JAPANESE DOLLS Contemporary Soft Sculpture by Junko Mitsubara Liesfeld and Toyoko Matsubara opens Saturday at the Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW. Some of the dolls will be on sale, with prices ranging from $20 to $500. Children are invited to view the exhibition and to attend a demonstration of the doll-making technique by Liesfeld on April 14 from 1 to 4. School tours of the exhibition, which closes May 6, may be arranged by calling 667-0441.
Every March 3, Japanese families who have daughters dust off their very expensive entourage of ceremonial dolls and celebrate Hina Matsuri, or Girls' Festival. Dolls representing the emperor and empress, their courtiers, maids and musicians are placed in the family's best room with ceremonial gifts before them.
"It's to celebrate that their daughters are nice and pretty -- that they're ladies," explains Junko Matsubara Liesfeld. Reluctant to disparage the tradition, she plainly doesn't warm to it.
"There are dead dolls and living dolls," she says, a bit hesitantly. "These Girls' Festivals dolls -- there's a feeling you can't touch them. They stand so straight, and most of the faces look alike. Most are manufactured. My mother made her own for us, and we liked that much more."
The dolls made by Liesfeld and her mother, Toyoko Matsubara, that will go on exhibition at the Textile Museum Saturday, are clearly living dolls. They don't stand straight -- they fling each other to the floor in judo throws. They whisper to their older sisters. They play the Japanese version of "London Bridge Is Falling Down." They even turn their rear ends toward the fire to keep warm. The dolls in the exhibition, which the mother-and-daughter artists prefer to call soft sculpture, form lively tableaux of street urchins, laborers, extended families, festival-goers, even a drunk toting his empty saki jug.
"I started making dolls when I was about ten, just for pleasure," says Liesfeld. "My mother, when she first started making dolls, had a different style. Then she left the basic way and put her own way into it. I always respected my mother for this. She is an artist, and a great teacher for me. But she never told me to be a doll-maker. I went to art school, and I studied clay."
Liesfeld's mother, Matsubara, still lives in Osaka. But Liesfeld -- after a stint in Australia translating Chinese poems into English, an extended visit to Peru to learn about Inca art, a stay in Spain to study ceramics and a slow journey through the Middle East -- eventually married an American and settled down in Montpelier, Virginia. Although they work separately, the two women visit each other for extended periods. In other ways, too, the dolls are a family affair.
"My father, who's a retired businessman, makes all the shoes," says Liesfeld, pointing to the wooden clogs of a farmer. "I just send him the size and he cuts them out of wood."
Most everything made of wood in each group of soft sculpture is made by Liefeld's father, including the wooden pallet where a Japanese family sits while the grandfather teaches a little boy to play shogi , or Japanese chess. Under the pallet lies a ceramic mosquito-repelling coil.
"This was a typical summer scene until recently," sighs Liesfeld. "A family would spend a hot evening outside. But that was before air-conditioning and before TV."
Liesfeld's three sons, ages seven, four and two, also get involved in the doll-making prodves or at least supply inspiration.
"I get a lot of ideas from being around my children," she says, pointing to a group of child dolls who appear to be conspiring in hushed tones. "And my oldest son is very interested in helping me put the excelsior in the dolls."
Before the stuffing can begin, Liesfeld sews a fabric into a basic shape that looks something like a bell with a handle on top. Turned inside out and stuffed with excelsior, the shape is now ready for what Liesfeld describes as the hardest part -- the face.
"You need a lot of cotton padding for a child's face, or if you want to make a funny nose," says Liesfeld. "You have to know just how much to put to get the impression you want."
Eyes are sewn down. Pins are inserted to define the nose. And stretchy material is sewn over the shaped face. Sometimes, especially when the subject is a farmer, papier mache is built up on top of the face and sanded and painted. If the farmer is carrying the kind of giant white radish that the Japanese love tod eat, it too is fashioned of papier mache. Clothes also get meticulous attention: Laborers and farmers wear the old folk cotton fabric that is almost extinct in modern Japan, according to Liesfeld.
"Now I have to buy it in a handicraft shop in Tokyo, and it's very expensive," she laments. "And the kimonos I make out of silk, according to the real way. The seams have to go a certain way. There are rules for kimono-making."
Even in innovative soft sculpture, traditions have their place.