Sandi McAslan's porcelain creations roll their eyes curl their tongues and pucker their lips. Now her vinyls are about to do the same.
BY STEPHANIE FINNEGAN
Source: May 1996 • DOLL, Pages 72-75
When people see a doll they should be able to identify that doll with a particular business or artist. Different, but recognizable," Sandi McAslan observes. "I think we've managed to do that."
McAslan dolls are certainly eye-catching. They gesticulate, giggle and grimace; they scrunch up their eyes and pull down their lips. In other words, they disport themselves like a typical antsy seven-year-old on School Picture Day.
"I see my dolls as six-to ten-year-old children. A lot of them have oversize teeth so you know they're six or seven, and those new teeth are growing in and they don't fit their faces," McAslan, the mother of three young children - Devon, Morgan and Lennon explains. "And I've started making some of the teeth to be crooked and overlapping. It just seems like a real gawky-kid thing."
Store owner Patt Sessa of Patt & Billy's, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, applauds McAslan's quirky faces. "Not all kids are that gorgeous. We have a picture of my sister when she, was six years old. Her two front teeth were missing, and her hair was stringy. She hates that photo of herself, but that's really what she looked like at that age. Sandi McAslan's dolls remind me of her, and of my grandchildren now. They absolutely make me happy."
The Canton, Connecticut, doll artist began mapping the many moods of childhood in the fall of 1989. Her son, Devon, had just started kindergarten, and she was home with her toddler daughter, Morgan. She had begun collecting dolls, ostensibly claiming that they were being set aside for her children. As her taste in dolls became more sophisticated, leaning more and more toward limited-edition pieces, McAslan decided to try her own hand at making a collectible. "I had been an artist by training. I had done some sculpting as a teenager, but let me tell you, it was a long hard road. It took eight months before I completed my first doll. I went to the library and did research, but there's almost nothing written about how to make a mold."
Drawing upon her storehouse of ingenuity, she attempted to make a mold via creative shortcuts. "I'm not a technician. When I paint, I paint with acrylics, not oil, because I don't have the patience to wait for the paint to dry. I tried shortcuts over and over until I finally admitted I had to do this one step at a time. It was now the spring of 1990, eight months after I had begun, and I had made my doll."
She brought her first effort, Kelly, to a doll shop, where she had developed a friendship with the owner. "I told her my family thinks it's pretty nice, but what do you think? She looked at it and ordered a couple. She thought I was pretty promising." McAslan then produced a second doll, Lisa, from chat same facial mold. "We sold 25 or 30 of those first dolls. I even sewed their clothing, and 1 don't sew well. So I knew chat the dolls only had to get better when I eventually stopped sewing." McAslan laughs as she needles her own reputation as a seamstress during those novice days.
Initially, McAslan's dollmaking was perceived by her family as a rewarding labor of love, one-half hobby and one-half business venture. That perception would change rather quickly. In 1991 Jim McAslan was let go from his management position at an insurance firm. He received a healthy severance bonus, but didn’t know where he should turn for a new position. His wife's budding talents as a dollmaker seemed a risky, but potentially rewarding, career path. The husband and wife joined forces that year.
"There's no denying that Sandi is the artist. I throw my two cents of opinion in, but she has the final say. Maybe in other areas-business or marketing - I have 51 percent of the say," Jim McAslan explains. "Since day one Sandi and I have wanted to produce affordable dolls, even if it meant making a few more dolls, having to work a little bit harder, doing a lot to keep the dolls at a reasonable price. Our objective beyond making a living is to get the dolls out there so people can enjoy them. If they're priced too high, no one will buy them anyhow. Dolls should not be status symbols."
The dollmaker echoes her husband’s sentiments. Philosophically, I don’t agree with the idea behind a one-of-a-kind. To me, a doll should be something that if you like or want as a collector, you should be able to have. I mean, it's only a doll! They are just out of the reach of the normal person's pocketbook," McAslan emphatically states. "I feel that the editions I make with the tongues and the teeth are really close to a one-of-a-kind style. For each and every doll I have to retool the eyes and the whole mouth completely back in. So each doll gets my personalized attention. I like doing it, though, because it's more interesting than a plain face. It's never boring."
