Photos by Carl Neitzert of Creative Photo, Columbia, Missouri
A go-to material for dishware, vases, figurines, and — of course — dolls, porcelain is delicate and requires careful handling, but its fragility is deceptive. Porcelain has endured and holds enduring appeal because both collectors and artists respond to its luster, texture, and allure.
One of the leading figures among the doll world’s porcelain mavens is Missouri-based artist Dianna Effner. Always creative, Dianna grew up in Park Forest, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Her parents were also artistic, so they encouraged their daughter to follow her passions. In college she studied painting, sculpture, and ceramics, but the 1960s, when she attended art school, was a time that frowned upon lifelike realism.
“Realistic figurative art was discouraged by my instructors. I had to learn realistic sculpture on my own after college,” Effner said. Her penchant for absorbing and understanding new techniques served her well. “I started making dolls in the late ’70s. First I had an opportunity to sculpt for a porcelain-doll company in Illinois before I had made any dolls myself. Later I bought a kiln so I could learn to make porcelain dolls.”
The tireless artist has worked within the doll industry for approximately 40 years. Throughout these decades, she has watched different styles of dolls come and go, but her connection to porcelain has remained strong. While she has worked with vinyl and continues to do so, her reputation as a porcelain master and mentor remains unchallenged.
Effner resides in rural Missouri. Her husband, Randall, built their timber-frame house, which is near her very active, very productive studio. “It is in the very small town of Jamestown — population 320, give or take. Jamestown is two miles from the homestead. The building that houses the studio is the historic Jamestown Mercantile, which was built before the Civil War. We remodeled it in the 1990s,” Effner said.
The studio has witnessed American history, and it also has been the launch pad for significant moments and milestones in doll history, too. “The old Jamestown Mercantile houses The Doll Studio, where Geri Uribe and I paint dolls, develop prototypes, and design new dolls. We have made hundreds of porcelain dolls over the past 25 years there. It is also a meeting place for the studio doll pros of the Doll Dreamers’ Guild — the DDG. For many years, it was also the place for hosting the DEEP Technique seminars. [DEEP was an acronym for Dianna Effner Eye Painting.] The Expressions building was built next door to the Mercantile. The Expressions office and warehouse are the home of the Expressions mold company.”
One of Effner’s greatest accomplishments is her commitment to spreading the news about doll collecting, creating, and commerce. She is a big believer in instructing and encouraging — hoping to inspire original artists, as well as giving dilettantes the opportunity to try their hands at reproductions and gain the appreciation for the porcelain art form.
“In 1992, we launched Expressions, a family business that produced molds for the hobby industry. At that time, there were a lot of studios around the United States and also abroad that were engaged in porcelain-doll making. Antique dolls were very popular. We were among the first to offer artist-designed doll molds for hobbyists,” she said.
Another way in which Effner has paved a path for future artists is with her Doll Dreamers Guild. “I created the DDG when I was still very involved with teaching dollmakers to paint realistic eyes,” she said. “I don’t teach seminars anymore, but my tutorials can be seen on my forums — the Doll Dreamers Guild and the Reborn Revolution. If interested, first you have to join the social network DollCrafters.ning.com, and then you can pay the annual fee to join the forums. There you can watch the videos, share thoughts, and discuss with the other members.”
The DDG holds a special place in Effner’s heart. For many years, it served as a physical representation of the artist’s belief in porcelain, professionalism, and self-expression. “Our motto was ‘The Doll Dreamers Guild: In Pursuit of Excellence.’ The discipline of porcelain dollmaking prepared all of us for professional doll artistry.”
Recalling her experiences with the DDG, Effner is touched by the loyalty that its members showed to her and to their dollmaking skills. Whether the creation of a doll was a full-time vocation or a part-time avocation, Effner always sensed that her students, colleagues, peers, and instructors were as passionate about their work as she was toward her own.
“All of the professional artists of the DDG were porcelain dollmakers and some were teachers of porcelain dollmaking when we met back in the 1990s. They came to my seminars and later joined the guild as instructors of DEEP technique. I want to acknowledge my faithful DDG members who have stuck with me through the years,” Effner said. “Lana Dobbs, Nelly Valentino, Pat Green, Joyce Mathews, and Helen Skinner, and, of course, Geri Uribe were charter members of the DDG. Tillie Drake and Gwen Peard are also charter members who have given their support through the years. Magalie Dawson is a veteran porcelain dollmaker who has joined the Little Darling team of artists recently.”
The Little Darlings are custom-painted 13-inch vinyl dolls sculpted by and available through Dianna Effner’s Doll Studio. In addition to Dawson, DDG veterans Dobbs, Valentino, Green, Mathews, Skinner, and Uribe lend their painting talent and artistic sensibilities to customizing the Little Darling dolls.
“The Little Darlings get so many rave reviews from collectors. It pleases me when my work brings joy to my collectors. I get that compliment a lot. In 2017, I will introduce a new head in the Little Darling series, Little Darling #4. I will also be introducing my Darling ball-jointed doll (BJD),” the artist said.
Continuing to gain a loyal following and a fan base of devoted collectors, Dianna Effner has grown as an artist, a businesswoman, an advocate, and an enthusiast for the doll-art world. Though her days are often spent now dealing with the Little Darling line, she has never lost her infatuation and respect for porcelain: “We all still love porcelain, although we may not have a lot of time to make porcelain dolls these days. It is beautiful stuff!”