"The Twilight Zone" used to get away with scenes only half this quirky. She peers through the glass and points at the figure on the other side, the one housed in a kind of mausoleum. "What do you see?" she asks a visitor. "Tell me really. What do you see?"
"No," answers Heidi Phelps, who means it, whose soft German-accented voice turns emphatic when it comes to a discussion of her "children," as she calls them.
She presses her face against the glass and looks in unfeigned rapture at her idol, a rosy-cheeked beauty a mere 20 inches tall, whose big eyes seem to follow you around and are the kind of sea blue that, according to legend, once made her suitors salivate. But the most striking thing about her is this porcelain head, now adorned with a miniature wig fashioned from flowing mohair, dyed auburn.
"Aren't you beautiful," Phelps coos at the beauty, then turns back to the visitor, smiling, a faint rebuke to her tone. "You just see a doll. I see beautiful Elisabeth--as happy as ever, even if she's gone. I can hear her. She was real. She's real again. Look."
She points, and you look. There's Elisabeth under glass, like Lenin. Phelps made her. Or, more accurately, as Phelps likes to say, she reproduced her, creating a virtual-replica of a French antique doll manufactured a century earlier and inspired by Elisabeth of Austria, a 19th-century empress and, by turns in her life, elegant, lusted after and ultimately doomed, according to Phelps. She was stabbed to death by a man who hated aristocrats.
"But what an inspiration," says Phelps, who took Elisabeth the doll the next step, embellishing the icon so beautifully that, three years ago, she won the highest international award in antique dollmaking, "the Millie." It was just the first honor in an ascendancy in which, most recently, the 62-year-old Phelps moved into the field of modern dollmaking and captured its top international prize, "the Maggie," for her 1999 presentation of a golden-skinned doll she calls Cleopatra.
Today, she has a dollmaking studio in her town house, complete with molds into which she pours liquid porcelain, and two 2,000-degree kilns into which she and her 50 or so dollmaking students stick painted porcelain doll heads when these are at last ready for the firing process, after which the paints will became indelible.
It is a world inside a world. Her clock in the studio is running an hour slow because she forgot to change it when Daylight Savings Time came around last time and hasn't noticed it since. She goes through long stretches when she doesn't think of time, too busy dreaming: Let others worry whether it's 8 o'clock or midnight, she says. The phone, which she seldoms picks up during work mode, has a message offering a simple explanation for her absence: "I am pouring porcelain and making beautiful dolls."
For the former hatmaker who came to America in 1959, not knowing English and relegated to menial jobs, the metamorphosis has been heady and improbable. Just 12 years ago, she was a 50-year-old convenience store manager, feeling an ineffable void in her life and a shadow creeping over her, the years running out. Then one day she walked by chance into a ceramics shop and saw a group of people gathered around a kiln, at work on a craft she couldn't fathom.
"It was the first kind of work that I ever saw brought people complete happiness," she remembers. "Life is hard, and it's full of lies and pain, and making dolls allowed you to see those children's faces, all that happiness, all that innocence. . . . The only bad thing I thought was, 'Why didn't I discover this sooner?' This was one of the few things that wiped all pains away. Thank God for dolls and children."
She did not have her own children, but she had known pain, she would say cryptically--noting that, of all the hurts, none was worse than when her family lost her year-old brother, Irvin, to pneumonia, a victim of a World War II Germany that did not have enough drugs to go around.
So Irvin became her first doll. She made his skin baby-smooth and his eyebrows and lashes angelically thin, gave him German doll eyes made of hand-blown glass, put him in a christening gown and, in her mind, felt as if she had brought a part of him back. "From the first day, I could tell my baby brother I hope he's in peace," she recalls.
She next made dolls of her older sister and herself. In that first year, she was buying several hundred dollars' worth of dollmaking materials whenever she walked into a crafts store, running up bills she couldn't pay, sneaking silk and porcelain past her husband, "addicted like a junkie," she remembers.
Finally discovering her $500-a-trip habit, he ordered an end to it, only to relent and give her a special credit card after she won a local dollmaking competition and veteran doll enthusiasts began asking her for advice. "She had this talent and excitement about it that most people don't get for anything," recalls David Phelps, 78. "These dolls are like her kids."
"I talk to them," she confesses. "They talk to me."
She means all 200 or so of them, the ones that clog nearly every room of her town house in Vienna and will soon, unbeknown to her husband, spill over to invade their bedroom, pushing him to his little office if he wants a last refuge.
And that doesn't begin to account for all the uncompleted dolls, most notably their detached heads--Marie Antoinette's lying near another pretty head whose eyes keep coyly swerving your way, a vixen whom Heidi has dubbed "Rosalyn With the Flirty Eyes."
It is a habitat that now looks like equal parts F.A.O. Schwartz and a movie set for "Alice in Wonderland," a place for dreamers, and thus just the right kind of milieu for Heidi Phelps--who can go talk, if she wishes, to her Catherine the Great doll, or Father Christmas, or the valuable French doll, Cody Jummu, with its metallic-green Eiffel Tower-like hat, or to her baby brother's image sitting in a place of honor on a living room chair.
"When you just walk in her house, the dolls inspire you," Patricia Macready says. "They're all there, all over. It's different from any world you've ever been in, and you think, 'Maybe I can do something like that someday--make something beautiful.' It lifts you. And she's a marvelous teacher, patient, caring, but so careful and precise."
A Barbie doesn't get made by hand. Phelps takes about two months to create each of her dolls. She has left admirers gasping at her skill for painting those humanlike eyebrows and lashes on her creations, and for fashioning miniature doll clothes that would be justifiable reason for a designer's envy. But to Phelps, the dolls are less works of art than presences she seldom can bear to part with.
"When people tell me they want to buy one, I try to set the price so high that they'll say no," she says, then recounts how she felt "I was coming apart inside when this woman bought a doll for $4,000 and I had to pack her up."
She can hardly imagine a life without the most special of her dolls, particularly the one in this glass case, clothed in a gold metallic dress replete with chiffon slips, one layer pink, the other green, the dress iridescent, so that the empress Elisabeth of Austria seems to radiate otherworldly sparks. Phelps admits to feeling a special tie. "Elisabeth the empress used to vacation in Germany, near where I grew up," she says proudly. "She talks to me. She's very meticulous about her figure."
They all talk to her, she adds, urging her to move and dust them, prodding her to create new dolls so that they can have more companions. "That makes me sound weird, doesn't it?" she says, pausing in mid-thought. "Well, don't get a dollmaker talking. You'll hear strange things. Strange but wonderful."
She has found the world she wanted all along, in those days when she was slinging giant root beers and Hershey bars. "Some people would call what I have an obsession, and it probably is," she says, looking around at her dolls, every head pointed her way. "But a lot of life has some kind of obsession to it. What's important is to find the right obsession--one with a little peace and beauty to it. I have it now. I just want to show it to as many others as I can."
CAPTION: Prize-winning dollmaker Heidi Phelps, who has a studio in her Vienna town house, displays some of her porcelain creations, top. A doll named Cleopatra, left, won dollmaking's top international prize, "the Maggie."
CAPTION: To make dolls, Heidi Phelps pours liquid porcelain into molds, which are fired in kilns. Above are doll parts that have been fired and await completion.