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Don’t expect baby dolls or Barbies at the upcoming doll exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center. The two-month display highlights handcrafted, one-of-a-kind artistry that challenges visitors to test their very perceptions of dolls.

Opening July 23, “Journeys Through Light & Dark: Dolls as Tellers of Stories” is a showcase for local and internationally acclaimed doll makers whose works range from whimsical and fanciful to puppet-form, fantasy sculptures and creature- and fairy-like figures.

Some, as the exhibit title implies, have taken a step toward the dark side.

The exhibit features 37 invited artists, 30 juried artists and more than 100 dolls thoughtfully arranged in display cases, on walls and pedestals; even hanging from the ceiling of the converted train depot that houses the arts center.

Featured artists are Kate Church of Canada, who designs “sculptural puppetry” and has created figures for Cirque du Soleil; and Toby Froud of Oregon, a sculptor, fabricator and puppeteer who appeared as the baby central to the story in the Jim Henson film, “Labyrinth,” in 1986.

Froud grew up in a world of puppets, dolls and fairies. His father, Brian Froud, is a world-renowned fairy artist who worked as a conceptual designer on “Labyrinth.” His mother, Wendy Froud, is a premier doll maker who fabricated Yoda, the legendary Jedi master who first appeared in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Additionally, four dolls clubs will present displays.

Each figurative work tells a story. Collectively, the exhibit explores the powerful ways contemporary artists convey stories about our lives and the world surrounding us.

“These artists’ dolls lead you to wonder what the artist was experiencing,” said Geri Olson, Ph.D., a Petaluma resident and one of the exhibit’s two curators. “You enter their world.”

A Sonoma State University psychology professor, Olson has spent 25 years studying the role of dolls in society and presenting lectures and workshops on the topic. Fellow curator Sherri Morgan of Portola is an educator, sculptor and international event and workshop coordinator with a love of figurative art.

Along with the center’s exhibition manager, Kim Chigi, the women have arranged an exhibit that blurs some lines.

“It’s an opportunity to see doll artists as fine artists and not crafters,” Olson said. “We’ll propose that as something for people to ponder.”

The dolls, from 6 inches to 4 feet high, are created from a wide range of media, including metal, porcelain, polymer, wire, paper, cloth, wood and combinations of innovative materials. Some were several years in the making.

Using dolls as art forms, the artists engage emotions and evoke reactions. Meanings are personal and vary depending on the viewer.

“I think we are moved by the doll art in many different ways,” Olson said. “There’s something very personal about viewing them.”

Through her years of study, Olson discovered some form of dolls as part of human existence for some 25,000 years. Used by cultures in rituals, religion and magic; as playthings; marking life transitions; even worn as symbols of protection going into battle; dolls have long held special meaning and importance.

“Almost all cultures have dolls. In most cultures you can find some representation of a doll form. They may not look like dolls to us, but they had some purpose,” Olson said.

Although she had a few dolls as a girl, her interest didn’t evolve from a childhood devoted to the figures as toys or collectibles. Now 67, she was a generation ahead of the introduction of the classic Barbie.

Olson’s mother was a motivational speaker for Weight Watchers and paid her young daughter to create cloth dolls with messages like “You can do it!” to cheer women in their weight-loss efforts.

She gave up the job when she headed to high school but continues making dolls today. Through memberships in doll clubs and her curiosity about the popularity of dolls, “It inspired me to look more deeply into why people love dolls.”

Olson teaches SSU psychology courses in areas of creativity and expressive arts and engages her students to help with her longtime Doll Project in local schools.

Olson started the program 16 years ago at McNear Elementary School in Petaluma, integrating art into the curriculum. It expanded to Old Adobe Elementary School two years later and has included several other schools in the area.

Olson estimates she’s worked with more than 2,000 students from kindergarten through high school, offering supplies and encouragement as students create dolls, often representing historical figures they’ve studied in class.

“The theory being when you create with your hands, the learning is deeper,” she said. “I just love watching kids make them. It doesn’t matter if they’re girls or boys. I haven’t found anyone who doesn’t want to make a doll.”

The upcoming exhibit is designed to convey emotion as viewers explore the artistry of doll-making for meaning, self-portraits and social narrative. It invites children and adults of all ages to look at dolls in new ways – and discover the stories within.

“I hope they experience awe and inspiration, and feel surprised,” Olson said.

She credits the emergence of doll making as an art form to influences from filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, “Sesame Street” Muppets creator Jim Henson and Fred Rogers’ use of figures in his revered PBS children’s TV show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

A year in the planning, the exhibit is “unique and very special,” said Chigi, the exhibition manager. “The level of craftsmanship is incredibly imaginative.”

This is the second time Olson has brought a doll exhibit to the Petaluma center. The first, in 2010, “Art of the Doll: Protection, Healing, Power and Play,” was so well-received she was encouraged to plan another event incorporating dolls. Olson served on the center’s board of directors for seven years and is a member of the exhibitions committee.

Although the dolls in the new exhibit are unique works of art, Olson doesn’t discount the value of mass-produced dolls in the marketplace. While the featured dolls tell stories and showcase artistry, children use dolls for play and learning – and telling their own tales.

“Both are very powerful,” Olson said.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.

“Journeys Through Light & Dark: Dolls as Tellers of Stories”

When: July 23 to Sept. 25. An opening reception is on July 23 from 5 to 7 p.m.

Where: Petaluma Arts Center, 230 Lakeville St. Enter the parking lot from East Washington Street.

Admission: $5 general, $4 seniors, students abd military. Fzree for 12 and younger.

Exhibit events include:

“Three Muses: elinor peace bailey, Barbara Willis, Anne Klocko” from noon to 1 p.m. Aug. 13, followed by an indoor and outdoor trunk show.

Curator tour with Sherri Morgan and Geri Olson at 7 p.m. Aug. 19.

Stephanie Blythe, “The Dolls of NIADA (National Institute of American Doll Artists)” at noon Aug. 27.

Performance with Sha Sha Higby at 8 p.m. Sept. 9 at St. John Episcopal Church, 40 Fifth St., Petaluma.

Museum hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

Information: 762-5600, petalumaartscenter.org.

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