A Vermont Artist Finds Healing, and an Income, with Lifelike Infant Sculptures
State of the Arts
Here’s a little quiz: Does “creepy, naked babies” refer to (a) an Ozzy Osbourne tribute band, (b) a review of Ann Geddes’ photos featuring infants dressed as insects, (c) a mixed drink that could blow away a Breathalyzer, or (d) none of the above?
If you said (d), you’re right. And you don’t win a thing, but read on. “Creepy, naked babies” is what Vermont artist Jennifer Stocks-Dearborn jokingly calls her eerily realistic — and rapidly selling — stock of polymer clay infants, which she sculpts in her Jeffersonville home. (See audio slideshow.)
Despite that somewhat humorous description, Stocks-Dearborn’s art began with anything but laughter. As much creativity does, hers originated in darkness — death, to be precise. Her 16-month-old daughter Madison died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) on October 8, 2000. Within the next three years, Stocks-Dearborn married and had two sons. But the healing process from her daughter’s death did not really begin until April 2006, when a friend forwarded an email about Canadian sculptor Camille Allen’s “Marzipan Babies.”
“As I stared at these tiny, hand-sculpted babies made from clay, I thought, I can do that,” Stocks-Dearborn recalls. “And I did. I remember sculpting my very first piece, and how my anxieties and overwhelming tidal waves of emotions subsided. From that first one, I was hooked.”
By June 2006 she had started selling her own “creepy, naked babies” on eBay. A month later, she created a clay baby memorial piece for a mournful parent. “From that point on,” Stocks-Dearborn says, “I knew this was something I was supposed to do. This hobby of mine that aids in mending my broken heart doesn’t just stop when I have completed it. It’s meant to move me forward — on to others who walk my path.”
Stocks-Dearborn’s voice is strong when she discusses Madison, but her eyes sometimes glisten with tears. Madison was colicky for the first three months of her life and had pneumonia twice, but she was comical and vibrant, her mother recalls. She adored bluegrass music and took her first step just days before she turned 1. Stocks-Dearborn was at work the day her then-boyfriend put Madison down for her last nap. He later found the baby blue and lifeless. Madison’s mother had just one question: Why?
Her art helps her explore that mystery.
“This sweet, special child of mine made a huge impact on my life, and each day that I spent with her taught me the true meaning of love and happiness,” Stocks-Dearborn writes on her website, http://www.freewebs.com/mytangiblepeace. “I learned what true, unconditional love really was, and I learned that together we could do anything. [Madison] showed me parts of myself that I had never known existed, even in her death. So I made it my mission to share what I have learned and spread her selfless love as far as I possibly can.”
Stocks-Dearborn did not model her first clay baby after Madison; only after making 10 of the tiny figures did she begin to recognize their deeper meaning. To date, she’s made 180 babies, each without a mold. That meant no one could recreate them — until now. In April, a small Texas-based doll company named Bloomersnbows asked Stocks-Dearborn if she would sculpt some babies for mass production in China. She agreed.
Bloomersnbows has bought the copyrights to a few of Stocks-Dearborn’s pieces, meaning they produce a mold from her master sculpture and use it to make plain, vinyl dolls. The original dolls are returned to her.
Strange? Maybe, but not to Stocks-Dearborn. “These guys are funding my hobby,” she says, referring to Bloomersnbows. “In all honesty, I would be content living my life as I do: in my small town, surrounded by my family and friends, being allowed to stay outside of the normal and professional workforce, and making my babies.”
The dolls look exactly like what she calls them: “creepy, naked babies.” They range from 3 inches to a life-sized 19. Memorial sculptures are small but free, provided the person who solicits one donates the cost of supplies. The life-sized babies? $350.
The clay infants have tiny digits and perfectly placed fat creases. Mohair or Tibetan lamb’s hair covers their round heads. Stocks-Dearborn applies the hair last and bakes it into the top layer of the clay’s surface. These days, she quips, “I tell people I always have a baby in the oven.”