Are you curious about the people who create those lifelike reborn dolls? Why they do it? How they’re made? We hosted a fascinating Q&A discussion with reborn doll artists Amy Karich and LaJuana Hawkins following last Sunday’s matinee of Reborningby Zayd Dohrn.
Amy Karich is a professional Reborn artist based in Southern California. Her online nursery, Amy’s Dollhouse, can be found at www.amysdollhouse.com. LaJuana Hawkins is a sculptor of African American figurines who has recently turned her talents to reborning.
In Zayd Dohrn’s play, currently receiving rave reviews in its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain, a young reborn artist who crafts custom-made dolls tries to unravel the mystery surrounding a new client and, in the process, discovers the path to her own “reborning.” Starring Kristin Carey, Ryan Doucette and Joanna Strapp, and directed by Simon Levy, the Fountain Theatre’s production has been named a “Critic’s Choice” by the Los Angeles Times, which calls it an “exquisitely well-realized production … All the actors are rock-solid — a real heart-stopper.”
Amy Karich and LaJuana Hawkins to Q&A at Fountain Theatre
“Reborn” doll artists Amy Karich and LaJuana Hawkins will lead a discussion at the Fountain Theatre on Sunday, March 8 at 3:30 p.m., following the 2 p.m. matinee performance of Reborningby Zayd Dohrn.
A Reborn doll is a manufactured vinyl doll that has been transformed to resemble a human baby with as much realism as possible. Although many consumers collect Reborns as they would regular dolls, others use them to replace a child they once lost or a child that has grown up. The dolls often come with birth or adoption certificates, and their “parents” care for them as they would an infant. Because of their realistic appearance, Reborn dolls have occasionally been mistaken for real babies and rescued from parked cars after being reported to the police by passers-by.
Kristin Carey in “Reborning”.
The doll design process — called Reborning — is elaborate and time-consuming. Creators hand-root each strand of hair onto a doll’s scalp. They replicate dewy newborn skin by adding up to 80 layers of paint to the vinyl molded baby, which then must be baked to be sealed. Some are then perfumed with new-baby smell. Manicured nails and opening of the nose holes, so that the baby can “breathe,” are other details that are added during the process. Reborn heads are often weighted, so that owners have to support the head like one would a real newborn. Electronic devices that mimic a heart beat, or make the chest rise and fall to simulate breathing are common. Reborns might come with an umbilical cord, baby fat, heat packs to make the reborn warm to the touch, or voice boxes that mimic infant sounds. Reborn dolls can be purchased on EBay and on artist websites, often called “nurseries.” Purchases are not called sales, but “adoptions.” There are trade shows for collectors nationwide. Depending on craftsmanship, dolls range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Amy Karich is a professional Reborn artist based in Southern California. Her online nursery, Amy’s Dollhouse, can be found at www.amysdollhouse.com.
LaJuana Hawkins is a sculptor of African American figurines who has recently turned her talents to Reborning.
In Zayd Dohrn’s play, currently receiving its Los Angeles premiere at the Fountain. a young artist who crafts custom-made dolls begins to suspect that a demanding client may be the mother who abandoned her at birth. As she tries to unravel the mystery, she discovers the path to her own “Reborning.” Starring Kristin Carey, Ryan Doucette and Joanna Strapp, and directed bySimon Levy, the Fountain Theatre’s production has been named a “Critic’s Choice” by the Los Angeles Times, which calls it an “exquisitely well-realized production… All the actors are rock-solid — a real heart-stopper.”
Sometimes art imitates life and sometimes life imitates art. And somewhere in between, sometimes things get curious.
Hollywood’s Fountain Theatrerecently opened a play dealing with parenthood, the mystery of creation and the scars of loss. What it’s literally about is reborning, a thriving subculture in which artists spend hundreds of hours creating and collectors spend thousands of dollars buying vinyl dolls meticulously fashioned to resemble real babies.
Reborning began in the United States in the 1990s, when a few enthusiasts started painting over and otherwise altering (or “reborning”) store-bought dolls to make them appear more realistic. Now, however, it has become an international phenomenon. One unassembled, limited-edition kit for making the dolls recently released online sold out in less than three minutes.
The play, Reborning, centers on an artist and the increasingly unnerving relationship she develops with a client. Zayd Dohrn wrote it after the birth of his first child. In stumbling upon the curious art form, Dohrn found a perfect vehicle for exploring the terrifying vulnerability of new life. He also made something of a mess. “I tried my hand at making a couple dolls,” Dohrn says. “It didn’t turn out well.”
