space, so these small quilts suited me perfectly. They were easy to make, I was learning the craft, and doing a good deed—all at the same time. Over the years, I did a few bed quilt tops, but never put them together due to space constraints and a loss of interest in the project. Something, for me, was missing. I felt too boxed in by rules of cutting blocks, seam allowances, rotary cutting, etc. However, I did learn that I loved the process of doing appliqué. I just needed more freedom and to break of the box and “do my own thing.”

One day, and I still don’t know how—I discovered art quilting. That was the turning point in my quilting life. Art quilting was for me because I could see an image in my mind or sketch it crudely on anything (or do it properly) and translate it to fabric. Instantly, the rules were gone, and I was free to create. I felt as if I had found my creative voice—at last. Thinking back, it was probably the class I took at Elder Craftsmen to teach story quilting to the elderly that freed me. As part of the class requirement, I created a story quilt about Brer Rabbit, based on the old Southern tales my parents told me while growing up.

I am a writer, so telling stories is very important to me. Stories are in my work or are written in conjunction with mp art quilts because I consider myself a griot of sorts—one who has to pass the stories of our people down through the generations. Doing it on paper and through fabric are my mediums of choice. I love colors—loud, rich, vibrant colors, so my pieces are bright. I especially love the autumn palette with the deep oranges, corals, greens, and rusts, so those are frequent colors to which I am drawn and like to incorporate into my quilts. I love to depict the stories of African-Americans and other peoples within the African Diaspora. It is my hope that my work will not only inspire other artists to let their creativity flow, but to inform their minds as well.

Saturday, March 31, 2007


It was a party all weekend when Kat Bunker came to City Quilter to teach a doll class. She taught her doll called “From Broken To Beautiful,” and what a freeing experience that turned out to be! The fun was choosing fabrics and embellishments and letting loose at the sewing machine. We were surrounded by a sea of colorful fabrics and trimmings, with the invitation to think out of the box as we made the doll. There were some basic instructions, but the interpretation of the final doll would be left to us. And that suited me just right. My fabric palette was coral, red, gold, orange, and brown. They looked so pretty when held together. However, my doll looks nothing like what I originally had in mind! It wound up being as red as a ball of fire! Dolls really do take on the personality of the dollmaker, because as I was making her, I was flashing like a neon sign on Broadway. So were many of my classmates. We must’ve frozen the other ladies out several times because the heat of the room and the hot flashes weren’t working. I remember sweating as I made the doll. To embellish her, I used beads, bits of cracked windshields because they look like cut crystal, metallic threads, etc. This doll holds a ting bag in one hand. Kat told us to write our troubles and problems onto scrolls, put them in the bag and let them go. I did and never looked back. I was well pleased with the completed doll. I am proud to say that she is currently on exhibit at the Doll & Toy Museum in Brooklyn. More on that in a forthcoming post.