The beauty’s in the details
Mother-in-law’s request launches Tonganoxie woman’s doll-carving hobby
Susan Aye is looking for wood, antlers and inspiration. Aye carves dolls.
She started the hobby three years ago at the suggestion of her mother-in-law, Billie Aye.
Susan had been painting for about 20 years when Billie, an avid doll collector, asked her to carve a wooden Hitty -- a doll that inspired the 1930 Newbery Medal-winning children's book, "Hitty, Her First Hundred Years."
Since then, Susan has carved more than 60 Hitties and has gained national attention for her work. In December, the Tonganoxie resident and her creations were featured in "Dolls" magazine. The article's writer learned about Susan's work from an artist she was interviewing for another story.
Susan said the exposure led to two doll sales, but the meaning beyond the sales was much more important.
"I've always loved art," she said. "To me, the biggest thing was having someone love my art enough to buy it."
Susan's artistic endeavors have evolved throughout the years. In her teens, she was a doodler and won a junior high drawing contest. She started painting after she married her husband, Mark, 25 years ago. In the '90s, she sculpted dogs for her daughter, Shannon, now 19, and her Barbie dolls. Today, doll carving helps her relieve the stress that comes from her full-time job as a legal secretary in Kansas City, Mo.
"I can't wait to get home and do my dolls or do the gardening," she said. "I could do this all day long if I could sell enough of them to make enough money. Being a legal secretary can be stressful."
Susan said carving the Hitty dolls was more appealing than painting because of their quick turnaround. She can carve and paint a wooden doll in about eight hours. The dolls she creates from deer and elk antlers usually take 15 hours to complete. Each doll comes with a coral necklace, which is also handmade by Susan.
She spends an hour every night in her workshop, she said, but often works longer than she plans.
"Once I sit downstairs in my workshop, I have to work on them," she said. "I can't go upstairs until I get this little detail done, because if I don't do it now, I'll never find it tomorrow."
After Susan completes a doll, she takes photographs and sends them to a list of customers by e-mail. Within an hour, the doll is usually sold, she said.
Wooden doll prices start at $300 for a variety of woods, including cherry, African mahogany, box elder and walnut. Most of the wood she carves is purchased online or in stores, but whenever she can, Susan uses wood found near her and Billie's homes.
Each wood yields a different skin color and tone. Most of her customers, she said, are repeat customers, so she carves in different woods to offer them variety.
Each is unique
Billie said that Susan's creativity and attention to detail helped her talent stand out among other doll carvers, including many who have carved much longer than Susan.
"Each of her dolls is unique," Billie said. "Not one of her dolls has a resemblance to another."
Susan said holly was her favorite wood to work with. She charges $325 for holly Hitties.
"I love the way it carves out," she said. "It's got a nice finish to it, and when I'm using a knife, it peels off like wax."
On the other hand, deer and elk antler Hitty dolls present a challenge, she said, because she has to find long, straight antlers that she can carve without piercing the spongy marrow inside the antlers. These dolls, which she sells for $400, can take up to 15 hours.
Margie Schaber, a doll collector from Leavenworth, Wash., said Susan's ability to carve in various media was impressive.
"The deer horn is really different," she said. "You don't see that medium in other artists."
Schaber's collection of 125 dolls contains six of Susan's Hitties, which were made from deer and elk antlers and wood.
She said Hitty doll collectors across the nation admired Susan's new interpretation of the classic doll.
"They're far more detailed," Schaber said. "She gets such detail, even in every little hair strand. She captures a more human look. Susan's dolls actually look like little people."
Susan said she looked to other artists' work, as well as children's faces, for inspiration.
"When I'm in church, I'll think, 'oh, that little girl would make a perfect doll,'" she said. "I go through magazines and tear out pictures of faces that I like, in all different angles."
Susan also feels faces with her fingertips. It helps her create more realistic features, she said.
"If you close your eyes, you can feel where the indentations are and how the cheekbones come down," she said.
Her son, Mason, 14, was the model for Henry, one of the first dolls she carved.
"He doesn't really look a whole lot like Mason," Susan said, "but if you really look, you can see the profile, his nose and everything."
Other family members also contribute to her creations. Billie -- who is now taking carving lessons from Susan -- makes clothing for the dolls, while Mark builds and sells furniture for the dolls. The trio gets many of their ideas from the settings found in the children's book about the Hitty doll's adventures as a world traveler from 1829 to 1929.
Serious doll collectors purchase the dolls and furniture, such as desks and beds, and recreate the book's illustrations and settings within their own homes, Susan said. Some collectors own hundreds of dolls and dedicate entire rooms to their Hitty collections.
She said creating products that brought so much enjoyment to people was very rewarding and brought other benefits, including connections with people all over the United States.
"They're extremely generous and giving people," she said. "Once they get your name and address, they send you swatches of material or buttons. It's just amazing the friendships that evolve from these dolls."