When Susan Barnes was expecting her first child almost four decades ago, she could not know that the doll she created to decorate the child’s room would take her on a journey that would include her daughter, Kate, and bring comfort and courage to people around the world.
“When I was pregnant with my first child, Ezra,” Barnes said, “I decided to make a figure that would hang on the wall of his bedroom to give him the courage to travel and to meet people throughout his life.” When her second child, Kate, came along, she did the same for her.
“After a while, though, I realized that kids don’t need encouragement to explore the world. It’s the adults who need to be reminded to recapture their sense of adventure,” Barnes said during a recent interview. This became clear when she gave a similar doll to a godchild and found that women who saw that doll were making requests for dolls of their own.
Barnes began to make and sell batches of dolls, which she called “Travelers,” whenever she could fit the work into the demands of parenting and her painting career. As each group of dolls was completed, Kate, who was still quite young, would marvel over them. “Every time, I was amazed,” Kate Barnes said. “I felt I went on an imaginative journey when I saw them.”
By the age of 5, she helped her mother with simple tasks in the doll-making process. When she was in high school on Long Island, N.Y., she took the train into New York City and sold the dolls. When she attended college, she began to make and sell the completed dolls, too. With her mom on the East Coast and daughter on the West, the Travelers had become a mother-and-daughter enterprise that literally spanned the country.
Today both Barneses both reside in Maine. Susan lives and works in her studio in Oakland. Kate’s in Biddeford, where she not only has a home-painting and doll-making studio but she also teaches art at the Kennebec Montessori School in nearby Fairfield. Mother and daughter occasionally sell their dolls together at crafts and country fairs.
They may also be reached at www.cargostudios.org. The handmade dolls are priced at between $70 and $80 each.
“The dolls have evolved over the years,” Kate Barnes said. While today’s Travelers have plaster heads with faces beautifully hand-painted in gouache paint, the first dolls had faces drawn with colored pencils. “They were much more primitive,” Susan Barnes said.
All of the dolls carry bundles signifying the fact that they are on the move from one place to another. Many carry sticks, seashells, berries or other items from nature. Their clothing is made of recycled fabric and other embellishments chosen to reflect a certain look, which Susan Barnes says comes from the doll makers’ sense of the Travelers as “coming from different landscapes rather than from specific cultures.”
Both mother and daughter have found a sense of surprise and wonder in the way the dolls seem to resonate with the people who purchase them. “People seem to bring their own experience to the dolls, and they see different things in them. It’s really fascinating to hear what they have to say,” Susan Barnes said. One woman even said her Traveler moves through her dream landscapes.
The dolls do journey some distances. The first three dolls sold at this year’s Designing Woman show in Bar Harbor were purchased for new owners in Israel, Nebraska and Canada. “When that happened,” Susan Barnes said, “I thought, ‘The Travelers are really out there traveling!’”
ROSEMARY HERBERT PHOTOS
Kate Barnes (left) and her mother, Susan Barnes, make dolls that they call “Travelers” (above). The handmade creations sell for $70-80 each.