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Beecher Artist Creates Unique Dolls

August 16, 1987

BEECHER, Ill. (AP) _ Killer the cat stares at the workbench covered with glass eyes, imported wigs and rolls of pink clay that Pat Thompson will shape into the heads of her elegant collector dolls.

She will paint the expressions on the porcelain faces, create clothes from antique dresses and imported fabrics, and send ″my children″ to exclusive doll shops around the country.

Mrs. Thompson, a retired Chicago interior decorator, now directs about 50 talented seamstresses and artisans who help turn her visions into designer dolls that attract collectors.

″We won’t have any trouble as long as we maintain our quality,″ said Mrs. Thompson, who has created more than 300 porcelain-face dolls in her first year. ″They will be sought after long after I’m gone.″

The Vlasta dolls - named for Mrs. Thompson’s mother who died giving birth to her - take weeks to create. Most are about two feet tall, and some are one- of-a-kind. They sell for retail prices ranging from $1,100 to $8,000.

Partner Donna Freiling, who creates hats and trim, also numbers and catalogs each doll and its ensemble. She tries to trace its ownership, though some collectors demand anonymity for security reasons.

″There is a market for artist dolls - it’s rather small, but it’s there,″ said Chris Revi of Cumberland, Md., managing editor of Doll Reader, a magazine with 70,000 U.S. subscribers. ″Collectors are very sophisticated now and aware of quality in the design of the doll and the clothes.″

Mrs. Thompson sculpts in the basement of her house, as Killer the cat watches or naps under a lamp with a second Siamese. Most of the work is done next door in an old corner grocery in this tiny Will County community.

Mrs. Thompson made cloth dolls and other gifts before trying her first porcelain doll in 1986.

″The more I did it, the better I got,″ Mrs. Thompson, 60, said of the sculpting. ″I’m sorry I didn’t do it when I was 30 years old.″

A mold will be made from Mrs. Thompson’s sculpture and porcelain heads will be poured, then hand painted.

Many of Mrs. Thompson’s ideas come from pictures in old magazines and books. As she sculpts, she begins to see the child’s personality, ″happy or soulful, or impish.″ They come to life later as she paints the face on the porcelain.

A shelf in the shop contains box after box of heads, each labelled with names like Colene, Etta and Jana. The eyes are in the sockets but no wigs cover the holes on top. There are about 36 different faces.

Bodies - a framework covered with padding and wrapped with white cloth - stand below the heads and next to a box of porcelain hands.

Mrs. Thompson’s trademark is the way she dresses her creations. Antique gowns, some worth $1,500, hang from the ceiling and will be cut to make dresses for the dolls.

One doll wears a ″flapper style″ hand-beaded dress from 1926 with ostrich feathers in her hat; another has a silk and velvet cape fashioned from an antique wedding gown.

A dozen women are busy in the old grocery store as a ceiling fan turns overhead: one styles a wig with a curling iron; some cut cloth and guide it through sewing machines; one unrolls $350-a-yard imported lace; another makes silk flowers on the heads of pins.

Their work will all come together in the outfit and the doll Mrs. Thompson has envisioned.

″Her dolls are exceptional - absolutely magnificant,″ said Bea Skydell of Middlesex, N.J., who sells dolls in a large shop and through a catalog. ″Nobody does costuming like Pat Thompson does.″

One of the Vlasta dolls already has been nominated for the industry’s coveted Doll Of The Year award.

Mrs. Thompson says she feels a sense of loss when a doll leavers her shop. She cannot pick her favorite doll because ″they are all like my children - how can I like one better?″ And she feels a sense of loss when a doll leaves her shop.

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