Growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Karen Hawkins often found herself exploring the depths of her creative imagination in the woods near her house. Whether she was building forts, fairy castles, or miniature characters out of sticks, flowers, leaves, and anything else she could find, she was happiest spending time in nature.
Clay and fiber have been important materials to this doll crafter from a young age. “I would take myself on scavenger hunts to see what I could make something out of,” she recalls. She details a childhood memory, watching a woman make apple dolls at the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands: it became one of her earliest inspirations. Hawkins liked to browse all the different vendors at the biannual Southern Highland Craft Guild event — but she always felt a powerful draw toward pottery and sculpting.
“Crafting for life quickly became my pipe dream on a bucket list,” says Hawkins. Knowing she wanted to share her passion with others, she taught art in public school for 30 years, and, after retirement, became a member of the Guild herself, in 2009, at age 57. Hawkins also co-founded another group, the Go Figure Guild, in 2012. All figurative doll artists, the 34 members come from the Carolinas and Tennessee, meeting the first Tuesday of the month at the West Asheville Library on Haywood Road. (Unlike the exclusive Southern Highland Craft Guild, the Go Figure Guild is open to anyone.)
Today, Hawkins makes dolls for herself and for others, many inspired by a single object: a piece of fabric, perhaps a gourd. Often she has a preconceived idea where she wants a figure to go; however, “sometimes your work sends you in a different direction,” admits Hawkins. “Dolls have a mind of their own, and will lead you in terms of who they are.” After thinking about the character and who she might want it to be, she begins the process of bringing it to life.
Sculpting is the first step. Some of the dolls have a wired armature inside from top to bottom. Others are soft sculptured, meaning the body is made of fibers and fabric. Hawkins then paints the characters and puts hair on them, adding different fibers like yarn, string, or faux hair. Next, she focuses on the costumes. “I love textures and try to use repurposed vintage garments, make my own fabric out of felt or wool — I’ve even made bark fabric.” Expressive detailing is added through props and beads. She once crafted a group called the “Appalachian Satyr Boys,” a bluegrass band, all part goat and part man, each playing a musical instrument.
Hawkins enjoys when viewers tell her a doll reminds them of a family member or a special experience. Her client base typically ranges from ages 35-75; some are doll collectors, others just like to seek handmade, one-of-a-kind things. “I kind of fall into that category too, I guess,” Hawkins states lightheartedly.
Karen Hawkins, Klay Hawk Doll Studio, Leicester. For information on workshops, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Hawkins’ work is on display at A Walk in the Woods in Hendersonville (423 N Main St.) and at the Southern Highland Craft Guild Gift Shop in Asheville (930 Tunnel Road, southernhighlandguild.org). For more information, call 828-772-4634 or see klayhawkdolls.com.