Caroline Saunders 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Aunt Jemima dolls, african queens, and spirit doctors. Memphis blues dolls, rock and roll, and rapper dolls. Whimsicals, elvis, and angels. Doll-maker Naajee thomas gives life to inspiration, culture, education, and good old-fashioned fun. “Everybody I know in Memphis can either sing or play an instrument,” says Naajee Thomas, educator and doll-maker. “I can’t do either one, but I can contribute to this amazing city through my art.” She creates collections of unique art dolls and folk art paintings, often motivated by her love for Memphis. “This is such a talented city. I’m from Detroit, but Motown can’t touch Memphis music. Memphis music is funky. I love it.” That funky Memphis music has inspired quite a few memorable pieces: Bobby Rush, B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland. “I am still working on my first Rufus Thomas doll,” she says, speaking of her legendary father-inlaw, a world-renowned blues, funk, and soul singer and comedian who died in 2001. “It is hard to complete because I still miss him.” Naturally, she also makes Elvis dolls. “I call them Pelvis,” she laughs. “Big seller, of course. That’s uniquely Memphis!” And there’s no doubt that her marriage to keyboard extraordinaire and Stax veteran Marvell Thomas — who was recently honored on Beale Street’s Brass Note Walk of Fame — inspires her vast collection of music doll creations. In fact, she makes some of them from his clothing. “Sometimes Marvell will look at one of my dolls and say, ‘Hey, that doll has a shirt exactly like mine!’” Her art has struck a chord with this city of musicians. From her irresistible Tuff Cookie collection to her blues musicians, these dolls have a reputation for putting songs in the hearts of their owners — and admirers. “My dolls are owned by collectors around the globe,” she says. “So collectors are taking a part of the Memphis groove home with them.” Naajee began making dolls in the mid ‘80s during a particularly stressful stint as the “first lady” of a boarding school in Mississippi. She and her first husband, the president of the school, had three phone lines in the house, all related to campus business and safety. “We were looking after someone else’s children,” she says. “When you’re a ‘mom,’ you can’t completely go to sleep. You have to have one ear open. I found myself on edge all the time. The doctor said, ‘You can’t keep going on like this. You’ve got to find a way to relax.’” And dolls, Naajee says, were already in her psyche. As a child, she collected more than 65 dolls that she kept in her garage. “One Saturday, I went out there to give them baths — I had a little doll hospital set up — and they were all gone,” she says. “Someone had stolen all of my dolls, and I cried like a baby for days.” Today, Naajee, whose name means “freedom” in Arabic, can create all the dolls her inner child could ever want. But these dolls aren’t just for play — they’re works of art. Naajee works with whatever materials she can lay her hands on. “I see everything as a potential doll,” she says. “My dolls are clay or cloth sculptures. I like to work a lot with Natural materials — African fabrics such as mud cloth — and I’ll use any kind of bottle or wire frames for a base. I’ve even made them out of socks. Nothing goes to waste. Most of the time, the materials dictate what’s going to happen. Sometimes I even surprise myself!” Each piece of art, which range in price from $10 to a few thousand, involves a special and oftentimes-intensive process. The miniatures she creates for Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum and the Center for Southern Folklore take about an hour each, but more elaborate dolls can take more time to finish. “Sometimes I don’t finish a doll immediately because I don’t have what I want to adorn it,” says Naajee, “so I just leave it until I do.” For Naajee, who has never taken an art class, expressing her creativity is a soulful experience. “This kind of work is spiritual,” she says. “Dolls are souls, and people buy them for a reason: That doll represents something significant. It has meaning to whoever owns it. Dolls are reflections of your life.” Naajee’s favorite dolls are her African Queen series — one of which she has never Sold nor presented for sale. “I use Morowa — Ghanaian meaning ‘queen’ — in exhibits sometimes. I had to keep at least one of them. There’s something so regal about them. Someone once told me, ‘You must have been a queen in your past life.’ It could be true!” Naajee’s dolls aren’t just for women. In fact, men are among Naajee’s best customers, and they gravitate toward her African Queen art dolls and blues dolls. Her customers especially love her Tuff Cookie series. “Those girls — they make people smile and that’s what I love,” she says, smiling herself. “That’s worth it — to make someone smile. I like to laugh. Life should be fun! If you can get a laugh out of sadness, that’s good. It brings your spirit up.” Naajee not only uses her dolls to make people laugh, she primarily uses her dolls to educate. “I’m a teacher by training,” she says. Educated at Michigan State University, Naajee ran a Head Start program in Michigan and was state coordinator for volunteerism for the Department of Education in Baltimore. She held a number of administrative positions in education and community service programs. As a result, Most of her dolls are symbolic in nature. “They’re cultural, and they tell a story,” she says. “I am compelled to make dolls that educate.” Naajee wants her dolls to encourage her customers — her students, in a sense — to ask questions: How do they live? What do they eat? How do they adorn themselves? What are the ceremonies for? “You get a chance to talk about so much,” she says. “For instance, I found out that a lot of people stereotype any and all black dolls by calling them voodoo dolls. This comes from all races,” she laments. “But that gives me an opportunity to talk about it and explain that voodoo is an ancient African religion that has nothing to do with sticking pins in dolls!” In the classroom, Naajee believes art can help, too. “A cultural doll can help students learn about the lives of other people,” she says. “When kids know about their culture, they know where they came from. Understanding of self is key to academic achievement. It helps to give students confidence and faith in themselves. I was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who made me feel proud about who I am and where I came from.” When she expresses her creativity, Naajee enters another realm. “Art expression is the most calming and relaxing thing you can do,” she says. “This is the one thing that makes me sit still and just be in my own world. I’ll go out to my workshop, turn on some music, and there I go. “I read somewhere that we’re all God’s dolls,” she continues. “It seems that he created us all to play out the script of life — just as children do when they play with dolls. That kind of stuck with me. I thought that was pretty cool.” Dolls began as a part of her childhood, but have now become a part of her legacy. “Life is so interesting,” she says. “If you don’t explore this whole realm, you’ll miss something. And I think that’s what my dolls do. They bring out the spirit in me and others.” Dolls by Naajee, email@example.com, dollsbynaajee.net.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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