Welcome to the dollhouse

Meredith Tanzer

Meredith Tanzer doesn’t dismember her Barbies like so many artists do. She dyes their hair, paints them, wraps them in string, makes them virtually unrecognizable.

Meredith Tanzer doesn’t dismember her Barbies like so many artists do. She dyes their hair, paints them, wraps them in string, makes them virtually unrecognizable.

Photo By David Robert

Barbie is an icon. For Meredith Tanzer, Barbie is a vehicle through which she can express her creativity. Perhaps it’s Barbie’s familiarity, accessibility or just an inherent love. Whatever the reason, Barbie sparked something in Tanzer, and playful, personal, eye-catching artwork is the result.

Meredith Tanzer was raised to be a businesswoman. Never did she think she would be, or even could be, an artist.

“People aren’t actually artists for a living or in real life,” said Tanzer recalling her previous notion of the moniker. But here she is today, selling her artwork and co-owning the gallery/boutique La Bussola in downtown Reno. She is an artist, and her life is now entrenched in an arty world.

But this is a new path, initiated primarily by Sept. 11, 2001. Tanzer was in New York City that day and witnessed the tragedy.

“It wasn’t the actual attack, but seeing all the people afterwards,” Tanzer said. “I’ve never been so close to so many people in despair. Experiencing 9/11 solidified everything for me.” Tanzer quit her job, and she and her partner, Dawn Lewis, the other owner of La Bussola, moved to Reno. “It was so freeing and so terrifying.”

Before the move, Tanzer was the head of marketing for a large dot-com business in San Francisco, Calif. Because Lewis was an artist, Tanzer lived in an artists’ complex, the Goodman 2 Building.

“I loved it,” said Tanzer. “There were about 35 different artists, and I got to see different art all the time and people’s reaction to art and how they were touched and motivated. That was when I started doing art.” Tanzer got creative with anything she could get her hands on. “I realized that I had all this energy inside me to do something, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Then in stepped Barbie, which Tanzer said, “was kind of a fluke.” She had been lamenting the loss of the Barbies her mother had thrown away years before, so Dawn got her one for Christmas as sort of a joke. “That did something,” Tanzer said.

Not only did Tanzer befriend the buxom plastic lady, taking her everywhere—work, Europe, Hawaii—she began using Barbie in her creative projects. First she dressed her up, then thought, “Well, what else can I do?”

“I wanted to do something a little more artistic. I thought, ‘What else can I do that’s cool that allows me to be free and use different mediums? If I want to use beads and clay and paint and found stuff?'”

Today, Tanzer’s Barbies combine any number of materials from serving trays to the Aztec calendar to thread, paint, new hair, etc. All the dolls are extremely different. The common bond is the artist, who infuses the Barbie-based creations with her love of contemporary design and what’s happening in her own life. Another similarity: Barbie stays intact. Tanzer doesn’t dismember or behead Barbie as has been a hip trend; she doesn’t need to.

“Generally, I have a concept. Usually, it changes a lot. I know they are done if I don’t want to part with them.” But part with them she does. She sells her work and has had it on display at a number of venues in Reno and San Francisco, and soon, she’s going to offer “Alter Barbie” classes at La Bussola; during Artown, the store will feature an exhibition of the winners of an altered-doll contest.

Be it creating, selling or teaching, Meredith Tanzer has an energy that is at once enthusiastically inspiring and comfortably familiar, and she imbues her doll creations with those same characteristics. She takes a ubiquitous symbol and makes it all her own.