The show has previously been produced in New York, San Francisco and Anaheim (at the Chance Theater in 2012), with local reborners employed to create dolls.
The Fountain called Amy Karich, an Orange County stay-at-home mom who sells her reborn creations online. Karich, who also designed dolls for the Chance production, works out of a studio tucked into the tidy rolling hills on the outskirts of Laguna Beach. A slant-roofed add-on to the back of the family home, Karich’s workshop sits on one of those quiet, planned streets with an abundance of two-car garages, stacked rows of matching terracotta-hued roofs and artfully spaced palm trees.
Amy Karich in her studio.
Inside, her studio testifies to a flurry of activity. A paint-drenched sponge lies on her desk amidst jars of paints, brushes and beads. Against the walls sit boxes of eyeballs and a small table of disembodied doll parts. Teething toys, bassinets and pastel blankets dominate the decor.
“I’m not even a baby person,” announces the petite, blond mother of four, with the hint of an ironic smile.
That she’s going on the record at all is a pleasant surprise. The fact that some buyers have suffered miscarriages or found themselves unable to conceive prompted several articles casting them as mildly deranged. “People feel like they’ve been burned in the press,” says Dohrn, to explain why lately the subculture has taken on a slight air of secrecy.
Some clients ask for dolls with particular characteristics, occasionally including a picture. Other clients are more vague. One asked for 13 moles, though Karich could place them where she chose. The dolls aren’t usually used as toys — they’re mainly for display.
Artists become known for certain trademarks, such as color palates, and Karich says her skin tones are a signature of her work. She plucks the head from a nearly completed newborn to illustrate. “I put stork bites on them,” she says, pointing to the pinkish birthmark on the back of its head, which can appear during birth.
“All kinds of traumatic things happen at birth,” she adds. “Newborns … can have pressure marks anywhere. Because sometimes the baby will be resting against the bottom of the tailbone [for instance],” she says, absentmindedly rubbing her lower back.
Playwright Zayd Dohrn at the Fountain Theatre
“I love that she said that,” Dohrn says. “When you hear Amy talk, you understand what humans go through [during birth], the adventure they’ve been on and how it shows up on their bodies.”
Karich, whose dolls routinely go for $1,500 apiece, might spend 150 hours creating one. The details she adds reinforce that these aren’t toys but objects meant for display, intended for serious collectors. Artists favor Genesis paints, and stuff glass or zinc beads inside the dolls to give them an authentic heft. (“Some people have been known to use kitty litter,” Karich says, turning up her nose at the idea.)
Karich fishes out handful of handcrafted eyes from beneath a crib. “These are made of mouth-blown glass, produced in Germany. They go for $30 to $40 a pair,” she says. Her newborns also come with detachable magnetic umbilical cords, made by snipping off the finger of a vinyl glove and stuffing it with cloth painted to resemble bloody tissue, before tying it off with a real medical clamp.
“It’s very relaxing to me to be able to create,” she says.
In translating her dolls to the stage, a few adjustments were necessary, such as designing a deeper mottling for the skin to render it more visible to an audience.
There is one aspect of Dohrn’s play that Karich finds not terribly realistic: The reborner allows her client far too much access. Karich doesn’t even give out her phone number, in order to set boundaries on her time. But her clients are nearly all repeat customers. Relationships inevitably form, and personal details are shared — some tragic, but mostly clients just send news about their children.
“Most collectors are mothers and perfectly normal people,” Karich stresses. “Some people could be filling some sort of void with the dolls … but it’s not a void that causes them to treat the dolls like real babies. They are just another group of people, interested in something.”
Mindy Farabee is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles. A former LA Times staff writer, her work has also appeared in publications such as Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, San Francisco Chronicle, The Millions, the Boston Globe, and LA Weekly. This post originally appeared in the LA Weekly.
In our upcoming Los Angeles premiere of the edgy comedy/drama Reborning by Zayd Dohrn, a young woman makes lifelike baby dolls for a living. This is actually a true occupation and a real phenomenon. In the play, a customer seeks a doll to represent the child she lost years ago. In real life, customers buy reborn dolls from reborn artists for a variety of reasons. When the Fountain needed to learn more about this fascinating art form and the artists who create it, who did we turn to?
We asked Amy Karich. Amy is a professional reborn artist in Southern California. Her online nursery, Amy’s Dollhouse, can be foundhere.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Texas in the Dallas Ft. Worth area. I have a BA in English Literature from San Diego State University. My art training is mostly self taught. I have been married for almost 22 years and I have four children.
