Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Charla Khanna


Charla Khanna

“These are not, for me, little people,” explains American artist Charla Khanna of the dolls she creates. “They are manifestations of the human psyche, the human spirit.” With the record set straight and any suspicion of fluff moved aside, I ask Khanna about the utterly convincing androgyny her dolls display. “They are manifestations of states of being,” she explains, “so they need to be androgynous.” Themes of such magnitude do not normally find their way into the world of doll making, but in Khanna’s creations one senses a thirst for something far more profound than entertainment value.

Based in the artistic community of Taos, New Mexico, Khanna’s creations seem to reference the rich American Indian and Mexican heritage on her doorstep, alongside more far flung influences such as Asian and Indian motifs. But it is difficult to pinpoint the precise origins of any of these dolls. Each wears oversized feet and a tuft of horsehair atop their heads, but it is the richly decorated surfaces of their garments, as varied as their features are similar, that bring these dolls to life. The results command a language of their own, one that borrows from both near and far, the exotic and the familiar.

Khanna “always knew” she wanted to be an artist and has made dolls since an early age. In college she studied printmaking. But her doll making remained an aside until, separated from her husband and a young daughter to raise, she began to sell both her prints and her dolls. She quickly found the dolls to be her best seller.  “It was an accidental career,” she explains with a laugh that belies an acute awareness that so few are able to say this of their artistic endeavours. Today economics continue to determine aspects of her working process. She works in series. “This is not my hobby,” she explains, as if she has faced the assumption before that doll making could not be otherwise. “This is my living and I simply have discovered that if I produce a beautiful piece it is economically necessary for me to run it as a series. The more intricate they get, the more individual they are even if they are part of a series.” “How many there are in a series is totally random,” she concedes. “I will continue a series until I just don’t want to anymore.”

Heads, hands and feet are made from papier-mâché, coated in modelling paste, layers of gesso and an oil glaze. Watercolour is used for the features, followed with a coat of varnish. Hands, heads and feet are produced in batches during three weeks sessions of intensive production. Khanna then allows time to “live with the heads” in her studio, until she feels a head “suggests a direction for what the piece is going to be about.” The first to admit that she cannot visualize these things in advance, she explains that embarking on each project and seeing it through to completion is her only way of knowing what each doll will be like. “I start with very vague notions,” she admits. “ I don’t draw things out ahead of time. I haven’t a clue. It is working it out that makes this interesting to do. That is why I do it, to see what will be at the end.”

But it is the garments rather than the bodies of these dolls that set each apart. During the mid-eighties Khanna took a break from what threatened to be a severe case of studio burnout by embarking on her second graduate degree, this time in Fibres at the University of Michigan. While it was weaving she focused on during this time, the gamut of textile techniques now appear in her work. Occasionally she will employ a patterned store bought fabric, but for the majority of her work she favours embellishing Dupioni silk, although the fabric often needs to be over dyed in her studio because “the colours are never quite the right colours.”

Khanna’s themes are varied. “Daily Life”, for example, was made in recognition of the sanctity of daily life and its mundane objects. Drawing inspiration from the Catholic tradition of Milagros, the small silver symbols that cover the doll are Khanna’s versions of the tiny objects which, when pinned to clothed sculptures of the Madonna or Saints, are believed to act as a reminder that ensures your prayers are not overlooked. In contrast, her patchwork dolls “Pinwheel”, “Tumbling Blocks” and “Wheel of Mysterie” are named after traditional piece work patterns and are less a response to the internal reflections of the artist than they are a recognition and celebration of the many women who created, often with little personal recognition, the intricate quilts that make up much of North America’s more recent textile history. The rest of her work, such as “Jewel Garden” and “Mandala” reflect more existential concerns. “I am an introvert,” she explains, “so I am drawn to interior things.”

Have the dolls evolved over the years she has been making them? “I do think I am more playful than I was in my youth,” she responds. “I can do pieces about ‘the meaning of life’, but I just did a little piece about a trick frog. That has changed.” What has not changed substantially in the years Khanna has been making dolls are their distinctive proportions. “Earlier pieces were more attenuated,” she chuckles. “But then maybe I too was a thinner person!” Joking aside, she speaks of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti and his standing figures: “he seems to have just hit upon a form. I too have hit upon the perfect form, for me. But in the back of my mind, the first question I always ask when starting a piece is, ‘if you were going to live with this doll, how would you want it to be?’” Perhaps a strange question for an artist who keeps none of her own work, but her answer is one Giacometti would relish: “I don’t want them to be very emotional. I want them to be still points, emotionally speaking.”

Craft Arts International (issue 69, 2007: 114-115)