The Art of Creating a Spirit Doll
Cultures the world over have the tradition of creating dolls. A representation of the human figure often used in children’s play. It is likely that dolls are the world’s oldest toy as there is evidence of them in the artefacts of ancient cultures. We can imagine children everywhere, imitating life by acting out stories using miniature human figures.
But while many of us think of dolls as a plaything, they have also played a role in healing, medicine and ceremony as well as voodoo or pagan rituals. Throughout history, dolls have been used for both positive and enlightening ways as well as negative or dark purposes.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in Women Who Run With Wolves wrote, “Dolls are one of the symbolic treasures of the instinctual nature. For centuries humans have felt that dolls emanate both a holiness and mana – an awesome and compelling prescience which acts upon persons, changing them spiritually. Dolls are believed to be infused with life by their makers. They are used as markers of authority and talismans to remind one of one’s own power.”
I have used doll making in Art Therapy for two different purposes that I want to share with you.
Firstly, Worry Dolls which originated in Guatemala. They are derived from a Mayan legend, where Princess Ixmucane received a gift from the sun god which allowed her to solve any problem a person would worry about. These dolls are very small, hand made from wire, cloth, and wood. In Central America, these dolls are given to children. The idea is that the child will tell the dolls their problems, place them in a cloth bag under their pillow and sleep well knowing that their worries are being held (and/or resolved) by the doll.
An intriguing custom that has now been adopted by adults who struggle with insomnia and anxiety. I have made worry dolls with adult clients. Early in the pandemic when fear and stress was sweeping through homes and workplaces, we created small figures using pipe cleaners and coloured wool that could be placed under pillows, on door handles or hung from computer monitors. Both a visual and metaphorical reminder of safety and support. A colleague recently ran a worry doll class with some children who decided the word ‘worry’ had a negative connotation as it kept the word ‘worry’ uppermost in their minds. So they renamed them “Hope Dolls”. When the dolls are used for display or as a reminder, it may be appropriate to rename them with a positive idea such as hope, compassion or support.
Secondly, Spirit Dolls which have also been called Medicine Dolls and Healing Dolls. These are larger sculptural works created from natural and recycled materials. The purpose of these dolls is to weave your intention or wish for yourself or the recipient, into the creation.
Create your own spirit doll
My process for making a spirit doll starts with gathering materials; sticks from nature or pipe cleaners to make the body and arms, fabric and padding and binding for the body, an object for the head such as a seedpod or wooden ball or sculpt it from clay. You will also need something to bind the items together such as wire, wool or raffia. Plus adornments that have personal significance.
Barb Kobe, in the Healing Doll Way says “Dollmaking offers you an opportunity to actively prepare a space for visual and symbolic metaphors to emerge.” Just as we place objects of symbolic significance around us in our living and working space, so doll-making allows you to incorporate items that offer you symbolic meaning. Allow yourself to choose items both consciously and unconsciously, that have a pleasing aesthetic or attract you for unknown reasons.
- When you are ready, spend some time, meditating or relaxing and focussing on your intention. Perhaps you want a doll to carry your healthy or creative intention or be a reminder to treat yourself self-compassion and forgiveness or perhaps it will embody your desire for a change. You may also choose to create a doll based on an archetype such as the Healer or Guardian Angel or Warrior.
- Whatever your intention, allow yourself to feel it as well as visualise it. When you have a clear intention, write it on a slip of paper, as you will be inserting this in the body of your spirit doll.
- Start making your doll by strapping two sticks in a cross shape to become the body and arms. Once they are securely attached, use wadding and fabric to fashion the body and clothes. Remember to include your written intention. Build up your doll shape by adding the head, hair, and adornments. Ribbons, buttons, and baubles can be added to decorate your spirit doll.
- Once you have finished, give your doll a name, remind yourself of your intention as you hold it close and charge it with your energy. Place it somewhere you will see it often, in your office, bedroom and living room. As a reminder of your wish for yourself and your future.
Jenny Fisher – Expressive Arts Facilitator Writer, Storyteller, Photographer, Artist, Consultant & Coach Personal and Team Development through Story and Art
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