An animated countenance combined with an easy-to-display size are McAslan trademarks. The 15-inch porcelain characters made their debut at the 1992 American International Toy Fair, where they went over big. "When I first started out, 1 thought that large equated with realistic. My first dolls in 1990 and then in 1991 were 24 inches. In 1991 I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, Lennon. She was born on July l. I had a lot of work to do, and I was starting to have my doubts about the size of the big dolls. I had only made a few, and I had nowhere to put them. I started to wonder what do the collectors do with them. Are they really out on display, or are they packed away in the basement? Are they in boxes and only rotated out occasionally?
"Well, it was summer, and I love to hold babies, especially wonderful newborn ones. And I sculpted all of the smaller-size limbs for that 1992 line of dolls during the six-week period that I was holding Lennon. I know it sounds contrived and made up, but that's really how the 15-inch dolls came about. They were an easier size to make when holding a baby. I sculpted the limbs in the day and the faces at night. I've been doing that size ever since. I think they are wonderful because you can have them out all the time. They're small and manageable."
Lennon McAslan is also responsible for her mother's fabulous tonguetwirling faces. "When I first did that crazy-tongue expression with my doll Cassie, I thought where in the world did that come from? This doll is pretty wild. And then a few nights later, we're sitting at the dinner table, and Lennon was two then. She's in the high chair and she was making an absolute mess, and she was doing all of these wild movements with her tongue. I had picked it up from her subconsciously."
Intuition and gut instincts help motivate McAslan's hands as she fashions her initial designs from Super Sculpey. "When I used to paint canvases, they were all abstracts. My favorite period of art is the Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s. I'm an action painter, and if you will, I'm an action sculptor. I work on a face until it just doesn't work for me, or else it will communicate back to me when it's done. I don't work from photographs or anything like that. I might cut out articles that inspire me, but l could never do a portrait doll. I'm not technically competent enough for that."
McAslan and her porcelain offspring have developed a loyal following in six short years. Along the way she has received critical lauds as well. From 1992 to 1995 one of her designs has received a Dolls Award of Excellence nomination each year. In 1992 Tommy was n01ninated in the Porcelain $251-$500 category; Piper was a nominee in 1993 for the Porcelain $301-$550 category; Maggie got a nod in 1994 in the Porcelain $150-$300 grouping; and 1995's Nell was recognized with a nomination for Porcelain $301-$550. This run of acknowledgments is quite a feat for the self-taught dollmaker. McAslan revels in the recognition from her peerstheir support and appreciation help her to carry on-and she especially loves the kudos from her fans.
We’ve started a brand-new collector's club, and it already has over 100 members,” says McAslan. ''That's a pleasant surprise. Our club doesn't charge a membership fee; we send out a packet to members, which is nothing fancy. It's not in color; it's a booklet of all the articles about us and a Xerox of the paper doll that I did for Dolls magazine two years ago (Alice in the May 1994 issue). Members can buy clothes and accessories from us. We're also planning to do a Christmas doll for club members only. It'll be a vinyl one, most probably."
If the mention of vinyl has perked up your ears, you are not alone. McAslan realizes that with this 1996 innovation a whole new breed of collectors will be able to snatch up her creations at dramatically lower prices. Patricia Park, a collector from New York City, was ecstatic when she first heard rumors of McAslan going vinyl. "I only own two McAslan porcelain pieces, but now I think there may be no stopping me. I already have my eye on four vinyls. It definitely is a more affordable packaging." Why does Park enjoy McAslan so much? "I like her dolls' non-beauty. They remind me of real kids with sticky, ice-cream-covered fingers. You know that they're cute and have good hearts, but you wouldn't want them sitting on your living-room couch."
Grace O'Hara, a collector from Hollywood, Florida, has a similar pro-vinyl reaction. She already owns one McAslan porcelain, Steffie & Stuffie. O'Hara purchased Steffie because she "prefers sad dolls to happy ones." She admits that she thought long and hard before buying her. "She was such a sadlooking child. But then I realized that with childhood, sadness comes deeply and goes away very quickly."
O'Hara recently picked up three of McAslan's vinyls. "I bought Cindy, Holly and Charlotte. Charlotte is my favorite because of her bright red hair and closed lips. I have the three vinyls standing rogether. They seem to be having a conversation, and appear to be enjoying themselves thoroughly," she muses. "Also, there's usually a loss when an artist moves from porcelain to vinyl, but not with Sandi."
