Would you pay over S$3,000 for a doll? What if I told you that every single aspect of this doll has been hand-shaped, that each one is a unique and customised creation? In a world where consumers don’t blink when told that the watch they’re lusting after is S$30,000, is it so unreasonable to consider paying top dollar for a hand-crafted doll?
Janice Yong, a Singaporean mum in her late 40s, is a doll artist. And judging by her Instagram feed and the prices she commands for her one-of-a-kind Umami Baby creations, she is one of the best, not just in Singapore, but on the planet.
Since leaving the corporate world to take care of her three children, Janice has quietly transformed herself from an editor and writer into a premier and much sought-after artisan.
With their large heads and eyes, Janice's dolls remind me somewhat of the little girls in Yoshitomo Nara’s artworks. But while Nara’s girls are cheeky, angry or upset, these girls are impossibly serene and quite beautiful.
READ: Creative Capital: The Singaporean bespoke shoemaker who dreams of stepping onto the world stage
In addition to the dolls, which are sold on Big Cartel, Janice also sells tote bags with the dolls' faces on them on Redbubble, as well as phone cases, clocks and other products with similar images. In fact, movie star Elle Fanning has been spotted using one of her phone cases.
I had to know more about Janice and her creations, so I messaged her out of the blue to ask if I could feature her on Creative Capital. And here it is, this amazing doll artist living in Singapore.
DO YOU MAKE THE DOLLS FROM SCRATCH YOURSELF? CAN YOU TAKE US THROUGH YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?
Customising a doll involves taking a base doll – a Blythe doll, or other ball-jointed doll – and completely transforming her. With Blythe dolls, their size, structure and material (hard plastic) lend themselves well to substantial sculpting, which is the first, crucial stage of the whole process.
Starting this work involves literally cracking her head open and taking the doll completely apart. Every part of her is transformed – from her face to her body, the eye mechanism and hair – which can be cut, removed, dyed or re-rooted.
Carving the plastic is similar to carving wood. I use tools like scalpels, chisels and other sharp things. It’s labour-intensive and there’s not much room for error. Following the carving, comes the sanding, painting, varnishing, and everything else in between and after – including lid art, making eye chips and teeth, choosing hair, and taking photographs. It really is a labour of love.
WHAT WAS YOUR VERY FIRST ATTEMPT LIKE?
Stressful! It’s a steep learning curve and as I’d mentioned, there’s not much room for error. In the beginning, there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears. My first doll was adopted immediately though and is still loved by her owner to this day. That was a great encouragement.
HOW DID YOU DEVELOP THE SKILLS TO DO WHAT YOU DO?
I’m self-taught. I don’t think art class in school counts, does it? But I’ve been drawing and making things for as long as I can remember, which is a kind of training, I guess. I think most people with an artistic bent naturally take to art in whatever form, so I somehow felt I could teach myself to do this. However, as with any art, you have to be prepared to work at it, hard and consistently. It’s the only way to build any skill really.
HOW MANY DOLLS DO YOU PRODUCE A WEEK, OR MONTH?
It really depends on my personal commitments and by that, I mean mum-hood – during the school week and holidays, I’m busier with the kids. And also, the weather! I like to work only in daylight when there’s bright sun.
On average, I make two dolls a month, sometimes three or more, if I’m doing a commission. Yes, I have made bespoke dolls, but I do prefer to maintain my creative freedom.
WHERE ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS FROM? IS THERE A LARGE DOLL MARKET IN SINGAPORE?
My customers are from all over the world. There are quite a few in the Americas, Australia, Japan, China, Korea and different parts of Europe, including France, Spain and even Slovakia. I have girls closer to home in Southeast Asia, too, like Malaysia, Thailand, and yes, Singapore. There is, in fact, a fairly large doll market here, and collectors even have meets where everyone brings their dolls for a day of fun and good food.
GIVEN THE PRICES, ARE THESE DOLLS FOR ADULTS OR HAVE ANY OF YOUR CUSTOMERS PURCHASED THEM FOR THEIR CHILDREN?
Well, the dolls are meant more for the adults than very young children because they are first and foremost artworks. You’d hate to get a scratch or stain on your favourite painting and the same goes for the dolls. At the same time though, they are meant to be interactive and fun; one can play like a child with them and people often do.
YOU HAVE THREE KIDS. ANY GIRLS? AND DO THEY WANT THE DOLLS FOR THEMSELVES?
Yes, I have two girls, but no, they aren’t interested in the dolls at all. They have their own hobbies and interests, ranging from drawing to reading, dancing, journalling, insects and geology, so I’ve never had to say “hands off!” to them or to my young son either.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
There’s inspiration everywhere; I don’t think I could list everything. My kids, other kids, nature, art, fashion, people on the street or the train … heroic deeds, a well-told ghost story, a period movie, a line of poetry … it could really be anything.
WHAT EMOTIONS DO YOU HOPE YOUR DOLLS WOULD ELICIT FROM YOUR CUSTOMERS? ANY SPECIAL STORIES?
I’d like my dolls to evoke all the wonder and innocence of childhood, and that joy and love you used to feel when you were playing with your favourite toy. Yes, that toy you’d cuddle and talk to.
Some of the words that have been used to describe my dolls are “ragamuffin”, “minx” and “beatnik”. They have a wild, wistful, vintage, old-soul quality to them, I think, which is how I’d like my customers to feel – nostalgic and tender. Doll collectors are often young at heart and I like to reach out to that child in them.
People often adopt my dolls because something about them “spoke” to them, or they were given as gifts for Valentine’s Day, an anniversary or a birthday.
I hear special stories from my customers all the time because the dolls are very much a part of their lives – they celebrate special occasions together, meet special people, see special places … which is really how we should try to live, isn’t it? Finding the extraordinary and beautiful in every day.
DO YOU CALL YOURSELF AN ENTREPRENEUR, AN ARTIST, A DOLL MAKER?
An artist or a doll artist. I can’t imagine using the word “entrepreneur” on myself. Not yet!
WHAT DO YOUR FRIENDS THINK OF THIS CREATIVE BUSINESS OF YOURS?
Strangers are usually surprised but with friends, I think they simply accept it as being in keeping with who I am. My close friends and family are glad that I’ve managed to find a way to balance motherhood and work.