Wild at heart

Kathleen Durham

Kathleen Durham makes dolls and creatures then gives them personalities and stories, like the one about the time they put on a circus to raise money to afford some Pop-Tarts.

Kathleen Durham makes dolls and creatures then gives them personalities and stories, like the one about the time they put on a circus to raise money to afford some Pop-Tarts.

Photo By David Robert

“They brought you a present,” Kathleen Durham says, just after sitting down.

“That was very nice of them,” I say.

“They asked me how big you were,” she says. “I said I didn’t know. They asked if you were as big as me because they think I’m the biggest person in the world.”

Durham is tall with long, rich, gray hair. Despite the fact that she has several inches on me, she is not in the least imposing; her eyes have the soft, knowing look of the little people she refers to as “they.”

When I slide open the tiny matchbox, I see that “they” have given me a minute pair of bunny slippers. If I lost a couple millimeters around my pinky finger, I might just be able to squeeze into them.

The line between reality and fantasy is starting to blur.

Spontaneity, improvisation and storytelling are skills that Durham relies on when she takes the people ("they") of Underwood ("her backyard") on excursions with her. The community is a collection of more than 50 dolls that Durham has sculpted out of polymer clay. She uses glass eyes, doll hair (or anything that might pass for hair) and whatever mishmash of items she can come up with to create their outfits and personae.

The characters are diverse. Her first creation, about 15 years ago, was Grandpa Troll, a commanding little figure who is 450 years old and walks with a gnarled wooden cane. There’s Earl Gray, who lives in an old teapot and whose wife’s name is Jasmine, and Onion Ed, who cries for people who need it. One of the central characters in Durham’s most recent story is Lewis Mouseman; he’s helping stage a protest to save Mouseland.

The people of Underwood will be part of the Wild Women: Telling Tales exhibit at the Wilbur May Museum. The nine featured women artists include Barbara Prodaniuk, who does pottery, basketweaver Mary Lee Fulkerson, Jimmie Benedict, who makes pieced and embroidered clothing, and jewelry artists Gail Rappa and Kristen Frantzen Orr. There’s a welder, painters and six guest artists.

The Wild Women have been around for 11 years, and Durham has been involved the last 10.

“It’s an economic thing,” says Durham. “If you can pool your resources, you can put on a good show.” Aside from the Reno show, the women display their work in Elko. The mutual support that happens through Wild Women is what really spurs these women into action. Year-round, they talk about their projects, share ideas and find torches in the other women to help light their own fires. This year’s show also focuses on a series of journal collaborations. Each artist came up with a journal topic that all of the women responded to. Durham’s journal is called “Celebrations.”

Durham says about her talent for talking about the Underwoodsians, “It just comes out because I know them. … My mother was a great storyteller. My brother and I had polio and spent a couple years in bed, and my mother kept us entertained by telling stories.”

Durham shows me some pictures of Underwood-folk involved in various harebrained activities. She dives into a story about how they heard about Pop-Tarts and decided to put on a circus in order to raise money to buy some. As she continues, I feel like I’m in kindergarten again, getting lost in a world of whimsy as my favorite teacher spins a yarn.