AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
What do Victorian New England and Mexico have in common? Certainly not the climate. But local artist Margarita Hernandez-Maxson brings the folk art of both together in surprising ways in her handcrafted dolls, currently on exhibit, along with her paintings, at the Gallery at the Lighthouse in Groton.
A native of Tulancingo, Mexico, Hernandez-Maxson came to Connecticut seven years ago after falling in love with her future husband, John Maxson-a native of Mystic-while he was traveling through her country. The couple now resides in New London with their 4-year-old son Iain.
An artist in high school, Hernandez-Maxson went on to study for three years with Alejandro Rodriquez Creel, a professional painter from Mexico City.
"I learned as much as I could from him about traditional oil painting and drawing," she says.
The idea to make dolls came with the birth of Iain. Hernandez-Maxson says she didn't want to expose her infant to the toxicity of oils, so she put painting on hold for a bit.
A curious nature and love of research led her to learn about New England traditions of doll making. She discovered that there were folk art dolls made prior to the Civil War that "weren't worn out and were still alive."
This led her to a Rhode Island doll maker from the Victorian Age named Izannah Walker.
"I read about her," Hernandez-Maxson explains. "She lived in a small town, raised her own food, chopped her own wood, and was a seamstress. She was a very busy person living in a very harsh place in the winter and she still found time to make dolls."
Hernandez-Maxson decided to figure out how Walker made her hand-sewn dresses and to master the techniques of Victorian New England sewing. Her challenge was to make dolls equally as durable and lasting that could stand the test of her 4-year-old son who, she says, "like all little boys is very tough. All things in his hands, he breaks."
She then added Mexican hand-embroidery and began infusing her dolls with the rich and colorful traditions of her culture.
"When my son was born, I spent a lot of time sitting on the couch feeding him and then had my two hands free to sew," Hernandez-Maxson recalls. "Ideas would just pop up in my mind in a second. I'd see a very clear vision. I always have a notebook with me so I can make a quick sketch. (I thought) how can I bring to reality my fantasies and dreams and make them something that can be seen by others, to share with them-not just in my head?"
Her whimsical winged skeleton doll in yellow skirt and boots is an example of New England and Mexican traditions blended together.
"Skeletons are a very old tradition, a subject that goes as far back as the Spanish Conquest," she says. "They're not really dead, but passing to another life, and are as much a representation of humans. If we're tall or short or fat, in the end we get rid of skin, muscles everything-we are all skeletons, we are all the same."
This skeleton doll is a playful, colorful form because that's how Mexicans see it, says Hernandez-Maxson. On the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) the lives of the deceased are celebrated as much as mourned. The first day of the holiday, Nov. 1, is in memory of people who died in childhood, which is what she says this doll represents. She added wings to the doll after a friend pointed out that skeletons with wings can be found on Victorian-era gravestones.
One of Hernandez-Maxson's newest pieces titled "Angel Asleep" reflects this theme. It features a small doll sculpted of clay on galvanized wire, dressed in antique fabric, lying at the foot of the stairs in a house constructed of papier-mâché, her angel's wings hanging on a coat rack above her.
"She represents all of us," says Hernandez-Maxson. "We do things for people, and at the end of the day, we go back to our houses hungry and tired, and all we want to do is take off our wings and fall asleep. After all, we are humans and need the rest. Every time we do something nice for people-big or small-we get angel wings."
Images of childlike wonder
Several of Hernandez-Maxson's vibrant allegorical oil paintings are included in the exhibit and, like her dolls, employ the same sense of fun and wonder
In "No Wake," sleeping children are pulled in a boat by a whale through the clouds above Mystic in the 19th century. The scene was inspired by old black-and-white photos of the town that were in her husband's family, which goes back many generations in the greater New London area.
"It's a potpourri of all of Mystic," she says. "It's not accurate, but the houses are from 200 years ago."
The meaning, she adds, of the sleeping children with no adults in the picture is the idea of letting children be children with their own dreams and personalities.
A young girl in a picture Hernandez-Maxson saw in an old National Geographic magazine was the impetus for the magical "Hunting Starry Night." The girl was in a boat with her family, looking for gold in the mosquito-infested Amazon River.
"She looked very strong to me," Hernandez-Maxson says. And so she painted the girl as a starfish hunter riding on her own boat, catching a bounty of starfish from both the sea and sky.
Hernandez-Maxson is looking forward to giving a doll-making demonstration at the Gallery at The Light House on March 20.
"I'm moving my whole studio to Chris's gallery-sewing machine, clay, wire, pliers, scissors, fabrics." she says. "It's like the lab of Dr. Frankenstein. I'm going to let people play with materials and try their hands at making a doll using Victorian techniques."