By Pam North
Marianna Nardin creates themed dolls that follow major holidays like Christmas, Easter, and, she said, “my favorite holiday, Halloween, as you probably could guess from the spooky nature of my characters. The walls in my studio are decorated with a Halloween theme all year round!”
Born in Venice, Italy, Marianna Nardin was a creative child. “I remember that I loved sewing clothes for my dolls and making furniture from old cardboard boxes for my doll house,” she recalled. “Art and creativity always have been in my heart.”
She studied art and fashion design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice and became a fashion designer. She began making her own dolls while she was still a student. “I remember passing in front of these fantastic shops full of handmade masks and puppets. They inspired me, and I always was trying to create similar pieces for myself.”
She emigrated to London in 2001, where she had a small fashion business, Blackmirror Design, selling her creations through Etsy. “I worked full-time as an independent fashion designer, and my clothing line sold all over the world. My dollmaking didn’t become a profession until 2012,” Nardin said. “When I started selling my first dolls on Etsy, I was still working on my fashion business.”
Nardin’s first paper-clay doll creations were made for her own private collection. “I had started making dolls as a hobby, but the passion for sculpture became stronger, and I had to make the decision to make the leap totally into the world of art dolls.”
She created The Circus of Lost Dolls website in 2016 as her online shop, as well as selling dolls in her Etsy store. Eventually, she quit fashion design to work on dolls full-time.
While she was living in London she met and married her Italian-born husband. They moved from the UK to the United States in 2017, and now live in Georgia with their two cats and a dog.
While often holiday-themed, Nardin’s designs are unique, fantastical characters, each with its own look and quirky personality. “My inspiration can come from movies, locations, or even directly from materials such as fabrics. Some of my best-selling characters are the Moons, which were inspired by the tarot decks that I collect. Some of my latest works are inspired by historical events or characters, or by novels such as ‘Alice in Wonderland.’
“The more I create, the more I want to change my style or experiment with new materials and techniques. Every new piece I make is different from the previous one. I am meticulous — I always want to improve and change the look of my creations; I want them to be unique and always different from each other, because in each one of them there is artistic, technical, and personal life evolution. People change over the years and so does my art. There are many factors that influence my work: my state of mind, the environment that surrounds me. I am often inspired to create something new just by observing the world around me.
“Everything about creating a doll is challenging and takes time, especially if the doll has many details on the sculpt, costume, and hair style. Working with paper clay is a complex process composed of multiple steps requiring a lot of patience.”
Nardin uses air-dry paper clay as her primary medium. “Some dolls are completely sculpted, while others are mixed media, created with fabric. “It depends on the type of character I want to create at that moment,” she explained. “Some of my dolls have a cloth body, with sculpted head and limbs; some have internal metal wire armatures. Some are part clay-sculpted and part soft-sculpted with wool. For bodies and hair styles, I use the needle-felting technique.”
Recently, she’s experimented with new techniques to build and paint bodies in a more realistic style. She added articulation to her doll bodies through armatures created with cotton cloth, wool, or metal to allow movement in the arms and legs. She adds a wooden ball at each joint, creating knees and elbows. She sews carved paper-clay hands into a small hole at the end of her fabric arm section, allowing them to move also.
Her new painting technique involves applying oil colors with a sponge rather than a brush, which imparts a more realistic effect once the face has been painted and left to dry. Nuances are generated with brushed pastel colors.
While mass production and 3D printing gets a great deal of attention in the doll collecting world, Nardin said she’s found that handmade dolls are becoming more sought-after. “Luckily, there are still many collectors who appreciate and buy only handmade. I don’t think collectors are decreasing. Indeed, there are many young people who prefer to buy unique creations. It is a niche industry, and I do not see it becoming mainstream in the future, but that is exactly what makes it fascinating.”