Expressions In Porcelain

Shirley Whitworth Bertram places a pot of flowers just outside the door of this Southwest style dwelling as she tidies up her display room.

Shirley Whitworth Bertram places a pot of flowers just outside the door of this Southwest style dwelling as she tidies up her display room. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Being a photographer has hidden perks. Oh, not what you are thinking. I don’t get those secret sit-downs with famous people for their portraits, or exclusive shoots or famous autographs. Nope, that’s not what I’m talking about.

The perks I’m talking about are happy coincidences that lead to other opportunities. As an aside, I really prefer the term kwinky-dink, to the word coincidences. But that’s another story.

I met Shirley Whitworth Bertram when I went to photograph her husband’s cars for this year’s Beeline Cruise-In. Larry Bertram has three cars he managed to collect over the years. The conversation veered to a mention of his wife’s doll and dollhouse collection.

“She makes dolls, you know, for museums and such,” Larry said matter-of-factly, as if everyone does something like that.

“Really? That’s unusual,” I said.

“Would you like to see it?”

“You bet.”

So, when we finished with shooting the cars, Bertram showed me the way to Shirley’s collection.

Jaw-dropping is not a term I use much. Understatement is more my style, but this was out of my realm of expectation.

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The junk-man room-box is a popular exhibit, because it is a tribute to someone we all know, talk about and have met at some point in our lives.

We entered a large, well-appointed, converted shed with tables and shelves lined with glass and plastic cased exhibits. Two large, three-story dollhouses took up one wall and two others dominated the middle of the room.

We toured the room and Shirley explained many of the room-box set-ups. I barely listened. It was an absorbing feast of awe and wonder. Fascination filled me with a lack of speech as I gazed at the pottery maker’s room-box, the junkman, the music room, the woodcrafter, the mad scientist, and the toy store. Wow.

“This is too much,” I said; “I need to interview you for ‘Living.’ May I?”

“Well, sure,” Shirley said.

“I’ll call you next week,” I said. Larry suggested I see her workroom.

Shirley became a maker of miniatures by being sick and having nothing to do. She decided to try her hand at making something and a dollhouse seemed like a good start. She built her first dollhouse, the three-story Victorian style one over in the corner. But furnishing a dollhouse can become expensive.

Shirley only purchased handmade, quality items to put in her dollhouses. To support her growing collection, she needed to have an income to offset the outgo. Making dolls to put in the houses seemed logical.

She is a self-taught, miniature-doll maker. Having a creative, flexible mind and outlook helps. Her first doll was a kit. She bought all the necessary supplies: a small kiln to bake the porcelain, china paints to withstand the heat of the kiln and other supplies and equipment. And off she went.

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The clown repair man room-box is a particular favorite of Shirley’s and is filled with detail, as are all of her pieces.

Her special skill is making leather outfits for the dolls. That came about by needing a hat for a figure she was working on. Having a scrap of thin leather, Shirley decided to make a hat out of that. After much experimentation and trial and error, she found a way to make it work using only parts and equipment she had on hand.

Shirley now had a method to make outfits, a skill she didn’t know she had before, and a unique niche in the miniature-doll world.

The standard for miniatures was established in the early 1970s. There are four scales for miniatures, the most common is, one inch equals a foot. So a doll six inches tall is a six-foot person. Shirley works mostly in the one inch equals a foot, scale.

She took her dolls to miniatures shows around the country and began getting sales and commissions. Each doll has its own unique face, expression and story. She concentrates on making dolls of the common man — workers, miners, cowboys, prospectors, desert people, your everyday person.

Miniatures museums call on her frequently for commissions for their large exhibits. Her dolls grace miniatures museums worldwide.

Shirley has been doing this sort of thing since the 1980s and is slowing down and only takes commission work now. She belongs to the International Guild of Miniatures Artisans (IGMA). She was accepted as an artisan in 1993 and was awarded with a fellowship shortly thereafter. Being a fellow is a coveted title not offered to every artisan.

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Shirley puts a display of an easel with a shield on it back in place after moving several items to different locations as she rearranges a few of the rooms in an adobe dollhouse that is an artist’s studio.

Shirley has given workshops and seminars and has taught classes from here to Maine and back again. She is currently working on a Web site for the sale of commissioned dolls, leather, and doll-making supplies.

I went to Shirley’s exhibit at my appointed time, took my photographs, interviewed Shirley and just wanted to sit there and absorb the world of miniatures; it is a fascination of mine I haven’t admitted to very often. I sat there, remembering how I came to be here in the first place.

So, when you are on assignment, or meet a friend at a store, a party, or whatever, let the conversation go and ride it wherever it takes you. You just might have the fortune of finding a wonderful and unusual adventure; a kwinky-dink of miniatures’ proportions.

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