Life lessons through doll making

On July 12, 2011, Puerto Rican dollmaker, Ivelisse Pabon de Landron, and her apprentice Jamielette Figueroa will do a demonstration at 2:00 p.m. in the Ashland Public Library. They will be sharing skills passed on during their 9-month Traditional Arts Apprenticeship, which was funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Among the skills young Jamielette learned are hand sewing, joining seams for clothing construction, drawing, cutting fabric, paper pattern making, use of a thimble, color wheel, tape measure, and sewing machine, preparing fabric, stuffing techniques, shearing for skirts, making hair out of yarn, and hand embroidery. These are things that used to be taught in home economics classes, if not not something that most girls learned firsthand from their mother or grandmother. Nowadays, how many youngsters are adept at sewing?

Perhaps, more importanty, these sewing lessons were steeped in folk cultural context. In addition to working on the technical craft of doll making, Ivelisse made sure that Jamielette learned about the history of Puerto Rico and the folk culture of its people. She came to understand that many of the skills that were passed on from one generation to the next were honed during times of hardship, when many rural people could not afford to buy the necessary things to survive, let alone provide toys for their children. Years ago, mothers taught their daughters the craft of making dolls using socks, old garments, corn husks, and banana leaves. To bring this history to life, Ivelisse and Jamielette created characters from Puerto Rican folkore such as the nana (care taker of children) camadronas (midwives), jibaros (farmers) and African bomba y plena dancers.

Ivelisse was a demanding teacher in the way great teachers are. On occasion, Jamielette did not meet her expectations, turning in a half-hearted job. Ivelisse took the opportunity to teach Jamielette the importance of taking pride in what you do. Through hard work and attention, Jamielette grew to meet Ivelisse’s expecations. It helped that master artist and apprentice share the same heritage, Spanish language, and spiritual faith.

The July 21 public demonstration will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts for a Ivelisse and Jamielette. They will be joining eight other master artist/apprentice pairs participating in the summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. Come by and see them in the Folk Craft & Foodways area along Lucy Larcom Park on July 29-31, 2011.

Dollmaker returns to Massachusetts

Ivelisse Pabon de Landron is passionate about many things in her Puerto Rican heritage. Most tangible is her making of black dolls like the ones shown here. Having learned doll making from her mother, Ivelisse went on to do extensive research on the Puerto Rican black doll, and eventually met with older doll makers in Puerto Rico. She is passionate about preserving the history of the black doll as a way of honoring Puerto Rican women of African descent and their contribution to Puerto Rican cultural history. For example, the women’s role as slaves on sugar plantations, as la comadronas (midwives) and as la jibara (country peasants.)

Born in New York, Ivelisse grew up in the barrio of the Lower East Side, where her mother was a community organizer. As an adult, Ivelisse relocated to Massachusetts, but in 2000, she was inspired to move to Puerto Rico. “I wanted to know about my heritage. I wanted to understand the culture, because my dad was black and my mom was white. Also, because there was something missing. I found out that what was missing was that I didn’t know where I came from. I wanted to know why the culture was the way it was — the music, the food, the dancing.” After doing ancestral research in old church records, Ivelisse learned that she is the great great-grandaughter of a woman who was brought to Puerto Rico in 1834 from Africa to work in the sugar plantation in Vega Alta.

After arriving in Puerto Rico, Ivelisse sought out older doll makers to learn from them. She eventually marketed her dolls at the Plaza in Old San Juan. Ivelisse has moved back to Massachusetts and is eager to share what she has learned of Puerto Rican traditional culture.

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Photos by Maggie Holtzberg