Talk about living dolls.

Michael Langton, a doll artist from New Hampshire, stands behind a recent creation--a lifelike middle-age couple sitting on a park bench--and tells about his intensely personal relationship with the people and the art.

"He's a dentist in New Hampshire, she's a hygienist," Langton, 49, explains. "They commissioned it for their 25th wedding anniversary. I videotaped them. I borrowed their clothes and shoes to study. That park bench has been with them through their whole marriage."

As he worked with the couple to create the $17,000 set--the figures are carved from wood, have joints so they can adopt different poses and are immaculately dressed, down to the minuscule collar buttons on the man's striped Oxford shirt--the artist also couldn't help but notice the "involved, caring" nature of their marriage.

"It got to where they were dropping their clothes and glasses off for me to copy accurately, and I thought, 'This is incredibly personal! This is a lot of trust they are showing me.'

"Finally, every night when I'd leave them in the studio"--Langton means the dolls--"I'd lift up his arm and put it around her. That's the kind of relationship they have."

Indeed, many dolls on display this week at the National Institute of American Doll Artists (NIADA) convention at the Bethesda Hyatt pack a visceral wallop. Whether they are realistic, whimsical, historical or socially thematic, these are not your Barbie dolls, or Howdy Doody. They seem more like Remington or Degas bronzes that have been dressed and painted. You don't pick these dolls up and play. California dollmaker Elinor Peace Bailey, who travels the country teaching women how to make cloth dolls and who lectured at the conference, explains the strangely elemental power of the form this way:

"A doll is an invitation to instant intimacy," she says. "It's peculiar and personal. Looking at a doll establishes instant rapport, not only with the object but with the person who makes it, so that it becomes a language. It's like any piece of art, but more immediate and more direct because it's a diminutive human form."

"I think of it as a magical process," puts in Bailey's friend Carleigh Hoff, a Connecticut dollmaker who works in polymer clays and mixed media to produce what she thinks of as "figurative sculpture. It's the ultimate art. You're creating another human form, and they each have their own story and spirit."

The women, lunching in a food court near the hotel, had tiny dolls pinned to their clothing. Bailey was actually dressed somewhat like a child's doll--in bright, wild colors; she adds that dolls can also be "playful . . . wonderfully dumb . . . trivial."

But they're not trivial to Demi Moore, whose former personal "doll curator" is here this week. At a public reception the other night, Michael Hinkle, 29--he now runs an art doll consulting firm out of Los Angeles--fondly recalls his years of "building a collection for Demi Moore. She has thousands of dolls, most by NIADA artists--she's a patron of the organization. Richard Simmons, the fitness guru, he's a patron also, he has a wonderful collection."

Anyway, back to Demi:

"I was curating her museum doll collection," Hinkle continues. "I traveled around the world looking for dolls; it was amazing. There's doll art in every country."

The actress became interested in dolls, Hinkle says, after her husband--Bruce Willis, from whom she is now separated--presented her with a rare and beautiful French figure. "Bruce bought her an Anne Nitrani, and she went nuts. It was so real and unlike anything we'd seen before. We jumped into it."

Previously Hinkle had been Moore's clothing stylist. Now his role with NIADA involves promoting the idea of dolls as "art," which seems a reasonable enough concept, given the work on display this week, and which could certainly jack up prices. Yet not everyone entirely agrees.

Even NIADA President Akira Blount, who creates druidic, spiritlike cloth dolls on her East Tennessee farm, likes to think of dollmaking not as art, exactly, but as a "fine craft. I came from a craft tradition, and I'm trying to reconnect this kind of work back to that, because I believe that is where it belongs."

Blount--who has actually supported her woodworker husband, Larry, and raised two children on the proceeds from her dollmaking over the years--is a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, a venerable institution to which NIADA founder Helen Bullard had also belonged; Bullard founded NIADA in 1962.

"People are crossing the line from the doll as toy to the doll as art," Blount says, "but it will always remain rooted in its craft tradition. This is connected to so much emotion, and that's why it evokes such a response from people. It's a human effigy, so it conjures all sorts of feelings about the human spirit and human nature."

Like many attending the convention, Blount had started out "making toy dolls for my babies--soft things for them to chew. Then I realized it was something I really enjoyed, and I became intrigued."

Blount's dolls, which have been included in the White House Collection of American Craft, sell for between $800 and $4,000. Those on display here this week include a druid saint who's been so physically still in prayer that birds have built a nest in his hands; by removing his hairpiece you can see that his thoughts involve the birds flying away.

The conference, which runs through tomorrow, when there is a public show and sale, has featured masters classes, a flea market, a lunch for doll "patrons" and even a "doll photographer."

It turns out, according to Jerry L. Anthony ("I don't do people or weddings"), that taking a good picture of a doll isn't all that easy. "A lot of it is getting the right angle and seeing into the eyes in such a way as to make the face stand out."

At the reception, artists stood by their creations, each little figure individually displayed on a high stand and spotlighted from the ceiling.

"I go to Japan and find paper suitable to my aesthetic," Dan Fletcher of New York City tells a fascinated group examining his three rollicking, tipsy Japanese men. "I didn't burnish this"--he points to a little sake bottle one of the men is holding--"because I kind of like the texture."

Across the room, Lisa Lichtenfels of Springfield, Mass., explains her haunting "soft sculpture" of a Brazilian Indian woman nursing her child. The artist used layers of nylon stockings to achieve "golden" skin tones.

A customer commissioned the work six years ago, Lichtenfels says, and although she churns out half a dozen dolls a year at prices ranging up to $15,000 each, it took that long to get the Indian woman and her child just right.

In the end, however, the customer didn't want the piece. "He said he was intimidated by it," Lichtenfels says. "He felt he was intruding on an intimate moment."

Indeed, there's something so wonderfully alive about the Indian woman's eyes--wistful, thoughtful, maybe a little worried--that you feel she might speak up at any moment.

"It just kills me to sell this," Lichtenfels says, shaking her head. "If I could, I would live in a big house and keep all my work."

NIADA's annual show and sale, open to the public, is tomorrow from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Hyatt, Bethesda. More information is available on the Web at www.niada.org.