Kati Kain

Norman artist Kati Kain poses with a trio of dolls that she handcrafts.

Dolls are old as time. They’ve been made in all cultures around the globe as children’s toys, religious talismans and teaching devices.

Kati Kain is a Norman-based doll maker whose creative inspiration is multi-faceted. Her dolls are artistic, social and personal expressions of her own creativity that also speak to those of her patrons.

She handcrafts these small figures now, but other dolls before them have long been present in the businesswoman, wife and mother’s life.

“I’ve always loved dolls,” Kain said. “Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I loved receiving dolls as gifts. Every Christmas I had to get a doll, and I collected them.”

The dolls Kain creates are sewn together from various fabrics. She taught herself that craft as a young adult, and is still learning.

“My mother is an artist, a painter, but she didn’t sew,” Kain said. “She didn’t knit, crochet or sew, and none of that was passed down to me. I didn’t live close enough to grandmothers who could teach me. I wasn’t the artist that my mother is, but I always wanted to be able to create things.”

Five years ago, after her children had left the nest, she began devoting her attention to doll making. A novel called “The Dollmaker” by Harriette Arnow — and then film by the same name starring Jane Fonda — were among Kain’s inspirations.

The book is social realism about family struggles and redemption that’s been termed an “American masterpiece.” Kain’s dolls reflect the human desire for designing and making.

“I didn’t want to use someone else’s patterns or ideas, wanting them to be my own unique creations,” she said. “More artistic than craft. It’s taken awhile.”

Dolls representing mermaids are a significant part of her repertoire.

“I grew up in Virginia, and we’d go to North Carolina every summer for a week, and the ocean has special meaning for me,” Kain said. “Mermaids are such a cool thing for someone of any age to enjoy, sitting on their desk if you’re an adult. They’re unique, confident and courageous. That’s why I specifically started making mermaids.”

Kain cuts out pieces of muslin fabric, sews them together and stuffs them to create the doll’s body. Arms, legs and a head are attached. Hair is crocheted to a cap on the heads.

All the doll faces are hand painted by Kain. Typically they have large bright eyes, cupid bow lips and adorable little noses.

“For the character dolls, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Frida Kahlo, I make distinctive clothing,” she said.

Kain is working on a representation of Dolly Parton, which will make for a solid trio of dynamic dolls.

“I want to make strong women who are recognizable,” she said. “Rosa Parks and Georgia O’Keeffe are others in the works. It takes longer to make the character dolls so the faces will actually resemble the person from their photos that I use.”

Hand-painted faces make each Kain creation special.

“People recognize Frida Kahlo and RGB right away,” she said.

Kain’s university degree is in art history, and many remember her career time at the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. She was a salesperson and buyer at the museum store for several years.

“Working there had a huge impact on my artistic sensibility,” she said. “It was interesting and I did a lot of buying, including from Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild, which is a company that makes character dolls. I got the idea, but then thought that I could do a lot better making my own than the ones they sell.”

Doll making has personal benefits for Kain beyond the money she makes selling them.

“It helps me with anxiety,” she said. “Especially during 2020. It’s really a passion for me. I would like for it to be my main job. I love making dolls, it makes me happy. It’s enjoyable seeing kids choose their own dolls.

“I got to talk to two sweet sisters about why they chose the dolls they did. I love being able to talk face to face with buyers, especially kids. Kids give me ideas.”

Kain’s dolls are in stock at the Firehouse Art Center gift store, 444 S. Flood Ave., and J-Byrd Marketplace and gift boutique, 330 E. Gray St. She takes doll commission inquiries and sends photos of dolls from cutie.pies.dolls@gmail.com.

Emma Keith is the editor of The Transcript, where she covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.

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