By Wil Peterson
In the complex world of doll design, ball-jointed doll (BJD) artist Rhonda Ingram never faced a challenge she couldn’t conquer. Every potential obstacle is an opportunity for professional growth and creative freedom. She’s also not afraid to reinvent herself or pursue a fresh start by figuratively wiping the slate clean and starting over.
Ingram offers her whimsical line of creations under the name CreamSoda BJD. “One of my favorite places as a kid was the Pop Shoppe, and my all-time favorite flavor — of course, Cream Soda,” she said.
Working from her home studio in Nayarit, Mexico, what sets Ingram apart is the approach she uses to make her ideas a reality. Instead of relying on factories for production, Ingram is a one-woman operation. She envisions characters, designs all the necessary components, and creates them in her solar-powered studio. That involves sculpting, making molds, pouring resin, sanding parts, and then completing face-ups and blushing. She also sews outfits and makes wigs and accessories.
For Ingram, art is a lot like life: Changes — whether in the delicate lines on a doll’s face or the life-changing decision to relocate thousands of miles away — are essential and part of the journey. That mindset is especially important now, as shortages caused by the ongoing pandemic and other disruptions to manufacturing and shipping mean that her supply of resin is extremely limited right now.
“For now, I won’t be doing any more large dolls — anything over 8 inches tall — in an effort to make my remaining resin last as long as possible,” Ingram said. “Right now, suppliers are still guessing when materials might return to normal again, but I think it may possibly be four to eight months.”
Ingram won’t let this obstacle derail her creative momentum. Ozarks, her new line of 18 cm (7-inch) troll dolls, is scheduled to debut this year. Ingram’s excitement is palpable when she describes these fantasy figures. “Ozarks are a spin-off of the WeeBitz, a cute clan of garden elves. Collectors are loving WeeBitz, and I’m still adding sculpts to that line,” she said. “Ozarks are a more quirky group of Elvish trolls. So far there are three different clans, or types, of Ozarks: Oorks, Neebs, and Huckles. Oorks are very much what you may envision inhibiting spaces under bridges. Neebs are similar to Oorks but have slightly more human features, and Huckles have more animal features.”
“With animal-like features, the Huckles are the most gentle of the three Ozark clans,” the artist said. “With hearts of gold, these imaginative, naturally curious peacemakers can be a bit clingy, wanting to be a best buddy.” Ingram’s first two Huckles are Hyacinth and Hilo.
Ingram plans to introduce six dolls, two characters from each clan. More designs are already in the planning stages.
Her do-it-yourself spirit and can-do attitude have been hallmarks of Ingram’s doll-design adventure. At an early age, she was inspired to sew by her beloved grandmother’s love of the craft. That interest led to dabbling in other forms of art until she made a life-altering discovery.
“About 18 years ago, I accidentally happened across Japanese BJDs and instantly fell in love with the soul and expression that could be created in this art,” she said. “At that time, there was really no information or tutorials on how to make the dolls, so I began to teach myself and worked at it diligently to improve with every creation. I now try to be a leader in the art by introducing something new or never before seen in the doll industry with each new sculpt.”
Learning to Mold & Cast
Ingram initially sent doll designs to a China-based factory for production. Her patience was tested and gradually frayed as she waited for completed products. “It is not unusual for a collector to pre-order a doll and have to wait nine months to a year, or even longer, to receive it,” she said. “This was unavoidable but also unacceptable for me as an impatient artist, and it is what prompted me to start molding and casting my own dolls.”
During the next few years, Ingram learned how to make professional-quality silicone molds and resin casts. “It’s very messy, expensive, and an incredible amount of work,” she said. “But it was a good choice for me and for my collectors, as I now can cast, paint, wig, and dress a doll and be shipping in two to four weeks, as opposed to nine months to a year with a factory.”
Ingram creates her dolls at her solar-powered studio in Mexico, including the mold-making and resin casting stages.
Six years ago, Ingram decided to move from Alberta, Canada, to Nayarit, a small state in western Mexico. She had found an abandoned, off-grid house that seemed like a perfect creative space. Since conventional utilities are not available, solar and battery power are required to fuel her casting equipment and tools. “Moving to Mexico with my whole studio squished into a small cargo trailer was the first of many challenges I faced in this new land,” she said. “I landed safe and sound, with no Spanish language comprehension but a ton of determination.”
While she initially designed Super Dollfie- and Mini Super Dollfie-sized BJDs, Ingram transitioned to chunky and slim 1/6th-scale dolls. “As an artist I get bored easily and need to be challenged, hence I change my style often,” she said. But regardless of her size choice, the technical process never changes. “I do what I call ‘trance sculpting’. I kind of daydream while my hands take over and the story of who is being created fills my mind,” she said. “Before I know it, there it is, finished looking up at me and ready to fill hearts with smiles.”
Bee and Urff are the first two Oorks characters in Ingram’s new Ozarks line. “Oorks are strong-minded, self-centered, outspoken, rude at times, confident,” the artist said. “Oorks can often look a bit scary, but really it’s all just an act. They tend to say what they think — sometimes in a good way, sometimes in need of censoring.”
Ingram, who has two part-time assistants to help with minor tasks, accepts the inevitability of production delays. Inclement conditions can result in unexpected downtime or rescheduled tasks. “I suppose as a workaholic, it’s a blessing in disguise, or I probably would never take a day off,” she said.
Ingram views any other figurative speed bumps as part of her ever-evolving journey. Meanwhile, her life is entirely focused on nurturing 13 rescue dogs and sharing a unique version of BJD characters with receptive collectors. “I thank each and every one of you for supporting my work and inviting a little piece of me into your homes every time you adopt one of my creations,” she said. “Thank you for helping to keep the dust flying in the studio!”