How did you get interested in making reborn dolls?
Reborn doll by Amy Karich
I made one for my daughter in 2009 to see if I could. When other people saw her doll, they began asking me to make one for them, too. I then started selling them at doll shows and eventually eBay and Etsy. I’ve been selling them under the name Amy’s Dollhouse for about 5 years now.
How long does it take to make one doll?
I finish and sell about 1 doll per month.
How much do they sell for?
They range in price from $500 for micro preemies to $2500 for larger babies. The average selling price for my dolls is $1100.
Reborn doll made by Amy Karich.
How are the dolls made?
It takes me a full month to make one doll. The painting process takes about two weeks and the hair rooting takes another two weeks. Each doll has between 25 to 35 layers of paint (baked after each layer is applied) in order to achieve their realistic skin tones, undertones, mottling, capillaries and veins. I then work on details such as fingernails and toenails, shading wrinkles, painting eyebrows, stork bites, and birthmarks if any are desired. After the final layer of varnish is baked, I begin the hair rooting process. After the hair and eyelashes are rooted, I seal it on the inside of the head. If it is an open-eyed doll, I insert the eyes and then weight the limbs and body. Finally, I assemble the doll.
Amy’s work table in her studio.
What are the reasons why customers buy your dolls?
Most of my customers are collectors who appreciate the artistry and realism of reborn dolls.
Has a customer ever asked you to make a replica of a child they’ve lost? Like in the play ‘Reborning’?
I have done one custom order for a client who had a miscarriage but none to my knowledge that have had a child pass away after birth. Most of my clients are not trying to replace a baby or pretend to care for a baby. As with most collectors of any type of art, there is an emotional element that compels them to buy a certain piece for their collection or gallery.
How often do you actually meet your customers face-to-face?
I rarely get to meet my clients as 99% of my business is online. I am looking forward though to exhibiting at the Rose International Doll Show in Denver this July where I do hope to meet with some of my clients. I’m really looking forward to it as I rarely have enough inventory to participate in doll shows. With an entire year to prepare however, I’ve been managing to create some dolls to sell at the show and still be able to handle all of my custom orders.
What gives you joy and satisfaction in your work?
For me, the joy and satisfaction is in the process of creating them and even photographing them. Once I have completed a doll, I am very happy to send it to a buyer who will appreciate and enjoy it. Many of my clients stay in touch with me and send photos. I am always so delighted to hear from them.
Is it ever hard to part with a doll you’ve made?
I will admit, that I have not been able to part with any of the small baby elves or fairies that I’ve done. I fully intended to sell them when I started them. When I finished them, I just couldn’t part with them. I have a difficult time parting with the miniature babies that I finish as well.
How would you describe the reborning community?
Reborn doll by Amy Karich
I think the artists who create lifelike dolls are a relatively small and close knit community. We have forums online where we talk to each other and share our work with each other. We share news about articles and events related to our field. We warn each other about difficult clients or non-paying bidders. This type of work can be very isolating so it’s refreshing to communicate with with other doll artists.
People are fascinated with the folks who buy reborn dolls and why they buy them.
In general, the media tends to focus on an extremely small percentage of collectors who may treat their dolls like actual babies. In my experience, however, most doll collectors are just like any other collector … they simply display (most often in locked glass cases) and appreciate their collection. For some reason the media targets doll collectors to portray them as crazy. They don’t target men who collect and spend insane amounts of money on cars, guns or even action figures. They say that the doll collectors are caught up in a fantasy or are role playing but one could say the same about people who attend renaissance fairs or participate in civil war reenactments dressed in period attire. I don’t think the media should make any group of collectors or hobbyists feel uncomfortable about what they choose to collect. I believe that, as long as the media continues its bias stories interviewing only the few collectors that do treat their dolls like real babies, most doll collectors will shy away from speaking about their collection with people who are not doll artists or fellow collectors.
When you first read ‘Reborning’, what did you think?
I thought the play was very entertaining and very much enjoyed it. I was intrigued that there was a play even written about what I do. So many people have never even heard of the art form.
The Los Angeles Premiere of Reborning by Zayd Dohrn, directed by Simon Levy, stars Kristin Carey, Ryan Doucette and Joanna Strapp. It opens Jan 24th and runs to March 15th. Don’t miss this funny and compelling comedy/drama about creating family and the power of healing. More Info/Get Tickets