Copy of Melissa Ichiuji Teaching

Artist Melissa Ichiuji guides workshop participants in creating soft sculptures.

Doll Faces

Dolls are the stuff of dreams and of nightmares, infused with supernatural powers by their owners. Small children tell favorite dolls their innermost secrets and wishes, caring for them meticulously, while other toys are easily…

Dolls are the stuff of dreams and of nightmares, infused with supernatural powers by their owners. Small children tell favorite dolls their innermost secrets and wishes, caring for them meticulously, while other toys are easily tossed aside or forgotten. These mini-people made of plastic and cloth, wood and hair may also exude a creepiness—are they watching us? Movies like “Poltergeist,” “Chucky” and “Annabelle” inspire terror, while “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Pinocchio” and “Toy Story” bring joy.

Patricia de Poel Wilberg considers her soft sculpture.
[/media-credit] Patricia de Poel Wilberg considers her soft sculpture.

D.C. native Melissa Ichiuji has been experimenting with the doll form in her art practice for decades, creating works from metal armature, wooden dowels, cloth and padding, as well as objects steeped in personal meaning. “I use the term ‘doll’ as a metaphor for a blank canvas on which to project the psyche,” said Ichiuji, an alumna of the Duke Ellington School for the Arts and the Corcoran College of Art and Design. “They call to mind a time in our youth when we were not so burdened by personal histories and illusions of limits. We draw on qualities that made dolls of our childhood appealing such as a sense of possibility, freedom, play and comfort.”

Ichiuji’s dolls, or soft sculptures, are elevated, beautifully constructed fine art that build upon the traditions of Louise Bourgeois’ startling objects of pain and Florine Stettheimer’s figures made as sketches for her dance costume designs. Ichiuji started her career as a dancer and actor, traveling the world with theater companies. These experiences contribute greatly to her work, evident in her knowledge of anatomy, movement and the expressive power of the human form.

During an intense creative period, filled with exhibitions and travel, the artist received several invitations to teach. “I didn’t think I could squeeze in another commitment, but I was drawn to just go ahead and start,” Ichiuji said. “The classes have really taken on a life of their own. They have become a strong extension of my studio and compliment and reinforce my own practice and production.

“I presumed people wanted to study with me because they liked my artwork, so I began by teaching the building process I use for my own work, which was less about formal rules and more about spontaneity and personal narrative.”

Patricia de Poel Wilberg and her Cicada Woman.
[/media-credit] Patricia de Poel Wilberg and her Cicada Woman.

This fall, Ichiuji began teaching a series of workshops through Artist & Makers in Rockville, sharing her methods with practiced artists and novices alike. The resulting works—which range from graceful ballerinas to lamenting widows and a cicada/woman emerging triumphant from its shell—are a testament to Ichiuji’s ability to create a safe, warm space for her students to express themselves—from joy to grief—and even physical pain.

“My class is not about doll making in the traditional sense,” Ichiuji said. “If you want to make a sweet plaything for your niece, this is probably not the class for you. My goal is to provide a nurturing, inclusive environment where people can feel free to express their darkest fears and anxieties and wildest most delicious fantasies and dreams.”

At the start of each session, Ichiuji sets the tone for the day by asking participants to move, dance, breathe deeply and let go of inhibitions to live, for a few short hours, in a space of creation. “I teach these classes because we have a deficit in our culture,” the artist said. “We have a deficit of connection to our interior lives, a lack of face-to-face connection and outlets for creative expression. I believe that a broader movement toward peace and joy begins with our own center of truth, and if more people attended to their emotional wellness through art making, we would be a much healthier society.”

Strangers at the outset, workshop participants have become artistic partners and sources of emotional support. “In our culture, self-indulgence is usually associated with easy fixes, narcissism and quick satisfaction, which all lead to feelings of emptiness and disconnection,” Ichiuji said. “My classes are definitely self-indulgent in the most constructive way. They encourage deep introspection and engagement.”

Guise and Dolls students work on their dolls.
[/media-credit] Guise and Dolls students work on their dolls.

Many participants have taken the class several times. While Natalie Korytnk Forrester had never made art before, she has taken every class in series with Ichiuji. Her creations are remarkable in their quality of construction, visual appeal and powerful personal revelations. The sculpture she calls “Baby Love” is a sophisticated composition of muslin and found objects imbued with potent iconography. “There was a discussion in the class—everyone was talking about their kids—and I felt a sadness for not having my own children,” Forrester said. “So, it evolved into baby love, and I guess, baby loss.”

A black veil flows around the figure’s head, while tiny plastic pacifiers sewn to the chest represent nipples, and a king cake plastic baby, caged in red, is attached by an umbilical-like string to the figure, while tiny eggs rest on her stomach. “She’s looking back at the baby in the cage she didn’t have,” Forrester said. The piece explores fertility, love and sexuality. On the base of the sculpture, gravel taken from the driveway of a property she shared with her late husband bring texture and a natural element to the work. “This is [also] unconsciously about the death of my husband. He died three years ago, almost to the day. I think when I finished this piece, it did look like a widow who lost her baby.”

Natalie Korytnk Forrester gazes at her creation.
[/media-credit] Natalie Korytnk Forrester gazes at her creation.

This is just one example of the personal stories participants told in these workshops. Ichiuji’s rare ability to draw out these stories through art making is exceptional. Pain and tears are laid bare, and, with the artist’s gentle guidance, that pain is transformed into beauty, as are the secret fantasies and dreams of who the participants strive to become.

“Perhaps you are not well or suffering from an illness or major loss and decide you want to create a sculpture that expresses that situation,” Ichiuji said. “Looking for relief, we often turn to destructive forms of escape. The act of creating a work of art, especially a self-portrait, is a gesture of love. When we extend kindness and compassion to discomfort, its power to hurt us is eased.”

The group of participants has become incredibly close-knit over time, sharing their stories, laughing, singing and connecting. Ichiuji realized the work they are making should be seen by others, and coordinated with Artist & Makers to organize an exhibition. “I am continually delighted and honored by my students’ willingness to share their stories and express the content of their souls through their work,” the artist said. “I have about 22 students participating, and for several of them, this will be their first experience showing their artwork. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to share what has thus far been a very insular creative process.”

A few spots remain in Ichiuji’s two-day workshop on Oct. 28 and 29 at the Town of Somerset Town Hall building, 4510 Cumberland Ave., Chevy Chase; register at “Progeny” will fill all three galleries at Artists & Makers Studios, 11810 Parklawn Drive, Rockville, from Nov. 3 to 21. An opening reception is set for 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 3. Hours for viewing are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 240-437-9573 or visit Learn more about this exhibit on CultureSpotMC here.