Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Barbara Chapman: Suspension of Disbelief


Barbara Chapman: The Suspension of Disbelief

Ornament is Barbara Chapman’s passion. Her distinct style permeates every aspect of life, from the home she shares with her husband, a potter, to her daily dress, the fabrics and dolls she creates and the textile classes she teaches. Decorative restraint, made so popular by minimalism, is not what catches Chapman’s eye. Instead, layers of textiles and beads, contrasting textures and ornate surfaces adorn everything from her body, to her home and the art she creates. From the outside it looks as though this style is a direct extension of Chapman’s studio work – but perhaps the opposite is equally true, that her personal style is a reflection of her work.

The Chapman’s home contains studio space for textiles, ceramics and glass as well as an appointment-only boutique of art-to-wear clothing and jewellery. Designed in layers similar to the stacks of materials that cover every available surface, the floor plan steps between patios, living spaces and work areas. In addition to the fabrics she makes and collects and her husband’s work in ceramics and dychroic glass, the couple have amassed a treasure-trove of visual inspiration. Today it is almost impossible to believe that the entire home and its contents were destroyed in a fire nearly three years ago. The rebuild is now near completion, situated on the same property as the previous structure in Solana Beach, Southern California. The community is rich with art galleries and working artists, but if there was any chance that inspiration was still lacking the enviable location also enjoys views and sea breezes from the Pacific Ocean. Not surprisingly, many pieces destroyed in the fire proved irreplaceable, but Chapman admits that rebuilding the home allowed the couple to search for new treasures. The wood, metal, fabric, beads, and ornaments that now decorate the house reveal little in the way of loyalty to a particular region or style other than a distinct eye for a rich natural palette.

Observing Chapman’s style, it is not surprising to hear that her working practice involves keeping numerous projects on the go at one time. From large chrochet wall hangings and garments to woven jewellery and a substantial collection of dolls, Chapman roves from one thing to the next, finding solutions in a variety of materials and structures. Her dolls display some of her greatest ingenuity with rich surfaces and opulent colours that spark the imagination. These dolls are fashioned from a mixture of precious and discarded materials. In fact, part of their greatest strength lies in the mundane materials that, in Chapman’s hands, are turned into priceless cloaks and jewellery for little people. A wire armature supports the basic shape, with faces modelled out of plasticine. It is only on very close inspection, that the dolls admit that plastic beads rather than diamonds and opals, scraps of synthetic fabric rather than ancient lace and the odd piece of Christmas tinsel are coupled with the elegant brocades and embroideries that make up their bodies. What is astonishing is the thought that many of these materials are hiding in most of our homes. It requires a selective and intuitive eye to see the possibilities and transform these materials into magical creatures.

According to the artist these dolls often “refuse” to wear certain hats or clothing. Working with such opinionated creatures does not bother Chapman, who is philosophical about the “rejections” some of her dolls assert. The hat or coat or shoe is set aside. Another creature yet to be realized may be interested in the donning them in the future. Chapman’s intuition for her dolls wants and needs affords her the uncanny ability to capture a distinct personality and emotion in each doll. “Silvia Silver Shoes” for instance, looks as though she may have had a bit too much to drink. Like a jovial albeit inebriated relative on Christmas Eve she teeters in her chair, beaming. Her wings look like the moths and butterflies pinned in Victorian specimen cases – species she quite likely communes with through her own pair of antenna peeking above her head. Several dolls are equipped with similar wings, but none are the sort that threatens to take flight. Instead they are more like peacocks strutting the decorative, if non-functional, beauty of their plumage.

The resting ballerina “Fifi la Mon” wears an elfin version of pointe shoes as she sits on a chair that hangs from the wall. Her tutu looks like a rose petal skirt, chosen to compliment her rainbow leg warmers. At her side a silver net bag contains seashells. Possibly she has been fishing for dreams in the nearby ocean or has brought her own net bag in lieu of the wasteful plastic bags offered at Tescos. The red headed “Junkyard Fairy” looks more like a talisman than a toy. Limbs of beads, a horsehair skirt and dunces cap gives her a certain air of stylish eccentricity. The “Junkyard Fairy” and many others belong to several thematic series that Chapman has developed over years – a geneology of sorts. The jester, paper maker, shaman and Goddess pop up in various guises over the years Chapman has been making dolls. They are a species evolving in Chapman’s studio, their ornate dress constitutes the ritual of their lives.

Collectors admit that the dolls do get lonely when separated. The problem makes adding to one’s collection an ethical imperative. This sort of thinking may require the suspension of disbelief, a term used to explain the literary genre of Magical Realism. Exemplified by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marques and Isabel Allende, setting aside disbelief is a bit of a trick for most of us. It is a state of mind that allows artists to envision other worlds and a strength children do not even realize is unique to their age and perspective. Chapman’s dolls encourage even the greatest sceptics to put aside the real world for a moment and enjoy this magical world of sequins, lace, embroidery and brocade.

Embroidery magazine (Nov./Dec. 2004: 16-19)