The University Record, February 07, 2000

Artisan crafts dolls to reflect Native Americans’ spiritual philosophies

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Development Officer Mary Penet with a few of the special people who keep her busy evenings and weekends. Penet crafts her Spirit Peopleď from polymer clay and uses a number of techniques to create the hauntingly realistic dolls, which are about 20 inches tall. Shown here (from left) are ‘Crying for a Dream,’ ‘Sweetgrass Woman Singing,’ ‘Eve Still Likes Apples’ and ‘Masai Warrior.’ The Santa Claus (foreground) is from an earlier time in Penet’s career when she was working in one-inch to one-foot scale. Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services
Top doll collectors from around the country, including Hollywood notables, will have the opportunity to see the Spirit Peopleď, designed by Mary Penet, a development officer in the Annual Giving Programs Office. Penet’s creations will be displayed later this month at the Toy and Doll Fair in New York City, the largest wholesale show of its kind in the country.

The self-taught artist, who began sculpting dolls in a one-inch scale for miniature vignettes, recently began working on art dolls that average about 20 inches tall. Some of Penet’s People are built with polymer clay on a wire armature wrapped tightly with aluminum foil, while others have clay heads and limbs attached to soft sculpture bodies, molded by stuffing a body stocking with fiber fill and then adding stitching to define the body’s form. All of her dolls are anatomically correct. One doll can take as long as two months to finish.

“I try to get the essence of the character,” says Penet, who pores through library volumes for information to accurately portray her People. She feels that the spirits are absorbed in a private, deeply emotional moment of time, and her hope is that the viewer will be drawn into a heartfelt participation of that moment.

“I particularly love portraying Native Americans,” she says. “My heart has followed their spiritual philosophy all my life, and I’ve just recently begun studying with some elders in the Upper Peninsula. Theirs is a way of life I’ve followed for a number of years, though I didn’t know what it was called.”

Working full time at the University leaves Penet only nights and weekends to work on the dolls. Her bedroom has become a studio, which in turn has overflowed to the kitchen table and counter. She always meditates and burns sacred herbs before starting work on one of the dolls. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just a tool,” Penet says. Somewhere in each doll she includes sweetgrass, one of the sacred herbs.

It’s not enough that Penet creates specific characters, but she costumes them as accurately as possible using chamois, feathers and beads, paints and embroidery. When she can’t find beads the appropriate size for a character, Penet creates those, too.

With her vignettes already in private and museum collections all over the world, it is possible that one of Penet’s Spirit People, will find lodging with a Hollywood celebrity or in a noted museum following the New York show.