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Not Your Ordinary Paper Dolls

PAPER is Megumi Biddle's medium. This nimble-fingered young Japanese artist does origami - which is paperfolding. She makes meticulous and elaborate silhouettes out of cut paper. And she makes dolls.

Her dolls - in line with a long Japanese tradition - are paper dolls. But if you didn't know this, your first thought - since these small figures are completely three-dimensional - might not be of paper at all. Nothing about them suggests that thin, flimsy stuff, rather commonplace and characterless, which the West too often calls paper.

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But in Japan, handmade papermaking is a longstanding and still developing culture, a way of life. Artistically, it has variety and potential scarcely dreamed of outside Japan.

Before coming to live in England, Biddle was employed by a wholesale company in Tokyo specializing in handmade paper. Her job was to design papers, making new patterns and colors. The plain white papers made in the winter months by farmers all over Japan are bought by this company. They are transformed into a multitude of different colors and patterns, both traditional and new. Stationers supplied by this company are not stocked with just a few kinds of paper, but with literally thousands. For her current work, Biddle imports all her papers from Japan.

Among the clients who came to consult her at the paper company were fashion designers who continually asked for novel colors and patterns. (Some papers are so strong they can be used for clothes.) Other clients were artists who were more and more interested in handmade paper. And then there were the makers of traditional paper dolls. In dealing with all these people, Biddle accumulated considerable knowledge of paper - and learned a great deal about dolls.

The doll artists sometimes asked her to design or dye papers for particular kinds of dolls. Dollmakers in Japan range from children and amateurs all the way up to masters of the craft who are highly professional and guard the secrets of their skill jealously.

One female figure much favored by advanced doll artists is O-Natsu. ``If you are a dollmaker,'' Biddle explains, ``you have to go through this. Like a ballet dancer has to go through Swan Lake. O-Natsu is a challenge piece.

``This lady is a mad lady. A very famous Kabuki theater storywriter wrote a very beautiful story about a young lady - O-Natsu. She is 15 or 16. She falls in love with the wrong person. She is a very rich merchant-class lady, and she falls in love with one of the workers. Her parents say `No! No! No!' but the lovers promise each other to run away. They plan to meet at a gate.''

But this tragic young woman is led to believe that her lover has changed his mind (when the truth is he has been first imprisoned and then killed) and, says Biddle, this is why ``she always walks in the street looking for him.''

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So this fictional heroine is far from being a pretty little Edo-period girl, and, as a doll, she demands that ``her insanity should be expressed,'' as Biddle puts it, ``by her entire costume.''

Megumi's husband, Steve Biddle, also a paper artist and magician, adds: ``She's a very powerful figure to watch being made.''

He should know because his wife has made her own extraordinary version of this doll. What prompted this was Megumi's being asked at the paper company by dollmakers to design paper specially for O-Natsu - ``paper to symbolize madness, love, passion, everything.'' Having designed papers for many dollmakers, and observing how they were used, she thought: ``I try it myself.''

Her O-Natsu doll is dressed in a kimono of conflicting colors and fragmentary patterns of flower and foliage. The figure's obi - the decorative sash that is normally arranged in a large tidy bow at the back of the costume - is hanging down loosely to denote her unbalanced condition, and the paper it is made of is a design of butterflies flying amid snowflakes.

``The butterfly,'' Biddle explains, ``is a traditional symbol of love and marriage. But this butterfly is a mad butterfly - out of season. You wouldn't use this paper for a happy doll!''

Another very original touch in Biddle's O-Natsu doll is a wisp of hair, flying loose across her face from the traditional superbly organized coiffure. Her head is thrown back with expressive distractedness. Hamlet's Ophelia has hardly been acted with a greater intensity of sweet abandon.

Biddle stresses that serious Japanese dollmakers need to know the dance poses used by Kabuki dancers in order to express different characters and states of mind. Another doll she has made is called Kagami-jishi. This strange figure with his golden costume, long white fleece, and red, white, and black makeup of remarkable elaboration, is one of a pair of ``lion spirits dancing in the spring. A very lucky performance'' according to Biddle. Although his name is translated as a ``lion,'' he is not the kind of lion most familiar in the West.

This doll's white hair is a tour de force, fine and soft and delicate. It is all made out of the long fibers of a very thin paper that the artist has torn into minute fleecy pieces, each glued in place by hand.

Although paper dollmaking is historically and conceptually linked with origami, gluing and sewing are considered acceptable in this craft. In origami, such aids are severely frowned on. Some of the paper used for dollmaking is so strong that it cannot be glued with paper glue. Wood glue has to be used.

These dolls have a wire foundation for backbone and arms. Biddle believes that most traditional dollmakers in Japan do not often make male dolls because the way dollmaking is handed down is, in the main, by faithful copying. This makes for skill but not originality. Since female dolls have been traditionally without visible hands or feet - their kimonos completely covering such extremities - there has been no need to develop a wire foundation with two legs, which a male figure would require.

Biddle has not only extended her dollmaking to male figures - the warrior-dance figure Ran-Ryo-Oh, for example - but has made a novel little group of three Western dolls, with hands, feet, and shoes, even shoelaces. These dolls, a grandmother holding a basket of rosy apples, sitting with grandson and granddaughter on a bench, were in fact made before Biddle's more obviously Japanese dolls. Her name for this group is ``Autumn Portrait.''

Although ``Autumn Portrait'' is unconventional indeed in Japanese dollmaking, Biddle was nominated for a competition by a Japanese teacher of dollmaking and was awarded a notable prize for this highly accomplished work. These three dolls were made before Biddle had ever been out of Japan, and they represent a distinctly Japanese picture of Western figures.

The granny, an old country woman, might well be a Victorian with her shawl and apron and long skirt (under which Biddle has delighted in crafting a petticoat out of delicate Japanese lace paper more usually sold for lampshade makers). Her grandchildren are more modern, but might be dated circa 1940.

This tableau of Western-type dolls is nevertheless thoroughly Japanese, if only because, once again, they are made entirely of paper. Even the eyes and lips and eyebrows, even the subtle coloring in the cheeks, are all made with paper. No paint is used at all. Many Japanese dolls do not have any facial features. If they do, they may well be painted.

Biddle has done all this with paper not only because it is a challenge to her ingenuity and skill as an artist, but also because - if the dolls are kept out of sunlight - the dye used in these fine papers will last for many years, while paint might not.

The greatest patience and imagination were exercised by the artist in finding or specially dying papers that would be suitable for imitation Western cloth to dress her three Western figures. And she also had to find paper suited to making blond or brown hair for them - since only a special black paper is made for the hair of Japanese dolls.

Biddle finds that in England people do not generally appreciate that paper dollmaking is a serious art form. She has exhibited her dolls in Europe and in the United States. In the US, her work is more often recognized as a craft of the highest order.

In her dolls based on traditional Japanese figures like the Imperial Court lady Sei-Shonagon, Biddle is scrupulous in her historical accuracy, even down to different colored layers and the order in which they are arranged in the extraordinary costume known to have been worn in the autumns. Lady Sei-Shonagon is a favorite of Biddle's, who says she would like to have been born in the 12th century.

Biddle's dolls are miles away from playthings. Their being made of paper is more than a matter of artistic materials. Even the word for paper in Japanese sounds the same as the word for God. In the Shinto religion, dolls have long had significance. And clearly Biddle herself thinks of her dolls as something much more profound and lovable than clever artifacts.

In the final analysis, paper is the determinant factor. She says: ``The quality, texture, and behavior of the paper, however much it is used to make art and express feelings, must not be destroyed. You can't ignore the paper. That's the strictness you have.''

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