Hello: It’s a warm late afternoon at the end of July and Natasha Morgan has welcomed Sandra and me into her home. The whole house is a feast for the eyes, it feels very warm and inviting with every room packed with books, ornaments, and lots (and lots) of dolls. Like most of us, Natasha keeps her stash of materials in a big dresser but, also like most of us, it cannot be contained and creeps out on to the surfaces. The dresser and worktable where Natasha works are at the back of the house with a big picture window looking out across the Swansea Valley. As we sat in this room for the interview, we were surrounded by Natasha’s dolls, materials and equipment. It’s a wonderful room to work in, and we can understand why Natasha chose this room - there is so much light and space.
Prize winner: As we met her, Natasha was very excited that she had just received news of winning second prize at the Royal Welsh Show for her dolls – something that is such a great achievement given that it’s the first time Natasha has entered anything into the show! She had made a traditional Welsh farmer’s daughter and a Swansea cockle woman, complete with a basket of tiny cockle shells. Natasha and her husband visited dead cockle beds to collect the tiny shells, they cleaned them and even made the basket for them. It’s this level of detail and accuracy which sets her work apart and puts it on a whole new level of intricacy. I have never seen such fine work on such a small scale before and I was left speechless with admiration and awe. Dolls and Natasha, how did this begin and continue? I asked Natasha what triggered her interest in making dolls, and she said that she was originally intrigued by art dolls after seeing the publication Art Dolls Quarterly and just wanted to have a go at making them. Initially, she started with clay, then with fabric and now uses a combination of clay shapes for hands and feet with the head being made from a wooden ball which is then coated with clay. All the fabrics are sewn by hand as her dolls are generally small-scale. Natasha says that each doll is an opportunity to learn something new: in her dollmaking she has learnt Stumpwork and Crewelwork, and would love to learn how to Tambour. Normally, Natasha does a few practice pieces first and then goes straight into the clothing for the doll, embellishing them with different stitches. Historical accuracy is very important for Natasha: for instance, she wanted to dress a doll in purple and mauve colours but first had to make sure the costume matched the time period that came after this colour was created. Just as an aside, and for those that are interested, the first artificial mauve dyes weren’t invented until the 1850s. Simon Garfield has written a very good book about the invention of artificial dyes called, appropriately enough, Mauve.
Background and Research: I asked Natasha how she sets about doing the research for the dolls and the doll-making process. Natasha started off by saying that some dolls can take several years to make, and the process starts with research. Natasha is very interested in social history, particularly the Victorian period and especially in the fate of women who were seen as troublesome and not fitting in with the norms of the day. We talked about how these women were put away in asylums and hospitals, and how this continued well into the twentieth century and is still happening in other countries. Natasha has made several dolls exploring this theme, and it is one that she keeps coming back to. History isn’t Natasha’s only source of ideas: she also finds inspiration for her dolls in books, films and hearing about local historical people; crime history is a particularly rich seam of creativity for her work.
Process: Natasha loves working on Victorian and Elizabethan dolls, especially the shaping elements of the costumes, such as the panniers and caged crinolines. Her Alice in Wonderland doll was on view, with each layer of clothing referring to a character in the book. It is a small doll and the tiny embroideries on each petticoat are amazing. Natasha admitted that she uses magnification to do some of the work, but even so, the work is incredible on such a very small scale. Sometimes, Natasha says, she will try and make a doll but it refuses to work or ‘come together’. When this happens, the unfinished doll is put aside for a while, or tried with other heads to see if something works. It may take 3 or 4 faces before the right one happens and sometimes it may need to be left for a longer period until the right combination materialises.
The beginning of the creative spark: Natasha has always been busy making things with her hands, always colouring and crafting. She had the good fortune to be able to spend time with her Mum and Nan who shared their joy of making with her. One of her fondest memories is of playing with the buttons in her Nan’s box, sorting them by colour and shape. Natasha now has a busy full-time job, but always has something to work on in her hands in the evening when watching TV. Her Mum always knitted so it just seems natural to be doing something when sitting down. Working in this way Natasha has built up a stock of dolls over the years.
How to let the world know about your work: Natasha went to a big doll show at the NEC, but realised quite quickly that she was not interested in making her work on a larger commercial basis. For Natasha, her work is an outlet for her creative talents, her delight in historical costume, learning new techniques, researching about people (real and fictional) and their lives and making all this come together in a beautiful hand-made doll with the most intricate hand embroidery. Rather than going large, she now focuses on selling through her Etsy site. Most of Natasha’s work goes abroad, and she has customers as far afield as the US, Australia and New Zealand. She even has a customer in Israel who buys a doll each year. The international link continues with the only part of the dolls that Natasha doesn’t make herself: the intricate wire crochet that is used in some of the dolls is produced by a lady in Florida.
