By Wil Peterson
Carving out a successful niche wasn’t part of Marlene Xenis’ initial plan when she designed her first wooden doll. In fact, dollmaking hadn’t even registered on her creative radar prior to 1995, the year unexpected inspiration struck the single mother of three. Xenis Gallery’s wooden ball-jointed dolls (BJDs) have since experienced widespread sales, acclaim, and recognition, much to the Langley, British Columbia-based artist’s surprise and utter delight.
“I did not consciously decide to make dolls. One day, my mother showed me a floppy clown doll my aunt had made. It had a cloth face, cotton dress, and felt hands and feet,” Xenis recalled. “I thought it had a certain charm and decided to try making one with a painted wood face, wood body, hands and feet and incorporate music to give it more personality.” As one musical doll puppet quickly evolved into multiples, her daughter Tania provided the finishing touches. “Tania did an incredible job of painting the faces, adding dimension and emotion to each face she painted. People were drawn in by the painting of the eyes. It worked, and they were a success.”
Xenis Gallery’s official launch in 1995 allowed Xenis — assisted by daughters Tania and Jesse — to pursue her passion for producing BJDs that are both visually stimulating and eco-friendly. Fairy tales and children’s stories influence the design direction for characters, clothing, and accessories. The standard height is 12 inches, but exceptions have ranged from 6 inches to more than 40 inches. Music boxes, small carved animals, and other wooden accessories are included with some dolls. Meanwhile, custom-tailored outfits, shoes, handmade hats, and other items are available for mixing-and-matching options. “We also create custom dolls for collectors who desire something truly unique,” Xenis said. “We love the opportunity to customize a doll, especially for a collector, and to collaborate with them to create a doll of their dreams. The name Gallery of Wooden Wonders says it all, and the only limit is your imagination.”
Changes and challenges in recent years have been part of Xenis Gallery’s perpetually evolving story. Tania’s death in 2022 left a void that continues to be felt on a personal and professional level by the small team, which includes carver-artists Young Ho Park and Ross Agro and fabrication specialist Issac Doo. But Xenis focuses on the lasting contributions that help keep her daughter’s spirit and memory vivid. “She was such a beautiful, caring person and an extremely talented and creative artist — such an integral part of the Xenis Gallery,” she said. “Her ideas, drawing, carving, and engineering skills were incredible to behold and made us what we are today. Her legacy is to continue to offer her beautiful designs of timeless wooden dolls to all collectors for as long as possible.”
Xenis’ preference for wood over other materials is a nod to history and her commitment to protecting the environment. “Articulated wooden dolls date as far back as 200 BCE, and I can certainly see why!” she said. “Wood is such a warm, tactile, durable, and accessible material. Over time, through touch and wear, it will take on the distinctive qualities of its owner. In a sense, wood will mature along with you. Wooden dolls have a long life and can be shared through generations.” As for environmental issues, she added, “We have always had a strong interest in promoting sustainable practices and believe that art should be beautiful and not toxic. Each of our little dolls does their tiny part to help capture carbon from the atmosphere, so by collecting wooden BJDs, you are actually doing something good for our planet.”
Diversification is arguably essential for any operation to remain relevant, and Xenis fully embraces that approach. Doll kits, which allow collectors to design their own characters, are a relatively new product that also is featured at doll-convention workshops. “Collectors who attend our workshops are very surprised at how labor-intensive it is to make a good wooden BJD,” she said. “Collectors were familiar with resin and plastic BJDs, where parts are produced by pouring into molds, and resin is much more flexible in allowing parts to snap into place. Working with wood, all the parts have to fit perfectly. There is no forgiveness to snap parts into place. This would be disastrous.”
Another recent focus, one-of-a-kind (OOAK) BJDs, has a dual-satisfaction goal. “The new OOAK dolls are definitely a departure and are an opportunity to offer our collectors something innovative and special, while giving our artists the chance to showcase their individual creative talents,” Xenis said. “They help us grow as creators by taking a traditional art form and exploring the possibilities.”
Xenis Gallery’s plans for 2024 and beyond include more releases of signature and custom dolls, all exclusively made from Xenis’ preferred material. Recent sneak peeks on the website featured photos and teaser details about an 18- to 24-inch Poseidon, Greek God of the Sea BJD, as well as the gallery’s first fully jointed Diva doll, which appears to have a fashion-figure look and vibe.
“We plan on sharing our wooden wonders with collectors for a very long time to come. There are so many stories, myths, and genres for us to explore that the sky’s the limit,” Xenis said. “We want to say a heartfelt thank you to all of our collectors and supporters who have been part of our creative journey. None of this would have been possible without them. We thank them for their patience, their belief in us, and, most of all, their love for our creations.”