MEDINA – The dolls are shipped all over the country and world, noting they are “Made in Medina, NY.”
Fisher-Price may have left town two decades ago, but a Medina woman, Elizabeth Cooper, keeps up a Medina tradition of producing desired and whimsical creations.
Cooper has worked for 35 years making dolls. Santas and fairies are her most popular, but she also has other series featuring immigrants and popular characters such as Peter Pan and Snow White.
She discussed the business and the art of making dolls during an interview last week at her studio on Pearl Street.
Question: How did you learn how to do this?
Answer: My father (the late James Cooper) was an art teacher at Roy-Hart and he was always working in clay. He did a lot of sculpting and painting. Much of what I’ve learned is through observation. I grew up with clay and art materials. It’s just a matter of practice.
People will ask, ‘How long does it take to make a doll?’ If I’m having a good sculpting day, it may take a day but it’s 30 years of practice.
Q: I would consider your brothers, Tim and James, to both be artists. Certainly Tim has a knack for historic preservation. (Cooper’s studio in Medina is a building her brother Tim renovated.)
A: Tim (owner of Cooper Funeral Home) is very much into restoration and history. That is his creative outlet. He has worked on quite a few buildings in town.
Q: The other brother James is an artist.
A: He is a licensed architect who does quite a bit of painting. He does watercolor renderings of homes.
We’re all self-employed. It’s a generational thing because the Cooper family was in Medina for six generations. They started a grocery store on East Center Street. That’s where they started the Cooper building.
My mother (the late Rosemary Cooper) was a real estate broker in Medina and my grandfather on the maternal side, he owned O’Briens bar. We’ve all been self-employed.
Q: Were you a teen-ager dabbling in doll-making?
A: I grew up with art materials and clay. I’ve always loved figurative sculpture. After college – I had a psychology degree from Wells College – I decided I would get my art certification from Buffalo State. My mom got sick right after I graduated. We all kind of came back home after she got sick. We stayed in Medina.
As far as clay, having clay in my hand is something I’ve had for my whole life. I’m most comfortable with a piece of clay.
Q: Did your dad do clay work?
A: Yes, he did sculptures. He did soldiers. My father also did several paintings and sculptures on the canal. The grocery store that my great-great grandparents owned was built during the canal days.
Q: When people hear art, they might just think painting and drawing. But there is more.
A: We always had art projects going on.
Q: I wonder when you got serious about making dolls?
A: I started doing my first shows when I was living in Ithaca. It was the Kenan Center in Lockport about 35 years ago. I started doing that and did many, many shows just as a hobby. In 1993 after my mom had died I just decided to do what my heart said.
So I went out and got a studio. I researched the most collectible item in the country. In the early ’90s it was dolls and Santas. I said, OK, I will do that. I produced them and did every show I possibly could do. My business started growing. That’s pretty much how it started. I decided to follow my heart and do what I wanted.
Q: How do you term these, one-of-kind dolls?
A: The term is called artist dolls in the business. We produce our own dolls. In the country there used to be quite a few artists who did dolls. A lot of them decided to produce in China, but I would never to that.
Q: They would subcontract it out and have people make them in China?
A: They would design a doll and send it to China to be produced so they would have an edition of maybe 200 to 5,000, something like that.
Q: Yours seem to be all different.
A: The ones I have are all one-of-kind.
Q: They seem to have relatives or go together.
A: Once you do it thousands and thousands of times, they’re all cousins I think.
So I do a lot of shows. I was in Kansas City at a show in July. I’ve done Boston, Washington, D.C. and Disney. Disney used to host an artist doll show.
These are all conventions. That’s my market, collectible dolls.
Q: Are there a lot of people like you?
A: There’s not a lot anymore. I was just asked to do, as one of seven artist dollmakers, a convention in Washington, D.C. I was one of seven so that’s quite an honor.
Q: Why aren’t there more?
A: It’s a hard business to sustain. I don’t have any children so I can devote most of my time to my work. You have to be willing to travel.
Q: I know you have the studio here where people can come in and buy dolls, but how else do you sell them?
A: I sell through magazines and my website (click here), and I have a lot of collectors who will come to my studio.
Q: It looks like the dolls start at $95 for the smaller ones. I have to think the bigger ones are much more, as they should be, given the effort.
A: Sometimes they will have auctions and some of my work goes for $1,200. I do ornaments for $20 if somebody wants a gift for the office, just for the Christmas season.
Q: If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
A: When I was first looking into colleges, I really wanted to become an art teacher. My father, who was an art teacher, said get a liberal arts education, and then get your certification. So that is what I did.
After my mom got sick I got my studio. If life had turned out differently, I probably would have been an art teacher right from the beginning or something involved in the arts.
Q: There must be a lot of people who own a doll that you made.
A: There are, especially in this area because I’ve done the Kenan Center show for so many years and have built up a following. One of my ideas for my business was not to have something that people just want to buy one of. So I made them into collections, where people could add to their collections year after year. That was my business plan.
Q: What are some of the series?
A: The holiday themes. I do the Santas, children building snowmen or on sleds. Anything I did growing up comes out in my work.
Q: Why do you think people like these compared to grabbing something from Wal-Mart.
A: I think the uniqueness. They know it’s one-of-a-kind and no one else has it. It’s hand-made in this area, hand-made in Medina and I think that means something to people.
Q: Is that noted on the label, Made in Medina?
Q: You make the dolls, but the clothes also seems a talent.
A: I usually look for vintage materials, vintage silks and vintage velvets. The fur trims on the Santas, I cut up old fur coats. I do all of the sewing and costuming myself, too. So it’s a full-time job.
Q: And you can make money at this?
A: I’ve done OK.
Q: You’ve had a presence in this building for how long?
A: I’ve been here for three years. My brother also owned a place on Park Avenue and I think I moved in there in 2000. My very first studio was in the Curry Building on the second floor in downtown Medina.
A lot of people don’t really know what I do. I’m open for the Christmas season but for the rest of the year I’m producing or doing shows. My place is really open from Thanksgiving to Christmas to the public, and then it’s by appointment. I host doll clubs that will come.
Q: You’re looking to move back to Medina?
A: I married Michael Leone in 1998. His father was a doctor in Medina. We lived two blocks apart but we never knew each other. When I moved back to Medina we met each other again.
We both had also grown up on Lake Ontario so we built a house in 2003 at Point Breeze. Now we’re coming back to where our heart is in Medina. We really miss the sense of community.
Q: Could we look at some of your dolls. (Walks over to display room.) Do your early pieces have a similar style like your more current ones?
A: No. I first started in fabric as far as dolls went and then I went to polymer clay. These are my immigrants. Growing up we were always told the story of the immigrants coming over from Ireland.
Growing up we always went to Gallagher’s Hill for sledding so I had to recreate Gallagher’s Hill. I’m so pleased they are restoring the barn. It’s beautiful.
Q: Have you been written up in the doll magazines?
A: Many of the doll magazines have gone out of business, but I’ve been in most of them. I’ve won several awards for “Doll of the Year.”
Q: Are these Santas in their casual wear?
A: A lot of my Santas are European Santas. I do a lot of European Santas from different countries. I always like to include sheep or animals – I’ve always got dogs and cats.
I’m always doing something different. I’m never bored.
For convention shows I do storybook characters. I do Alice, Peter Pan, the Mad Hatter. I do a lot of fairies, which are very collectible.
Q: Do you get any creative help with all of this.
A: I always abuse my friends and family. They’re always helping me get ready for shows.
Q: How do you keep this interesting for yourself?
A: I don’t know what it is but I never get bored with it. Every year I try to bring in a new piece.