The doll artist would be gratified to hear this critique. She and her husband toiled for months to insure that there wouldn't be any detectable downgrade in quality. The only discernible difference between the porcelain and the new vinyl line is the height. The vinyls measure 18 inches. "The vinyls have the exact same mohair wigs that I use for my porcelains. The ready-made wigs made them look too much like all the other dolls on the market. Their limb design is identical to the porcelains, too, except for the material used, and they both have soft cloth bodies," McAslan states. "I paint the first vinyl's mouth and eyebrows, and then a stencil is made from my work. A stencil process is then used for all the rest of the dolls in that line, and they are airbrushed to my original pattern. However, I hand paint the eyes of every vinyl, and l paint the tear ducts, and then l touch up the coloring on all the lids, and I put the shad ing on their lips. So I still do those kinds of details myself."
McAslan's hands-on approach to her vinyls allows her to maintain that specially crafted look. Though the notion of vinyl might conjure up impersonal assembly lines, McAslan would never allow that to happen to her creations.
"We have our goals and we have our objectives," McAslan theorizes, "but we never want to grow so big that I feel like I'm just managing a staff all the time. I never want to sacrifice my time with the dolls for paperwork." The McAslan Doll Company currently consists of Sandi and her husband, along with six subcontractors. Together these eight hardworking folks have produced an ambitious 1996 line of dolls. There are six vinyls: Trixie, Lacy, Lettie, Holly, Cindy and Charlotte. The vinyls come in editions of 750 and are priced at $295. The porcelains are issued in editions of 50, and are priced at $460. The 1996 porcelains are Nessie, Chloe, Debbie, Abigail and Cynthia. There's a sixth porcelain, Patty, which was designed and executed completely by McAslan's apprentice, Lorrie Pinto. "If anyone internally is interested in developing, I am more than happy to offer assistance and work with them," McAslan says, beaming.
The potential success of her apprentice seems to genuinely please McAslan. Ann Rozell, owner of The Doll House, in Edmond, Oklahoma, seconds McAslan's geniality. "Sandi and Jim are two of the nicest people. They are a joy to know, and Sandi's personality comes out in her dolls. They have such character in their faces that they make me and my customers smile."
Rozell has been carrying McAslan dolls for nearly five years. She considers them to be excellent sellers because of "their true-to-life expressions." She predicts that their vinyls will do extremely well because "they look just like the porcelains. She hasn't lost a thing in the switch, not even in the eyes which are always so expressive."
McAslan's eyes always seem to stand out because she invests so much time and labor perfecting them. It takes 12 or 15 layers of paint and glaze to make her porcelains' eyes. Her vinyls' eyes are five or six layers deep with paint and glaze. McAslan admits to being partial to her dolls' eyes. "Painting the eyes is my favorite part. It's the eyes that bring them to life. Many collectors communicate to us not just about the dolls' expressions but also their sense of movement. Technically, there's a reason for that movement. Everyone's face is out of balance, and none of my dolls are symmetrical. The eyes are deliberately off and the mouths arc crooked-that gives them the movement that they have. It looks like they are in the middle of changing an expression. When you look at them, your eye is trying subconsciously to reconcile the differences. It's your eyes that are moving the features around."
Many of her collectors and shop owners repeatedly kick around the phrase "real life" in connection with McAslan's work. Lou Camilleri, owner of Dear Little Dollies, in Bellmore, New York, feels chat "Sandi has real children completely figured out. She puts personality into their expressions. Her dolls are sweet, but still exaggerated. They're a nice collection to have at home."
At the dollmaker's home, which also functions as her studio and club headquarters, a history of her development as an artist is arranged in discreet nooks and crannies. She always keeps one of each doll for her personal collection. "l keep my favorites out of each of the editions. Sometimes it will be number 50 in an issue that will say something to me. After all the dolls that I've made I have to tell you that it still surprises me when I stand back and see all of them as a group. I still get that strange feeling that I didn't really make them. They sort of created themselves."
McAslan's talk of self-evolving dolls ties in with her and her children's love of Star Trek and all of its spin-offs. The dollmaker has toyed with the idea of producing a line of sci-fi alien children. She's not certain if her fans would appreciate strangely domed children, or mutant babies with spotted foreheads and ridged noses. But don't be surprised if McAslan does boldly go where no doll artist has gone before.