In a black velvet gown, a nearly three-foot-tall Catherine de Medici lies waiting to be fitted with the gray locks her maker has bound into coils. Nearby, an imperious, tight-lipped Queen Elizabeth I, a lace ruff up to her ears, looks toward the orange-red mop of crimped curls soon to be placed on her bald pate and then studded with pearls. A 17th-century Italian tart in a shiny black dress, her long jet hair streaming over the great deal of bosom she exposes, raises a leg to display her filmy petticoats and purple pantaloons.
"I don't like to be labeled a dollmaker," says Patricia Diaz as she stands in a room surrounded by the dolls she has made. "People usually think of porcelain stylized faces -- these are sculpted. They're one-of-a-kind."
Diaz creates miniature historical figures and commissioned doll portraits. "At times I've felt like an interior decorator," she says. "People want a doll to match their decor." Others, she says, citing a recent commission, provide photographs, hair and clothing of family members to be portrayed.
"The sculpted doll is in," says Diaz, recently returned from an exhibit of sculpted dolls in a New York City gallery. "It's a piece of furniture, an heirloom, a piece of art, something to have sitting around in the house on a chair."
Formerly a bronze-caster, Diaz now carves heads, hands, feet and an occasional upper torso from a cellulose-based material, a cross between plaster and papier mache'. Fascinated with historical biographies and period costuming, she researches her figures, then recreates them. "I really feel like I'm creating a person," she says, and points to the Italian trollop. "She drew tears from my eyes when I finished her."
In contrast to the many dolls clothed in finery ("Some fabrics cost as much as $30 a yard," Diaz says), Catherine the shrew, sports a plain outfit, rich in color but not in opulence. "Kate is usually depicted in working clothes. She was a bitchy woman, a spoiled brat who had to be tamed," Diaz remarks. So the focus is on Kate's expression, her mouth sneering, eyes glaring.
The eyes? "I use white marbles and paint the eyeballs," Diaz says. "I usually put clear fingernail polish on the eyes to give a luminous quality." She buys human-hair wigs, many from France and Korea, then tints, perms and fashions the hair to suit the figure portrayed. To make Catherine de Medici's black leather shoes, Diaz had to become an amateur cobbler.
"I've learned to do some taxidermy," she says, referring to the stuffed, brown goose wings that keep a frizzy-haired angel aloft. Brown wings? And so heavy? "Look at Gothic and Renaissance paintings," she says, pointing to pictures on her studio wall.
Diaz delights in historical accuracy. Picking up Catherine de Medici, she says, "From my reading I discovered she was the first queen to wear black for mourning, so I've clothed her in black." The doll wears a stiff-winged black voile cap and matching winged cape, ribboned pantaloons and three slips. An oversize ring adorns her left forefinger.
Representing Queen Elizabeth is a haughty, gaunt figure in generous petticoats and very elaborate bloomers. "She was very gaudy," Diaz explains. "Once a lady-in-waiting walked in wearing a gorgeous dress and upstaged her, so she ordered the dress removed and wore it herself, even though it didn't fit." Green velvet, gold lame' and white brocade cover the doll's sparse frame. "She was extremely thin and often sickly. She had smallpox but wasn't badly scarred." There are small pits in the doll's face.
"It's appropriate that Elizabeth is depicted with long pearls," Diaz adds. Originally a gift from a pope, they belonged to Catherine de Medici, who gave them to her daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots. After Mary's beheading, Elizabeth took the pearls.
Historical and Shakespearean figures by Diaz can be seen at the Anne Hathaway Gallery of the Folger Shakespeare Library through March 1.