Art

The Unsettling Art of Making Hyperrealistic Baby Dolls

A new short documentary shows Kate Charles, a sculptor who crafts elaborate and hyperrealistic babies known as “Reborn Dolls,” at work.

Terri Timely, still from “Dollhouse” (2016) (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Nothing worse than a rattly head,” says artist Kate Charles, shaking a disembodied baby doll head by its ear. As the owner of Cutie Pie Productions, Charles makes “Reborn Dolls,” uncannily realistic artificial infants crafted from vinyl, glass, doe suede, and up to 80 layers of paint. In the Reborning subculture, people “adopt” these dolls, which can cost up to $3,000, and often treat them like living babies, building nurseries and pushing them around in strollers.

“Dollhouse,” a short film by LA-based director duo Terri Timely, follows Charles’s practice of “Reborning,” as hyper-realistic doll-making is known. Like most Reborners, Charles considers herself an artist, not a craftsperson. The labor-intensive process of making a Reborn doll can sometimes take weeks. In the seven-minute film, we see it unfold step-by-step: Charles stabs tiny hair-holes into the scalp of a doll head with an awl; removes painted doll limbs from a toaster oven and places them on sticks to dry; and swaddles a Reborn baby in bubble wrap before shipping it off in a cardboard box.

If you find all this a little creepy, it’s not just you. “It is creepy,” Charles says. “There’s no other word for it.” She’s aware of the uncanny valley effect at play here: “When you’re trying to emulate real life, and you get pretty darn close, it’s gonna be creepy. But when you get past the initial [creepiness] and you know it’s a doll, you can go into the appreciation of what this person is trying to achieve.” More than sensationalizing documentaries like My Fake Baby, which profiled British “mommies” of Reborns, “Dollhouse” approaches its subject with compassion, showcasing the technical skill and emotional energy that go into this practice.

Terri Timely, still from “Dollhouse” (2016)

Regardless of what you think of her dolls, aspects of Charles’s creative process might seem familiar to any artist — to say nothing of the formal resonances between her work and that of hyperrealist sculptors like Ron Mueck and Duane Hanson. She describes the rarity of making work that she really loves, the satisfaction of getting into a zone that feels like “soul expression,” and the constant striving to make her “masterpiece.” “Doing this, I can totally understand, like, what happened to Michael Jackson,” she says. “He had Thriller, Thriller came out, it was lightning in a bottle, and then he spent the rest of his career trying to recreate that magic. And that’s what I’m constantly working for. That lightning in a bottle.”

Terri Timely, still from “Dollhouse” (2016)
Terri Timely, still from “Dollhouse” (2016)
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