“We say that a girl with her doll anticipates the mother. It is more true, perhaps, that most mothers are still but children with playthings.”
— Francis Herbert Bradley
She’s not a doll-collector, but a doll-restorer: an artist with a desire to fix things, repair them, instill life and love in something that was once cherished but has, over time, become deteriorated and sad.
Felicia Casey, surrounded by a beautiful bog with swans gliding gracefully across the water on Hawley’s Corner Road in Highland, says that she has always been a “Little Miss Fix-it,” who, from the time she was young into her adult years, just “had to find a way to fix a picture frame, or a lamp, or a doorknob…”
Casey says that it’s really about having the “bravery to fix things and not be afraid to use anything you can get your hand on that properly does the trick.” She says that she grew up “in a family that was poor enough where, if you tore a pair of pants or scraped a shoe, you’d better be resourceful enough to fix it yourself, so that you didn’t get teased in high school!”
But she’s also an artist, and those two skills have dovetailed throughout her life, as she became a professional graphic designer and served as the artistic director of a large magazine. Throughout her home are paintings that explode with color. One, Spring Tulip Promises, makes the eyes dance with such rich color and texture. Asked what medium she used for the painting she said, “Anything that gave me the right color and feel: Magic Markers, pastels, lipstick…”
She has combined an artistic flair with her fix-it nature and found herself repairing antique dolls — her business, Swan Hollow Doll Repair. While it may seem a particular artform, there’s an entire subculture of doll-collectors, doll-restorers, doll-repair people and clients who just want their beloved doll or stuffed animal to be imbued with the life and charm and magic that it had for them as a child. Her studio is filled with antique dolls in various states, from dismembered, discolored and deteriorated to completely repaired and rosy-cheeked, with flirty, blinking eyes and freshly washed, sewn and delightful clothing.
This passion began when her great-aunt gave her an old composition doll (circa 1920), where the body was molded out of sawdust and glue with a thick layer of acrylic paint on top that “always cracks — unless you were someone who had dolls in a perfect climate-controlled room in the 1920s, which I’d gather almost no one did!” The head was all broken, the body coming apart, the paint cracked; and Casey put her mind and hands and talent to work and restored it.
Then a friend of hers, whose wife had a “beautiful antique ethnic composition doll,” asked Casey if she knew of anyone who might be able to repair it. “I can repair it!” she said.
Thus, the Swan Hollow Doll and Stuffed Animal business began in her basement.
“This is Chub,” she said, pointing to an adorable, chunky boy doll known as a “Mama’s Doll” that dates back to the 1930s. His eyes blink cutely as you cuddle him, and he calls for his Mom from an old cow-box inside. “He came to me with all kinds of terrible cracks in his head, his body deteriorating from temperature fluctuations, and I thought, ‘What a shame to throw him away. What a shame to throw any doll away that someone once loved, and if repaired could last another 50 to 100 years and be passed on to a child or grandchild and become a family heirloom.”
So she went to work on Chub, also washing and sewing his Gerber doll clothing, and then sold him on eBay for $70. “A woman from Australia saw pictures of Chubs and said she ‘had to have him,’ but the shipping alone was $49, and she ended up losing in the bid. How can you not love him?” she says, turning him so that his blue eyes blink.
Then there are dolls that literally come to her in several pieces, arms and legs detached, the original color gone or molded — things that look unsalvageable until they get into Ms. Felicia Casey’s hands. She secures them with rubber bands, sews on new backings, carefully mixes just the right-color paint to return the doll to its original color and painstakingly repairs cracks, replaces lost eyes and toes and fingers and either uses vintage cloth swaths to make clothing that fits the era and make of the doll, or washes and refurbishes the clothes that it came with.
Casey also has a collection of handmade poppets: English-styled dolls that disappear into a cone and then pop out when a child pushes up the wooden stick. She has Tooth Fairy poppets and angel poppets and holiday poppets, all made from recycled material, cones from twine, fabric and accoutrements from thrift stores.
Asked what she enjoys about repairing these dolls and returning them to their owner, or to some buyer that craves them, she thought for a minute and said, “I know that dolls are a very big piece of a woman’s life. Almost every woman you talk to will remember a doll that she had and that will evoke childhood memories, or a stuffed animal. Why keep them wrapped up in cloth in a dresser drawer or in a box in the attic, when they can be repaired and returned to that woman’s life, or her daughter’s life or granddaughter’s life?”