Photos courtesy of Sarah Maldonado
The past few months have been very busy for me. Beyond work duties and family commitments, I’ve also been very involved with catching up with my personal passion — the theater, darlings. Yes, one of the many careers I’ve had in my life involved the footlights, the bright lights, the big-city egos and the small-town dreamers. I loved the years I spent first as an intern and then as a marketing manager, casting assistant, and new development administrator. Like they always say, you can take the girl off the stage, but you can’t take the stage out of the girl! (Well, I know that’s not exactly what they say, but the sentiment is close enough.)
I managed to attend lots of shows this season through trade organizations, volunteering as a group leader for theater kids, asking for tickets as gifts, digging into my own pocket to buy some (gulp!), and luckily winning a few in lotteries. Yep, it’s been culture-hog heaven here for me, and one of the doll artists that always reminds me of a good drama, a well-done musical, and a celebration of Tony Award–winning costuming is Sarah Maldonado. Like many theatrical types — and Maldonado has her performing connections, too — she is known to her many fans as Ms Mollie O: “My company is named after my maternal grandmother whose given name was Mollie. Her friends and contemporaries called her Ms O, so Ms Mollie O. She was an intelligent, elegant, and most engaging gentlewoman. These are some of the attributes I aspire to portray through my porcelain ladies, no matter which culture or era they depict.”
Many of Maldonado’s lovely ladies seem to be the heroines of a period piece, a reminder of more genteel and formal times. When I look at them, I see characters that could stride across the stage in any play by Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, or Oscar Wilde. (Wow, that’s a trifecta of talent.) Her dolls and their sumptuous costuming speak of women who are confident in their good looks, and they also coax and bond with women collectors of today, urging them to consider their own secret hopes and desires. (Look at all the female viewers who follow the romantic antics of “Outlander,” the still-streaming [thank God] “Downton Abbey,” and “Poldark.”) Ms Mollie O’s dolls are opulent, overtly sophisticated, and old-fashioned in a sweeping epic way.
One of the reasons why her dolls have such a regal carriage is that Maldonado herself has a ballet/dance background. Even though she chose to make her professional career in the sciences/health care field — Maldonado is a bright and disciplined woman — she could have pursued a life in the arts as a member of a dance troupe. She told me, “I began classical ballet lessons when I was five and performed both classical and modern ballet throughout high school and college. Although my parents were supportive of my interest in dance and fashion, I am sure they breathed a sigh of relief when I chose to pursue a career in science rather than join the corps de ballet, as that probably meant a more stable financial future.”
Having spent many days of her youth in sewing classes, encouraged by her mother, and taking intense, physically demanding practice with the aspiring ballerinas, Maldonado developed an appreciation for fabrics and fantasy garments. She also honed her discipline, her physical strength, and her mental toughness. It takes a solid backbone and a sturdy spine — figuratively and literally — to transform into the swan in “Swan Lake.”
Throughout graduate school and her postdoctoral research, she continued to pursue her performing-arts ambitions. Even though she was going to follow a path in medicine, she wasn’t ready to snip the gossamer threads that held her to the world of dance and drama. She sought out and excelled at master classes and open group practices.
When Maldonado took her final bow in the health care field and waved good-bye to that decision, she immediately set a goal for herself to learn doll making. Being an excellent seamstress and a self-taught, self-directed artist, she picked up quickly on the lessons she received in reproduction porcelain doll making. She loved the chance to deck these dolls out with elaborate costuming, but it soon was not enough. “I wanted to ‘own the process’ from start to finish, so I started to sculpt my own dolls. I continued to work in porcelain despite the fact that is so labor intensive and often poses technical difficulties one doesn’t encounter in other media,” she shared with me.
Having juggled such a hectic and challenging lifestyle for so long — student and dancer, career woman and performer — she was up to the demands of a porcelain studio. “I like its translucence and smoothness, as well as the depth and subtlety you can get with china-painting techniques. I have found that my background has been helpful in developing some skills needed in doll artistry,” Maldonado mused.
Beyond the ability to tackle the unforeseen, Maldonado also draws from her science background to construct well-crafted doll physiques: “Certainly anatomy has helped with sculpting body parts, and chemistry and engineering with mold-making, casting, and firing. The early sewing lessons have been invaluable.”
Whether she was aware of it or not, Maldonado had been pirouetting toward this final curtain call her whole life. Doll artistry has allowed her imagination to leap free and to twirl boldly. Her creations are lithe and mesmerizing, inviting collectors to share in the drama and to share in the “pas de deux.”
According to Sarah Maldonado, or Ms Mollie O: “My inspiration comes from many sources — a painting, historical fashion plate, a story (real or imagined), and sometimes from a beautiful fabric. I endeavor to portray elegance and serenity, and that can be appealing in the hectic atmosphere of the world today. Doll artistry has introduced me to many highly creative and multitalented people, and that has made things far more interesting in my life. I am so lucky that I have found this world. I am eternally grateful.”