By Jerome Tharaud
Some people who walk into Bernice Pyette's living room find a pair of eyes they can't resist. That's not hard to believe - they're everywhere, and she paints them herself. The local matriarch of porcelain dolls has spent 40 years learning how to put the spark in those eyes, and the blush on the cheeks.
"I have a tendency to give a doll away to someone who comes in and falls in love with it," she says.
Pyette's home doubles as a workshop and classroom. Around her are dozens of dolls, standing on stools and propped up in chairs, gazing into the room with their meticulously painted eyes. The dolls range from the size of a hand to nearly 4 feet tall.
During Havre's Festival Days celebration, Pyette will bring about 200 of the dolls she and her students have made into the light for a public show at the Holiday Village Shopping Center. The cool, pristine porcelain skin belies the many layers of work that go into making the dolls, each one of which generally takes more than a month of work.
Pyette's last show five years ago drew about 1,700 people. Many, she says, think the dolls come already assembled and only need to be painted.
"I don't think they realized all the steps and the work that goes into them," she says.
The process begins in Pyette's backyard warehouse, which holds hundreds of clay molds to make the doll parts. It is there that Mariann Miller, one of Pyette's two assistants, confronts plastic jugs full of liquid porcelain: unborn dolls. The mud-like stuff gets in Miller's hair and on her clothing and shoes while she pours. By the end of a morning-long session of furious part-making, she has the delicate beginnings of many dolls - arms, legs, torsos and heads in soft white shells a quarter-inch thick. They sit in the mold for two days to become firm enough to handle.
In the basement workshop nearby, one entire wall of shelves displays these parts, waiting to be taken up by Pyette or one of her students - generally she has fewer than 50 a year. Several heads are lined up in rows on one shelf, and another has arms or legs. Each hollow part has a hole where it will connect to another part, and a seam left over from the mold. The first job of the artist is to sand away the seams without breaking the part. Sometimes a porcelain finger is broken off and the doll dies right there.
Pyette began making dolls more than 40 years ago in Billings. She took classes and seminars as far away as Colorado and Arizona, and within three years she had 90 students. Her very first creation, a 15-inch doll named Hilda, still sits in her house. For the last 23 years, Pyette has been in Havre, where she teaches doll-making classes three times a week.
Dolls can be a lucrative trade, she says, starting at $100 for a short one and bringing in $2,500 for a 40-inch doll. Pyette says she knows of one French doll that sold for close to $30,000, and another antique mold that sold for $37,000.
But for Pyette, they're valuable in a different way.
"It keeps me busy in my old age - it's good for me," Pyette says. They're creative, she adds, and she loves to sew their costumes.
And they attract company.
"I like making the dolls, but I really enjoy my students," Pyette says, adding that they're as much friends as they are students.
"The students all tell me it's cheaper than therapy," she laughs.
After the seams are sanded, the parts are fired in a kiln at 2,165 degrees for about eight hours to produce something firm enough to work with. The parts have to be perfectly balanced in the kiln, Pyette says, because they soften before cooling slowly, over 16 more hours, into hard porcelain.
"Every now and then some poor soul collapses," Miller says.
But assuming they can preserve their integrity, the cooled parts are taken up again.
The doll-maker polishes them to get rid of the rough, gritty feeling of newly fired porcelain, and then cleans them with alcohol. Then, after a week of work, the painting begins.
Dolls are painted with china paint, eyes first. After each color in an eye, the head must be put back in the kiln and fired again for five hours. A hazel eye might have six or eight colors, Pyette says.
The painting continues with a wash of light pink over the whole doll. Subsequent layers deepen the blush on the cheeks, add eyebrows and shadows on the faces. After each layer of paint the dolls go back in a second kiln for a shorter, cooler firing.
It is all painstakingly worked to give the sense of life.
"When you get their eyes and individual things, they come alive," Pyette says.
"If you don't put shadows on, they look flat," she explains. She says painting dolls' faces has made her look more carefully at human ones.
Miller points to one glassy-eyed girl.
"(She has) several layers of color on her that make her face a face instead of just a flat object," she says. "I think that's part of the fun of doing it, is the painting.
"You can make them look totally different with the way you paint them," Pyette says.
"She's got an attitude," Pyette quips, pointing to one doll, a brunette. "I must have been in a bad mood at the time."
"You could put 10 ladies at the table painting the same doll and none of them would look the same," she says.
But sometimes the dolls don't want to cooperate.
"What you had in mind is not what you painted," Miller says.
A doll-maker might start out with a blond doll in mind, but the doll has other ideas.
"All of a sudden you end up with a curly haired brunette," she says.
Finally, after all the parts are painted and fired, they are assembled. Reproductions of antique dolls have all porcelain parts connected with elastic, while the modern ones have a cloth or leather torso stuffed with sawdust and beads, and with a flexible plastic skeleton. The doll's costume is sewn from a pattern, and when the doll is done it will be complete, down to the shoes and underwear. After weeks of painstaking work, students have a reward: an evening of assembling the dolls, dressing them and having their pictures taken with their dolls.
Pyette says she is sometimes hired to make a doll look like someone in a picture, like the bride at a wedding. She gives the doll the same dress and hairstyle as the bride, and the likeness, she says, can be striking.
But usually she works on her own dolls, like her favorite, Judith, a 43-inch-tall woman in a pink 1890s-style ball gown.
"I think she's really beautiful," Pyette says as she looks at one of her most stunning creations.
"I like Judith better than any of them," she says. "I like anything that's complicated and hard to do."
Judith's gown alone took Pyette more than 30 hours to make and more than 17 yards of cloth.
Inevitably, the master doll-maker in town occasionally has to be the doll doctor as well, repairing broken fingers, and cracks in antique dolls.
Since porcelain doesn't rot, there are many more of them than cloth dolls. But the dolls themselves aren't the only things to survive from one generation to the next: the art form does, too.
"It's habit-forming," Miller says, and often mother-daughter pairs come to the classes. "It's a multigenerational thing."
"I like working with the little kids," Pyette says. "They're so enthusiastic."
Enthusiastic children and adults alike - or even simply curious ones - will have a chance to see the finished products in the flesh, so to speak, later this month. And while there is no guarantee Pyette will give away one of the 10 or 12 dolls she'll be displaying at the show this month from her personal collection, anyone who falls in love hard enough can always purchase one.
The show will take place in the community center at the Holiday Village Shopping Center Sept. 19-21. Admission is free.