The doll maker

Epiphania on United #844

Edw Martinez adjusts one of his “Carl dolls” for the exhibit <i>Epiphania on United #844.</i>

Edw Martinez adjusts one of his “Carl dolls” for the exhibit Epiphania on United #844.

Photo By David Robert

Traveling in the dark, on a red-eye flight to Guatemala in 2003, Edw Martinez decided to start making some changes.

When the Reno artist reached Guatemala City, he e-mailed the art department at the University of Nevada, Reno and told them he was stepping aside as department chair. Flying home, moments before what he only half jokingly refers to as an “epiphany,” he reached into his bag and pulled out a doll he’d bought in Guatemala. It was a reproduction of a Peruvian burial doll, the sort wrapped with burlap and buried with the dead some 5,000 years ago. An image came into his mind of making ceramic, doll-like effigies. After nearly 30 years of printmaking and drawing, he decided to return to his clay sculpture roots.

The outcome of those airborne decisions is now on somewhat creepy but intriguing display at Fallon’s Oats Park Art Center in Epiphania on United #844.

On the day before the exhibit opens, Martinez, in jeans and a black fleece with white hair poking out of a floppy, well-worn hat, is placing a plastic suitcase full of doll parts beneath a bed frame for one of the exhibit’s pieces. He seems in good spirits, almost happy-go-lucky for a guy who’s spent part of the past four years sawing off doll parts.

On first impression, the exhibit is a morose thing to walk into. Doll heads sit atop wrapped, mummy-like bodies. A pile of 500 clay heads are heaped on the floor in a piece called “Cairn (Oats Park).” Others, in a series called “Homage to Some Favorite Dead and Not so Dead Artists” are mounted on the wall and adorned in the styles of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Franz Kline and others. Then there’s the baby doll “Judas,” hanging himself.

Death almost slams visitors in the face in this exhibit, and much of it is steeped in religious iconography, but Martinez insists he is neither dour nor religious. He admits to a fascination with Pre-Columbian sculpture but says his work was created not so much out of a sense of the profound, but rather of the practical. It was a case of “one thing leading to another.”

After the flight, Martinez returned to the ceramic “bird men” he made 30 years before. Then he found a metal mold of a doll head in a thrift shop and started casting the heads. He’s since made his own molds of mostly closed-eyed doll heads. Then he came across Rauschenberg’s painting “Bed,” which he thought would look great on a wrapped-up doll; that led to the Favorite Artists series. Later, he needed some freestanding pieces for an art show in Vegas. He ended up using an old bowling ball with the name “Carl” on it as a mold and made his “Carl dolls,” with chubby, bowling-ball bodies and doll baby heads. And the hanging Judas baby? He says he needed a long, skinny piece to hang on a certain part of the gallery wall.

He says he’s just having fun. “But I guess there is an archaic, pre-something or other to it,” says Martinez.

The morbidity here feels more like walking into an ancient burial site and less like a fright house. The ceramic heads are cracked in places—a chipped ear, an absent nose. These conscious imperfections give the pieces an archaeological feel.

“A lot of ceramics today is cute and whimsical,” he says. “I’m leaning more to a lack of concern with the finish fetish. It’s more the expression I’m doing rather than refined craftsmanship.”