What’s the best thing about living in South Wales? Natasha was very quick to respond saying it was the combination of seaside, forest and mountains all close together: “One of the pleasures of living in the area is going for a drive, turning a corner and a whole new landscape is revealed.” Natasha is also interested in the culture and history of South Wales, with the mix of rural life and heavy industry being so close together.
Describe Swansea Bay in 3 words: ‘Very different now’. That got us all talking about the post-industrialisation of South Wales. Her home used to look out over the BP oil refinery at Llandarcy, but now looks over the new housing development called “Coed Darcy village”. We talked about living in the midst of such an industrial landscape where you could see and smell the chemical products on the wind, and how quick you had to be to get the washing in before the cloud reached your home. That led us into what happens when industry goes and how that affects the community, and our own experiences of living through that. Natasha is very aware of how the whole Bay area has changed over the years. She said there are so many ideas for regeneration in the area, but what is being lost in the name of progress? A very good question indeed, and one that nobody felt they could answer properly.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self? Very quickly, Natasha said, “Do what you want and go for it!” and added, “At that age, you want to conform with everyone else. I was very nervous and shy, and I still am to some extent.”
What saying/mantra do you try and live your life by? Natasha’s own refrain is “Have a go at anything rather than think that you can’t do it.” She explained that “everybody has a cupboard of failures. Everything has its rough bits, but it’s good enough.” Everything that Natasha does, she clarifies, can always be looked at and there’s always something that could be done better next time – but, she adds, “you can learn from it and move on. Try new things, don’t be afraid to go for advice if you need it.”
What would you like to be remembered for? “To smile and remember the nice times in your life.”
Whose work do you admire in your chosen field? As far as Natasha is aware she is the only art dollmaker in South Wales, but there are a lots of art doll makers world-wide. She particularly likes and admires the work of Oubliette, who is based in the UK, and Loopyboopy, who is based in the US. What will you be making for the Swansea Festival of Stitch 2018? Since the theme for the Festival is the sea, Natasha is planning on making a sea-hag (a sea witch) and oyster sprites. “I love using silks and velvets,” she says, “and these will be lush in stormy sea colours,”. Natasha isn’t interested in mermaids and doesn’t really know why. Perhaps it’s that there are plenty of other female sea-creatures and entities, and she is looking forward to finding out more about them as she researches her doll design.
The fun stuff: Cats or dogs? “Does there have to be a decision?”
Favourite bands? In Natasha’s own words, she is a “full-on Goth”, so there’s no Take-That or Spice Girls in her music collection! Instead, you’ll find bands like Sound Garden, Pearl Jam and Metallica. In fact, Natasha recently went to see Iron Maiden and confirms that “they’re still going strong!”
Cymru am Byth: Welsh cakes/Bara Brith served with butter or not? Natasha is adamant that both are served with butter - but it must be proper salted butter. However, she adds, if the Welsh Cakes are freshly made and straight from the griddle then there is no need for anything. Perhaps it’s time for a team visit to Neath or Swansea markets to get some freshly made Welsh Cakes to find out if this is true – purely in the interests of research, you understand!
Welsh comics, Rhod Gilbert of Rob Brydon? For Natasha, it’s got to be Rhod: “We saw him at the Swansea Grand Theatre recently and he was hysterical.”
And Finally: I asked Natasha about her favourite doll and she said that was the doll called Anxiety. The doll was made some time ago and it was easy to see that the doll was very important in the development of Natasha’s art doll practice. Anxiety is a very beautiful doll which shows the complexity of emotions and experiences that we all have as individuals. If you want to find out more about Anxiety, Natasha talks more about this doll on her Etsy site.
Unbelievably, we spent almost two and a half hours chatting with Natasha. The time just flew by and we covered so many topics and areas of interest, each thought sparking off another area of discussion. I knew very little about art dolls before I met Natasha, and I have come away still not knowing too much but with a completely new perspective on this creative textile art form. Swansea Festival of Stitch would like to thank Natasha for welcoming us into her home, sharing so much about her work and letting us handle her precious dolls. We would like to extend particular thanks to Natasha’s husband for making excellent cups of tea. We hope the experience of being interviewed wasn’t too traumatic and thanks for being our first interviewee for the series on Swansea Bay creative textile artists.