Five years had passed since my photography show at Jett Gallery (Robots Exposed), of x-rayed and CT scanned vintage toy robots.
Aside from my daily use of 3D work stations for clinical work as a radiologist, I had one non-medical 3D project in the ensuing years. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on CAT scan data of Peruvian mummies, all in death pose, some tightly bound in burlap and rope. These were scanned at our sister hospital, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla for the Museum of Man, in San Diego’s Balboa Park .
With these experiences under my belt, a few years ago, I had contacted the Mingei International Museum (our world class folk art museum, also in Balboa Park) to see about gaining access to their collection of 50,000 plus items, looking for interesting objects to x-ray. I hoped these would be compelling artistically, as well as revealing in other ways (e.g. craft, construction, authenticity, repairs and hopefully, secrets).
Several months ago, I got a call from Mingei’s chief curator, Christine Knoke, with a specific x-ray project in mind. She explained that they were planning a show for 2015 highlighting hand made black dolls. Three stars of the show are black dolls created by Leo Moss, on loan from an East coast collector, Debbie Neff. Honestly, of the 50,000 items in the collection, I would not have gravitated to hand made dolls, but Christine’s background sketch and Debbie’s theories on the doll’s construction intrigued me.
I approached Scripps Health with the project, knowing how important community outreach and support is to the organization. While not exactly on par with sending supplies and personnel to Haiti after the earthquake, I did feel the project had both artistic and social merit. Access was generously granted to our state of the art x-ray and CAT scan equipment.
X-ray imaging of non-biologicals is nothing new. Photographer/artist David Maiselhas a body of work (History’s Shadow, 2010) centered around X-rays of museum statues and artifacts. These images were culled from museum conservation archives and reworked by the artist.
In another instance, X-ray was used to image the interiors of “Nina and Lucy Ann”, two dolls held by the Museum of the Confederacy and thought to be smuggling dolls used during the Civil War. Quinine and morphine were hidden in the head and body, effective drugs to treat Confederate soldiers.
Morphine I understood, but it was news to me that in the day, malaria was rampant in the South.
Debbie Neff’s dolls are quite fragile, but arrived in San Diego in better shape than many air travelers. The museum staff transported them to our imaging center and donning gloves, put the subjects on the examination table. Not knowing their composition, we had to make X-Ray adjustments on the fly to get the best possible images. Unlike our patients, we didn’t have to worry about the radiation dose in determining the perfect technique.
If you’ve read this far, you may be asking yourself “Who cares?”. The short answer is, a lot of people. There are doll museums, black doll authors and historians, a bevy of collectors, symposia, bloggers, and doll auctions. There is an E-Zine, a short documentary film and even a doll hospital staffed by Dr. Noreen, an in-house “plastic surgeon”. More importantly, it is about pride, identity, history and injustices.
Shopping for a doll today is easy. All types are available, from glamorous to, well, you decide. Below is an example of a “fashion plate black doll” (maxed out credit card not included), followed by the epitome of self identification/self love (My Twinn) where a doll is custom made to look like its little owner.
There was time when black doll choices were slim. The high end options were European, expensive and made from white baby molds, dressed in white baby doll clothes. Below is an ultra low budget option; a home made black rag doll made from scratch. For just a little bit of change, one could buy a rag doll “kit”, printed on dark cloth. The cloth is cut and sewed, filled and dressed.
The most expensive option was to purchase a commercially available black doll, with black skin on white features and molded hair from a company such as Effanbee. The Effanbee name combines elements from the two principles, Fleischaker and Baum (F and B). They founded the company in 1912, but their business took off after German aggression made German made dolls in short supply.
With this background in mind, enter Leo Moss. Below is from a wonderful blog written by Debbie Garrett.
“Leo Moss, a Black doll maker and Macon, Georgia native, made dolls in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Friends and family are reported to have been the subjects for his dolls, many of which bore sad faces with actual teardrops molded into their papier-mâché faces. It has been written that the tears were added to Moss’s dolls after his wife ran away with the Caucasian toymaker from whom he purchased doll bodies. Another source indicates that when a child cried and could not be consoled while a doll in its likeness was being made, Mr. Moss added the tears. Leo Moss dolls are extremely rare and can sell for thousands at auction. (Excerpt from my book, Black Dolls a Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion, 2008).”
Garrett references an article by an owner of Moss dolls, Steva Roark Allgood, “To Leo Moss with love,” printed in the Fall 1987 issue of UFDC’s Doll News. “Leo Moss was a handyman by trade.” While most of his dolls were black, a few white dolls were made on commission. According to Allgood’s article, “Moss traded for chickens and vegetables to feed his family… The dolls were made from paper scraped from walls, boiled and made into a paste. Each head was molded individually and colored with a spray gun used for killing flies. Boot dye and stove blacking were used as the base color. The glass eyes were brown and inset into the heads. However, a few had painted eyes. Their hair was molded and their nostrils were usually pierced. Bodies were cloth with legs and arms mostly composition. The bodies were made by Lee Ann Moss, Leo’s wife, and some were from broken dolls they had been given… Another source of doll parts was from a toy supplier (a white man from New York) who sold seconds, or defective parts, to Moss. It is said that later this salesman ran off with Lee Ann taking the youngest child, Mina, with them. Henceforth, the dolls had tears on their faces, always appeared very sad and dejected, and reflected the unhappiness he felt over this tragic event.”
Best guess was that Leo Moss was a handyman/carpenter and part time doll maker. He and his wife produced one off black dolls for specific black girls. Some of the dolls had the owner’s name and presumably the completion date stitched to their chest. Were these gifts or commissions? OK, back to the X-Ray project.
Meet Crying Toddler, (AKA Violet Mae Collins 6-12-1933).
Arms and legs are composition (compo). This is a mixture of sawdust and glue. Limbs have been blackened. The x-ray sheds light on the internal structure. First, Leo Moss used an existing doll head and added/embellished with paper maché. He added nappy hair, altered the facial features, and added the tears. The doll eyes are probably exchanged, at least to a darker pair. The body is made up of two different stuffing materials and there is a now quiet voice box in the center of the chest. It probably made a “wah!” sound versus “mama”. Below the voice box are metallic pellets. Had the doll been used as target practice with a B-B gun?
Meet Crying Baby (AKA Mabel Lincoln 1922). The doll is smaller than Crying Toddler, dressed and with a similar expression, tears and all.
Meet the “Man”, complete with nappy hair and beard, sporting a dapper outfit, including a stiff collar and bow tie. Unlike the other two dolls, he has a placid expression with no tears. Author and collector, Myla Perkins, speculates that Leo Moss may have made this in his own likeness.
This project was a very enjoyable and interesting exploration for me. Like most topics, a scratch at the surface, can lead to a vast, rich, multi-layered story. The need filled by Leo Moss was a social imperative, created by societal and economic injustices. These dolls are part of his legacy and of our collective history. I am glad that Scripps Health and I were able to shed some light on this fascinating history. I look forward to the show at Mingei International Museum in 2015.