20 QUESTIONS WITH DOLL MAKER FRANTZ BRENT-HARRIS
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Frantz Brent-Harris, and I was born in Jamaica in 1970, where I lived until I was 32. After that I moved to Canada, because of my sexual orientation, being gay, and Jamaica being one of the most homophobic places in the world.
What was your childhood like in Jamaica?
I grew up predominately middle class; both of my parents were high school teachers. My mom was also an artist of sorts, a talented painter and illustrator. My father was a language teacher. My home life was not the greatest. It was very strict, and my father was a bit of a philanderer. My mother was always angry. My father was always absent. It was overall not a very happy home.
How did you get into doll making?
At this time, my mother and father had divorced, and my mom was living in Trinidad, and had become very ill. I had a lot of unresolved issues about the past, and was very apprehensive in talking to her about them, but at the same time I wanted to have the difficult conversations before she passed.
One day I was walking past a Goodwill Store, and saw a black Barbie. I’d never seen one before, so I bought it and started making Barbie dresses and clothes. It calmed me down, and became a meditation, making those clothes. Shortly after finding that Barbie, I became a doll collector.
I wanted to bring my mom one of the dolls, but I wanted one that looked like the women who were around me while I was growing up. While the dolls I found were beautiful, they were too skinny. I wanted a doll that looked healthier.
I went to a sculpting studio in Toronto, to see if I could have them make the doll I wanted. While I was there, it was suggested that I try making the doll myself. I’d never done anything like that, but I was given a piece of clay, and I made the doll’s head. It wasn’t the best doll head, but it was the start of things to come.
Did you ever play with dolls as a child?
I do remember asking my Dad for a doll at one point; it was a female action figure. He said ‘No’.
Do you think your life would have been different if your Dad had said ‘Yes’?
I do think it would have been different, because that would have been him embracing me for who I am.
Tell me about the first doll you created.
The very first doll was a very bad reflection of what I thought women were like. I destroyed that first doll; as it just didn’t work for me. She looked like Barbie on steroids. She had long skinny legs, lots of hips, lots of bust, but she didn’t have a ribcage to support the bust, she didn’t have thighs to support the hips. I was trying to make them more voluptuous and full, but at the time I didn’t have the ‘eye’ to make the sculpture more realistic.
How long did it take you to get ‘your doll’, the Sona Doll?
Where does the name Sona come from?
It’s a Sanskrit word that means ‘golden’, and it also sounds like Shona, which is an African word for ‘showmanship’. So mixtures of those two things make up the name.
There is a specific price point for your dolls. Are they meant to be an art piece?
They are art pieces, and collectors’ items. They’re meant to be high craft, like a Lladró figurine. I would love to make them into mass-produced playthings but the amount of silicone in each doll costs over $50, so that alone dismisses the idea of mass-production.
Where do you get your ideas for the dolls?
I read a lot, and I get ideas just from things around me. I went to Little India in Toronto, and was amazed by their costume jewelry, so after that visit I made a doll that reminded me of Arabian Nights. On another occasion, I was reading about Lupita Nyong’o and made a doll that reminded me of her. Sometimes, it’s a simple piece of fabric that provides inspiration. My dolls all have a persona.
Where does that persona come from?
Sometimes it stems from people around me, fashion week, just finding the inspiration around me. I have a doll called Trophy; she has large horns, and is albino. She’s based off of Tory Burch, who started off as a trophy wife, but she began her own business, and became her own persona. The doll is a pretty woman, but she’s also a predator. She is the result of a woman who was personified by a man as one thing, and then became angry as she developed into who she is.
Is there a favorite doll of yours, in your collection?
Cyan. I love everything about her. She’s a superhero, African and South Asian mix, with blue hair. Her powers stem from the chemical spill in Bhopal, India and as a result, she now fights corporate crime.
There’s’ a trend with your dolls, in that they’re all strong and empowered women. They’re making change happen, be it in the fashion world, or fighting against corporate crime. How does a young, gay man from Jamaica start creating these dolls?
It started with my mother and her illness, and just me loving it. I think that I wanted in a way to preserve the beauty of my mother when she was younger. Before her illness, before she dropped down to 95 pounds. She was this beautiful tribal lady, and I wanted to remember that.
That’s the underlying psychological part of me being so attracted to making these dolls.
Tell me about the dolls style. They’re full of spice. Things such as metal bustiers, and sky-high heels, and headpieces. Where does the styling come into play?
I dress them to convey power. I want them to be women that own their whole space. These are women who walk into a room and own it. It takes me up to a month to construct the outfit for each doll, which I make myself, from the shoes to the wigs.
What’s your ideal plan for your dolls, and for you as a doll maker?
I want to be a doll artisan, to have a line of dolls that are bought as art pieces. I’m crafting a full-figure doll at present, and I’m in love with her body. She’s just gorgeous. I’ve shown my dolls at some shows recently, and seeing the reaction and hearing the encouragement really drives me. There were some though, who called my doll ‘fat’.
Wait. There were people who called your doll fat?
Yes! Can you believe it? There was one girl who said, “Her thighs…I don’t get it.”
Do you think that there are those who are uncomfortable because the doll reminds them of themselves?
I think so, especially if you’ve wasted your life hating a part of you, and then you see it on a doll that represents something beautiful: it gives some people a knee-jerk reaction. The dolls become a reflection of themselves, which they’re trying to repress or hide.
How do you feel about the recent upsurge of body-positivity awareness?
My latest doll is a fuller-figured doll. I did a study to figure out how to sculpt her. Since I don’t have a wife, I had people pose for me so I could figure out the idea on how to sculpt her. Volup2 was an additional source in learning how to sculpt a fuller figure doll. Women like Velvet, and the models in Volup2.
I think it’s funny how you can go through life, blind to an entire segment of the population. By making dolls that are more realistic to that segment, I’ve really had an awakening. I feel as if I’ve been put in touch with the struggle that women face. I’m amazed at the constant bombardment that women face to be perfect. You turn on the TV, open a magazine, and there are all of these messages telling women how to dress perfectly, throw the perfect dinner party, dress to match the plates at that dinner party, and it’s just a bunch of crap.
Is that why you make women into superheroes?
I’m creating a reflection that I hope women will feel connected with. I want women to feel good when they look at my dolls.
How do I buy one?
They can be purchased through the website, or through my Facebook page. I also do art shows as well where I sell my dolls. Also, if there is a particular look for the doll you have in mind, we can chat about making the doll you want.
SHANNA SABET-DEMOTT is a freelance writer living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her husband George DeMott sings Italian arias in the shower, and Pop-Opera around the world. She has an 11 year old daughter who has survived 3 brain surgeries, and has shown her Mama the meaning of bravery at every turn. She is a lover of telling stories about food and life on her blogs, eatingoutvegas.com and stumblingbeauty.com