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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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All Dolled Up: An Interview With Lakota Dollmaker Rhonda Holy Bear
Interview by Dawn Karima, Native American Culture Editor -

Barbie. Baby. China. That's what comes to mind when many people hear the word "Doll". Yet, for Lakota Dollmaker, Rhonda Holy Bear, dolls carry culture and character. Each of her dolls is a masterpiece on a visceral, artistic level.

DK: Breathtaking Masterpieces! Your art is amazing!

RHB: First of all, thank you for your flattery. "Masterpiece" is a tricky word. It's the kind of word that people sometimes bestow upon ones' work when they are moved by it. For me, it is my duty, as an artist, to learn from each piece and to make each work better than the last. Sometimes, the improvements are subtle. Sometimes they are more dramatic. As long as I am learning and growing as an artist, and, more importantly, as a human being, I feel I am answering my calling. Art is a document, a record, of a time and place in ones personal journey. It is a reflection of one's human experience, one to which others can, hopefully, relate.

DK: Agreed! I have a Master's Degree in Fine Arts and I also see art as a journey, since we are all a lot more alike than we are different. We can learn so much from each other's stories and those stories contained in our art. How does your artistic journey begin?

RHB: I made my first intricately adorned doll when I was about 17 years old. This doll was inspired by a story my grandmother had told me when I was a child. Although, I did not have a lot of money for materials, I was quite driven to create this piece and would let nothing get in the way of its completion. With my last 10 dollars, I purchased some cotton balls and a chamois. I crafted a doll body from my own pillow case and cut off some of my own hair with which to fashion the doll's wig. I had some beads and I used them to decorate the doll's dress, which I fashioned from the chamois.

DK: Fantastic! How did that make you feel?

RHB: It was very exciting for me to see a tangible work of art come into being from a strong desire to create. It was also very gratifying to see my grandmothers' story told in a piece of art.

DK: An act of love and honor for your grandmother launched your brilliant career?

RHB: At the time, I was working after school in an art gallery in Chicago. My employer picked me up for work one day and noticed my creation standing on my bookshelf. He asked about it and was impressed and surprised to learn that I had made it myself. He asked if I'd mind bringing it into the gallery to see if it generated any interest. It sold in a matter of hours. That was the beginning for me. It was a validation of my talent and it lead me to believe that I might be onto something.

DK: Wonderful! Now that you have created so many stunning dolls, do you have a favorite?

RHB: Each doll has been my favorite at the time I have been creating it. There have been hundreds of them. And they have all been my pride and joy. To choose one would be like choosing one's favorite child.

"Black and White" Dolls by Rhonda Holy Bear

DK: Well-said! Maybe even if you don't have a favorite, you could give us a highlight reel?

RHB: However, if I were to choose one story, it would have to be the story of the creation of my "black and white" dolls. It was around 1983 and I was doing research in the photographic library at the Chicago Field museum. I was studying photographs of Indians taken in the 1850's. These photos, were, of course, black and white. I found myself imagining what colors the clothing must have been. I wanted to create dolls that would pay homage to the people of this era.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to create the dolls in black and white, just as the people had appeared in the old photographs. I chose paint and bead colors in many shades of blacks, whites, and grays and created my first "black and white" dolls. It was an idea I had never seen executed before. These dolls pay homage to a time and place and also, stand out as one of my favorite artistic journeys into an unfamiliar medium.

DK: They are magnificent! Stirring!

RHB: First of all, thank you for your compliments. I do strive to capture the essence of the people and their culture. My work is imbued with my own memories of the faces I saw and of the stories I heard when I was a little girl. I am trying to tell stories in my work. If my work comes across in a way which honors tradition and culture, then I feel I have accomplished something important.

DK: Culture and Tradition are vital components of our lives as Native people. We see them strongly in each doll that you make. How do you blend your tribal heritage into your work?

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Member Rhonda Holy Bear makes intricate, highly adorned dolls that reflect her culture.

RHB: I feel that my dolls, intentionally or unintentionally, often resemble me in various ways. However, if I were to consciously create a portrait of myself in a doll, I would hope that it would depict a woman who was in touch with her culture and traditions. I would want it to depict the dignity of one, like my grandmother, who had knowledge and was a keeper of stories. I would like the face to convey the wisdom of one who had asked questions and had listened to and learned from the wisdom of her elders. I would hope that this doll would ultimately depict the kind of woman that younger generations would come to, seeking knowledge.

DK: Speaking of knowledge, what wisdom have you gained as you create?

RHB: There are so many lessons that I have learned, and continue learn, on my artistic journey. However, the most important lesson that I have learned is that my people had a deep understanding of life… long long ago. They had it all figured out. They truly lived in a manner which was harmonious with the earth and, furthermore, with the universe. If my art is to be a representation of anything, it will hopefully stand as a tribute to this sacred harmony and as a personal quest toward that harmony in my lifetime.

DK: As you have learned, you seem to be transmitting lessons through your beautiful dolls. What are some of the lessons you hope that each of us will learn as we enjoy your tremendous art?

RHB:As we are living in a modern world, I have access to social media. I share as much as I can of our history with those who have the desire to learn. It is a wonderful time in which to live and in which to share knowledge.

There are four Lakota virtues toward which we, as a people, strive. They are: wisdom, bravery, fortitude, and generosity. Hopefully, I convey all of these virtues in my work. Certainly, I pay homage to the bravery and fortitude of my people in my warriors and in the battle scenes depicted on some of my doll's clothing. Hopefully, I have instilled a sense of wisdom and generosity in my pieces which depict families. My goal is that all of these virtues are present, to some degree, in all of my work.

DK: We sure do appreciate your sharing your art with us today! Many thanks!
RHB: Thank you for the opportunity.

Cheyenne River Reservation
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