Zealand doll artist Jan McLean talks about her ever-evolving passion-dolls.
BY KATHRYN BAKER
Source: June/July 2001 • Doll Reader , Pages 42-45
"My interests include dolls, palmistry, spiritual subjects, dolls, family history, movies, books, dolls, good wine and good company, family and probably dolls," states Jan McLean.
After spending 10 minutes with Jan, you will be engulfed by her laughter and her positive attitude. Her love of a good time and her passion for dolls has led Jan to a fulfilling and successful career as a doll maker. This year, she celebrates the 10th anniversary of her first visit to the American International Toy Fair in New York City.
"Our very first year at Toy Fair in 1991," she explains, "we came home with orders for hundreds of expensive dolls. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. We couldn't believe our good fortune. It was as if it was meant to be."
A retired intensive care and trauma nurse, Jan carried on more than one tradition that was started by her grandmother.
"My mother was a registered nurse, as was her mother," she says. "I was the third generation in my family to choose a career as a nurse. My mother and grandmother did not carry on their professions after they married. They were involved in the arts as sculptors and portrait artists."
Jan's grandmother also served as a source of inspiration to her when Jan was a child. "She taught me to believe that all things were possible," Jan explains. "I only had to believe that I could achieve whatever I desired and it would happen. She was right."
This inspiration led Jan to retire from nursing to pursue her passion for dolls, even though she did not know what to expect. Jan's first creation was Isabel Googly, a reproduction German doll from the 1920s. "I sat up all night just looking at it, amazed that earth could be turned into such a thing of beauty," she says. "It still amazes me that I can create a face from a lump of clay and that I can breath life into cold, hard porcelain."
Dolls also became a form of therapy for Jan. "For me, dolls were an all-consuming passion that took over my life at a time when I needed them. The tragedy and horror of losing siblings was unbearable," says Jan about a sad time in her life, "but making dolls and teaching others was very therapeutic for me and my students. Many had sad stories like mine. We all loved the joy of creation, and I am sure the hours of laughter and friendship helped many when they needed it."
When Jan followed her instincts in 1991 and took her creations to the American International Toy Fair, "I had no idea why I had even considered going to New York in 1991 in the middle of the Gulf War," she exclaims. "We were so green and totally shellshocked. When we arrived at Toy Fair, we were so depressed and tearful be cause everybody else had such beautiful displays and flowers and drapery, and we had a white table cloth. We wanted to shrivel up and die."
The box containing the dolls that Jan and her company had shipped from New Zealand to New York became lost in transit and arrived the night before Toy Fair opened. Jan and her crew were trying to finish assembling the dolls as Toy Fair opened. "Then a miracle happened," she relates. "Dealers loved the dolls, which we thought were awful compared to every body else's. As fast as we put them together, the dealers snapped them up. It was unbelievable! People were 10 deep around our booth for the whole show. I hid under the table, unable to cope with the excitement. The dealers crawled under the table, too. Many friendships were formed under that table. Our lives have never been the same since."
The life of a doll maker forces Jan to wear many hats. She is a sculptor and designer, a manufacturer, importer, exporter, wholesaler, retailer, marketer and manager. In addition, Jan has a broad knowledge of fashion and fabrics, including colors, dyes and garment construction, mold making, slip casting, porcelain painting and wig making.
A talented team of 12 people help make Jan's dolls a success. "Each doll is a result of many hours by skilled craftsmen and women," she says. "We all have a passion for what we do, and we still get thrilled with the birth of each new creation."
Jan's studio is housed in a converted warehouse in an industrial part of Dunedin, New Zealand. A retail shop and gallery are located on the main street in Dunedin. Visitors can take a tour of the studio by appointment, where they can see dolls being made. Visitors can also view Jan's extensive collection that is housed in her studio. "I am a hoarder of wonderful treasures," she admits. "I have boxes and boxes of special pieces. I am a hunter of fabrics and laces. I collect beads from the many countries I visit in addition to leather for the fabulous shoes that match the costumes. Sometimes the leather can act as a trigger for a costume design."
An avid people watcher, Jan also collects "images of faces, expressions, fashion and colorings. I study people all the time. I am fascinated by the human condition, especially babies and adolescents."
For her 2001 collection, Jan has taken on a new challenge. She has produced a line of vinyl dolls that she feels measure up to the quality of her previous creations. "I feel I have achieved an exceptionally high-quality vinyl doll with the very best quality fabrics, laces, wigs and eyes for a very good price," she says.
Each of the new vinyl dolls has manicured fingernails, top and bottom eyelashes, a name bracelet and the Jan McLean Designs label on her costume. In addition, dreamy eyes, full lips and incised nostrils help to give the new dolls an air of elegance and sophistication. "Each doll unfolds and surprises me," Jan says. "I never know what is going to happen. I have an idea, but my hands create something different."
The beautiful vinyl dolls Jan created for 2001 wear gorgeous, colorful costumes. "Like the dolls," she explains, "the costumes also just evolve. A picture or a piece of fabric will spark an inspiration. A color or combination of colors may be the trigger. Then I work on the design, first draping the doll with a color that I have decided on. Then I do sketches. Then I pull out all the boxes of 'stuff,' looking for the perfect combination. Stuff flies in all directions as the idea becomes reality. It can take days and weeks, or it can happen in a couple of hours. There is no magic formula."
It is hard to believe there is no magic involved when you look at Paige, Hannah, Lucy, Lily, Amy, Bonny Louise, Grace and Rose. Each doll in the vinyl collection
is limited to 3,500.
There are also two new additions to the Lollipop Girls collection for 2001. Cissy, a girl from Sydney, Australia, has hot-pink hair, black leather bell-bottom pants and hot-pink boots that match her hair. And Bunny, a girl from California, has blonde hair. She wears a tight, black leather miniskirt, matching bolero vest, open neck white shirt and long, red boots. Each of the new Lollipops is limited to 5,000.
Odette, a 27-inch lady dressed for a night on the town, is also part of the new collection. The redhead wears a tight -fitting, dark mauve-and
gra y evening gown. A blue-gray marabou stole is draped over her shoulders, and she wears patent leather shoes. Odette is limited to 500.
In addition to working on this year's and next year's collection, Jan finds time to spent with her husband, Graeme, who works alongside Jan running the doll business. "I met him when I was 17 years old, and we have been together ever since." The McLeans have four children.
Two live in London, England, and two live in Queenstown, New Zealand. After a busy
day, Jan and Graeme enjoy excursions with their golden retriever, Jack. "Jack is a source of delight and loves to run like the wind and swim," she says. "Every night we walk him along the beach, which gets me away from the studio."
"Every year is a challenge," Jan continues, "as I try something new. I guess I try to reinvent myself every year to stimulate collectors with something different." What wonders we have to look forward to.