By Wil Peterson
Sandra Maxwell’s recipe for doll-design success includes sweetness, light, and all things “Punkin.” Mixed with her determination and tenacity, she has produced a line featuring bite-sized ball-jointed doll (BJD) tykes who pull at heart strings.
The 18-centimeter Punkin characters have various resin tones and facial expressions ranging from merry to morose, depending on how the features are painted and the mood the artist wants to convey. “They are chubby little toddlers,” Maxwell said. “Each doll has a different face with a unique personality.”
Since her Punkin dolls debuted in 2019, Maxwell has been a one-woman operation, making everything except wigs, which are carefully and strategically sourced. She designs each doll, decides on a theme or vibe, and then finishes the project by sewing outfits and creating footwear and other accessories. “I typically clothe them in cottons and knits,” she said. “I try to costume them in ‘everyday wear,’ with the exception of one-of-a-kind (OOAK) costumes I do for my dolls for display at doll shows. That can consist of anything.”
Like many BJD artists, Maxwell is an example of do-it-yourself drive and self-taught skills. A resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the mother of two daughters, she had a bachelor’s degree in art and design and an extensive art background before she decided to focus on dollmaking in 2005. “I have always loved dolls. I actually made some cloth dolls back in my teens,” she said. “When my girls were babies, I came across reborn dolls. At first, I painted reborn kits, but I soon decided to take a shot at sculpting. I have many polymer clay babies residing with collectors across the globe. I also had two of my dolls made into vinyl kits. I dabbled in some silicone animals before finding my place with the resin BJDs. If I see something I like, I try to make it. I’ve been this way since I was a child. I must always be creating something.”
Punkin resulted from Maxwell’s growing confidence in her dollmaking abilities. The year 2014 was a pivotal point. “I had always wanted to try sculpting a BJD. After many years of being afraid to try, I finally made the effort by reading books, watching videos, and studying other artists’ work,” she said. “I would like to say that Punkin was the first, but I have many heads and limbs floating around my studio. I finally sculpted a little head that I fell in love with. I kept calling her Punkin as I worked on her, and the name stuck.”
Maxwell’s creative process is firmly established and begins with sculpting dolls in clay, followed by designing and sculpting new physiques. “I always try to challenge myself with a new body. What would I like to see in a doll? I probably spend at least a year trying to tweak the sculpt to be the best that it can be,” she said. “Most people don’t understand the engineering that goes into a BJD — all of the pieces fitting and working together. It does take time. Sculpting, fitting the joints, sanding, fitting, resculpting, and on and on. After all that work, that is why we just make new heads and use the body again.”
With both of her daughters now in college, Maxwell pursues doll design on a full-time basis. She participates in doll shows across the country and often presents workshops as a way of connecting with Punkin devotees. “I love my collectors,” she said. “One of the great joys is interacting with them at shows or on my Facebook ‘Punkin Page.’ I started the page so that collectors could hang out and share photos. It has become a great little community. I often share little events, patterns, and videos.”
Maxwell — who received a 2020 Dolls Awards of Excellence Industry’s Choice Award for the male Punkin Pie — intends to keep serving variations of her tiny BJD. “I originally planned on doing four dolls — one for each season,” she said. “But a few collectors have told me that they need more!” As a result, Maxwell has been working on a new Punkin and said she plans to have the doll released for the Ball-Jointed Doll Convention in June.
In addition, Maxwell’s creative agenda for the year includes a totally different BJD with Mini Super Dollfie proportions. Noting a late 2024 release, she said, “I designed her to have double joints for maximum posing options. I plan to offer a line of clothing patterns to go along with her.”