Vermont Arts Council

TLC: Something to Hold On To

Vermont Arts Exchange (VAE) has built a reputation over almost 25 years of turning trash into treasure. The organization has therefore become a depository for strange and unusual items. One donation years ago showed up in the form of over 50 plaster molds. These included baby doll parts: round plump heads, angelic arms, and chubby legs. Various objects and sculptures were created with these — all reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Gothic world — until the molds found another purpose. Within a ceramics class, VAE teaching artist Kristen Blaker and the residents at the Vermont School for Girls (VSG) actually started making dolls; clay was pressed into the molds and parts were fired. The assembly of hand-sewn and stuffed bodies came into play. Wigs, bonnets, and dresses were made, faces delicately painted.

Kristen talked to the girls about the concept of “giving back” and donating the dolls to Project Against Violent Encounters (PAVE), the local women’s crisis center in Bennington. Lovely dolls came to life. Excitement grew with the idea that the sewn and stuffed creations would be in the hands of a child in time of need.

The Doll Project is Born

Sometimes, when a child is pulled from home (in cases of domestic abuse, fire, legal situations) it may even be the middle of the night. There’s not enough time to grab a toothbrush — let alone a personal item from a bedroom. Knowing this, the girls decided to name each doll and write a personal letter to the child, tucked into a pocket. The girls from VSG — many who suffer the effects of severe emotional trauma, including sexual abuse — were suddenly immersed in work that was not just healing for others but brought great reward to them. They were also are learning skills and techniques in the process of making, measuring, cutting and sewing. They were rebuilding themselves and becoming a positive influence, contributing something valuable to their community.

The first family of ceramic dolls presented to PAVE resembled something you might find in a trunk in your grandmother’s attic. They were beautiful and of heirloom quality. But, there was one flaw overlooked: the ceramic pieces made them extremely fragile. How about making them entirely of fabric? We decided to keep the first family together as inspiration and guidance and get to work on dolls that were soft sculpture.

As happens when all artists create, the process of making expanded. The girls designed a variety of figures such as animals, aliens, robots, trucks, and tractors. Each item brought with it a printed note of encouragement and friendship. When the Pet Pillows and Comfort Blankets came along, it seemed there was no stopping the motion.

A New Name and More Homes

As the items created moved beyond dolls, it became clear a new identity was needed. The new title, “TLC” seemed to sum up exactly what was going on at all levels.

It is unfortunate there is such demand for what VAE has been creating. Our community has more than its share of families and children in crisis. So far, the only recipient has been PAVE, who last year provided over 2,370 nights of shelter and assisted over 700 families in transition from emergency to stable housing.

Around the time of these changes in concept, I had a flat tire. A Vermont state trooper pulled up to assist, saying he had a much better lug wrench. I spotted a stuffed teddy bear in the trunk of the police cruiser. When asked why, the trooper explained that this was one of the most important tools he had in his trunk. In a crisis — a car accident, for example — a doll can be vital in comforting a distressed child. The need became clearer.

Discussions are underway to deliver TLC to healthcare sites such as the Vermont Veterans Home, United Counseling Service, and the Department of Family and Children Services as well as opiate clinics and recovery programs. We have opiate clinics where grandparents are raising their grandkids because mom and dad are not present. Our community last year saw the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless transition 279 homeless families at their local shelter including 60 children finding new homes. It is also a goal to have every first responder in the state of Vermont have a TLC onboard their vehicles.

A task this big requires more hands; the Special Project Grant from the Arts Council came at a perfect time. The young women from the Vermont School for Girls remain the chief designers and makers but the project is reaching out to the community with a TLC volunteer team to help with production and to expand the family to spread a little tender loving care. I will oversee TLC and work with Sandra Magsamen — an artist who will also be the lead advisor and volunteer coordinator. Additional teaching artists working from VAE’s arts education team with VSG students are Gabrielle Rynes and Rhonda Ratray. We envision an evening class open to community members with experience in various aspects of production (sewing labels, stitching, embroidery, etc.). We would eventually expand by bringing in teaching artist Charlotte Lyons for community workshops.

I end with these words from a note attached to a TLC Pet Pillow to that unknown child, “Wherever you go … my ears were made for listening. My arms were made for hugging. I was made to be your friend. Talk to me. Squeeze me. I promise our friendship will never end. Love, your Pillow Pal.”

Matthew Perry is the co-founder and executive director of the Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington.

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