Dolling up the inner diva

Bel Air mom creates figures that appeal to women in their 40s and 50s

September 11, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Barbara Rook led the way into her kitchen, which doubles as the workshop where she makes some rather gaudy dolls.

Expensive sequined and faux fur materials covered an island countertop in her Bel Air home. Nearby, colored strands of beads and feather boas filled bins stacked waist-high. She walked to another counter where her creations -- called Divine Divas -- at various stages of completion were strewn.

She picked up a doll and a mischievous grin covered her face.

"This -- is a Diva doll! She is what I want to be," Rook said. "She is what women in their 40s and 50s want to be. But she's every husband's nightmare wife. With her, it's all about, `Me! Me! Me!' She doesn't do laundry or cook, and she always comes first."

Like hundreds of other artisans and vendors, Rook is readying her creations for the 40th annual Bel Air Festival for the Arts, which is expected to draw thousands of festivalgoers to downtown Bel Air from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 18.

About 350 vendors will set up behind Bel Air Town Hall on Hickory Avenue.

The event is sponsored by Bel Air Parks and Recreation Committee and is its biggest fundraiser of the year.

Rook first brought her dolls to the festival in 2003, though she began making the dolls about three years earlier.

"I have dabbled with dolls since I was a little girl," said the 55-year-old mother of three adult children. "But it all came together for me when I was making an ugly angel doll about six years ago. It was so different, and I just loved it. I wanted to create more fun dolls, and I did."

The doll-making process for Rook has been punctuated with lessons learned through trial and error.

The first lesson: Even the simplest change needs to be tested or problems can arise.

"Once I made the dolls' bodies longer and created 50 bodies using the new dimensions, and they wouldn't sit up," said Rook. "I had to redo every single one."

Although work may be under way on 25 dolls at one time, Rook eschews the assembly-line mentality.

"I create each doll individually," said Rook. "But I make several bodies, arms, legs, purses and boots ahead of time. I start getting excited when it's time to create a unique doll. I never know what's she's going to turn out to be."

Her techniques range from rolling wallpaper to make arms and legs, to making boots from polymer clay and fine-tuning them with nut-cracking tools.

"The boots take about 45 minutes to bake a group of them," Rook said. A group could yield as many as 20 pairs. "They have to bake in the oven to harden. I mix the colors to create animal-skin-like prints. But I make each one by hand."

The clay accents on the dolls caught the eye of fellow artist Tammy Martinez, owner of the Little Pottery Shop in New Market. Martinez saw the dolls when she and Rook had neighboring booths at last year's festival.

"The dolls with the clay boots and purses and their unique appearance are perfect for the shop, and my customers love them," Martinez said.

But there's more to these dolls than boots and purses. They have attire that Rook said makes her dolls overdressed for any occasion. Unlike with her own clothes shopping, price is no object for the dolls.

"I use only the best for the Divas. They wouldn't have it any other way. I buy all sorts of materials, but I love pink leopard skin and black-and-white polka dots," Rook said. "Once I start creating the dolls, they take on a life of their own."

She picked up a doll with just the body and head attached and demonstrated how her dolls are created. She attached the arms, legs to the body. Then she examined the doll intently for a few moments.

"This doll I'm holding is sweet and young and innocent," Rook said. "She wants something soft and feminine."

She added blond hair and chose boots and a purse and quickly sewed a hat.

Rook walked over to a bin and selected a strand of beads in a light-pearl color and wrapped them around the doll's neck, making a choker. After that, she chose a white boa.

"The dolls evolve," Rook said. "It takes me about 90 minutes to do one. They wear stuff I'd never do for myself. No mother would. We spend it on our kids. And, you couldn't walk down the street dressed like one because people would think you're a naughty lady."

As for her inspirations for the dolls, Rook looks at people wherever she goes. She is particularly fascinated with noses.

"I look at everyone's nose. I love noses," Rook said. "I hand-sculpt every nose individually and sometimes my dolls turn out like someone I know. When I look at my dolls, I think of Barbra Streisand."

Wrapping a white boa around her shoulders, Rook said she is mulling a new series of dolls called Gently Worn Brides.

"They'll be realistic. Well-endowed and saggy everywhere, with middle-aged spread, " she said. "When you're 50, you aren't perfect anymore. But, you still have the same likes and dislikes, and you are still the same person inside. You wish you could get by with the things the Divas wear."

Bel Air Festival for the Arts

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 18, rain or shine

Where: Shamrock Park on Hickory Avenue (behind Bel Air Town Hall)

Admission: Free

Activities: The festival will feature arts and crafts booths, live entertainment, performers roving through the crowds, food.

Shuttle: A free bus will shuttle festival visitors from the MVA parking lot at MacPhail Road and Route 24.

Information: 410-836-2395, or visit

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