published Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Pretty as a picture

Susan Miller’s portrait dolls permanently capture childhood

As an electrical design technician with TVA, Susan Miller’s job requires designing and drawing substation diagrams with an accuracy that electricians rely on when making repairs.

As an artist, she’s built her reputation on portraits and landscapes.

Five years ago, Miller combined the precision of her day job with the creativity of her hobby to begin sculpting art dolls.

These are not children’s toys; they are for serious doll collectors.

“I’ve always loved dolls. I got some clay, started sculpting and my first dolls came out looking like little trolls. They were ugly. But I have not been able to put the clay down since,” Miller said.

Miller’s collection is sold under the name Vera Susie Dollies. Her dolls range in size from 4 to 10 inches and each is one-of-a-kind because it is sculpted from scratch.

Miller sculpts each doll head in polymer clay. Polymer clay is a PVC-based sculptable material sold in craft stores. The clay is hardened by baking it.

Heads are paired with bodies made of peach-colored doe suede. The bodies are stuffed with polyfill for fluffiness and tiny glass beads to give them weight.

Miller also makes all the clothes her babies wear as well as accessories such as miniature pacifiers, baby shoes and baby bottles. She prefers to place her dolls in “settings” such as positioned on a blanket, in a crib or even a miniature replica of a Boppy.

“It’s much harder to work on a tiny doll like Susan makes than a big one,” said Barbara Bynum. Bynum is a doll collector and owner of Lambs & Ivy, the only local shop that sells Miller’s art dolls.

“Every little hair is individually placed on her dolls’ heads. It’s not like she slaps a wig on their heads.

“I own one of her dolls. I think they are fabulous and I think she is an up-and-coming artist among collectors,” said Bynum.

From her art dolls has sprung a unique custom business Miller calls her “portrait dolls.”

As word of her work has spread through doll shows and online doll forums, she has received special orders from customers wishing to immortalize their children or grandchildren’s childhood through her art. The customer sends Miller a photo and she custom-makes a doll to match the picture.

These portrait dolls sell for $250. Her art dolls sell from $150 to $400 depending on their difficulty. Each doll is signed and dated.

“The last two portrait dolls took four weeks each,” she said. “If I worked on one start to finish, without going to work, I could probably make one in a week.

“They’ve got to look like teeny humans or I’m not happy with them,” she said.

Doll collectors can find Vera Susie Dollies locally at Lambs & Ivy, or check her website www.verasusies

about Susan Pierce...

Susan Palmer Pierce is a reporter and columnist in the Life department. She began her journalism career as a summer employee 1972 for the News Free Press, typing bridal announcements and photo captions. She became a full-time employee in 1980, working her way up to feature writer, then special sections editor, then Lifestyle editor in 1995 until the merge of the NFP and Times in 1999. She was honored with the 2007 Chattanooga Woman of ...

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