Hi Everyone its time for the next instalment in the From Childhood to Sasha profiles.
Please give a warm welcome to the wonderful Susanna Lewis.
Susanna and granddaughter Anya, at Sasha Festival 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Dear fellow Sashaphiles,
My name is Susanna Lewis, I am working up to four-score years, and I am thoroughly an American. Most of my ancestors arrived here in the 1600s and 1700s from England and Scotland, seeking religious freedom, economic opportunity, and adventure. They settled in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and gradually moved westward with every generation as America expanded. During the 18th and 19th centuries, every war fought in the American north and midwest included at least one of my English or Scottish ancestors in battle.
Then there was my Danish great-grandfather. In the early 1860s in Copenhagen he lost his wife and three children to a plague. Shortly thereafter he converted to Mormonism and came to America, trekking across the prairies and through the mountains to Salt Lake City with other Mormon pioneers. Eventually he settled in southern Idaho, became a successful farmer, and married three times, plural marriages. He built a cabin for each wife and they lived side by side, rearing seven children to adulthood among them. My grandfather’s mother was his last wife. He eventually spent time in jail for his polygamist practices, but he was a devout Mormon and locally well known for his lengthy sermons delivered in a loud voice. He was also a firm believer in the value of education, and insisted that all his sons go to school and pass their examinations, then earn the neccessary money to go on to university. He wanted them to become pioneers in whatever field of endeavour they chose to enter. I am telling you about him because this pioneering attitude has persisted in subsequent generationsof my family, mostly in the teaching profession, although adherence to Mormonism has long since faded. It has colored my life, and is a family tradition with daunting responsibilities.
My growing-up years were spent bouncing around from one place to another, I went to eight schools in twelve years. My father, a university professor in the field of experimental psychology, did research work for the military in addition to his university work, necessitating frequent moves all over the country. Changing schools so often was difficult of course, both for me and my three younger brothers, but my family was adventurous and embraced every chance to explore a new area of our country with camping trips and visits to our many far-flung relatives. It was fun and stimulating, and I remember it with great fondness. When I went to university I was determined to carry on with my family’s tradition and become a teacher. I majored in both biology and art, with a minor in music. After I graduated from university I taught art in a junior high school, then married Tim Lewis, my college sweetheart. We lived in Okinawa at first, while he did his Army service. I was teaching biology in the dependent high school, and we both fell in love with Asian cultures. We travelled around Asia as much as we could while we had the chance. Back in America with Army service finished, we loaded our few belongings and Tim’s portfolio (he was a budding artist-illustrator) onto a Greyhound bus and went to New York City to seek our fortunes.
I was a little girl who loved teddies, dolls, and kitties, right from the start. A great many of my childhood photos picture me with one of the three. In the left photo I am age twenty months, in Fayetteville Arkansas, holding my very worn constant companion. In the right photo I am age four in Kirkwood Missouri, with my first brother and a newer teddy constant companion.
In these two photos I am age six, at the left in the early summer sun of San Antonio Texas, holding our neighbor’s cat, Boots. On the right it is Christmas in Kalamazoo Michigan, and I was given my mother’s childhood baby doll, a Bye-Lo baby with a wardrobe made by my grandmother and great-grandmother. I still have the doll and clothes, and I treasure them.
Two years later we are now in Nashville Tennessee, in the left photo at Christmas I was given a longed-for popular doll, Sparkle Plenty, from the comic strip Li’l Abner. My best friend also got one, and we were in doll-heaven together for months. The right photo, a year later, pictures two cloth dolls in Dutch costumes my father purchased from a Pennsylvania hospital for mentally ill patients. I still have these two dolls but don’t know much about them. They are a distinctive style, and beautifully sewn with a lot of details on both dolls and clothing.
Now in New York City, Tim and I camped in a cheap hotel room, cooked our meals in an electric frying pan and kept our perishables in an ice bag in the bathtub. I found a job teaching in an elementary school on Long Island. Tim enrolled in the School of Visual Arts, where he met Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast as instructors, and soon they hired him to join their Push Pin Studios. His career launched, in the next few years Tim became a very successful illustrator. As soon as we had enough money we moved into a fourth floor walk-up over a bakery on West 72nd Street, two blocks from Central Park, and thankfully it had a tiny kitchen with refrigerator and stove. Life in the big city was full of discovery and adventure and we took advantage of every opportunity to sample anything that was free-of-charge – museums, concerts, street fairs, ethnic neighborhoods. We loved it, as did our new circle of artist friends. Because I grew up without a home town, New York City became my home town. I am from the Big Apple and lived there for forty years.
In the second year of our life in the city I became pregnant with our first daughter. I was very happy to become a mother, but also very happy to have time at home to pursue my own interests. The first thing I did was to enroll in the Master’s Degree program at Columbia University Teacher’s College, so I could become permanently certified for teaching in New York State. I also wanted to spend home time to perfect my sewing skills and explore other needlework techniques as techniques for art forms. I wanted to develop my own art work using needle work, not paint and paper like my husband. I was motivated by the work of many European artists using lacemaking, knitting, embroidery, fabric pleating, quilting, macramé, crochet, weaving and other well-known traditional needlework and fabric techniques, to produce museum-quality works of art. I needed home time to perfect my skills and techniques in order to express myself in any kind of museum-quality sort of way. It was during this time that I first saw the work of Sasha Morgenthaler, in an article in Graphis magazine from Switzerland. I am quite sure that it was the same article that John and Sara Doggart saw that inspired them to produce serie Sasha dolls. It was my first acquaintance with Sasha dolls and I remember being very favorably impressed. Here was a woman artist, using her talents to produce her art work in an unconventional medium, museum-quality dolls.
After our daughter was born I was very busy working on my degree, and enjoying my baby. An architect friend commissioned me to sew a wall hanging for a restaurant he was designing, and I was to design the hanging. It was fun, and I earned some money. One commission led to another, and soon I had an income designing and sewing wall hangings for businesses. But I was not satisfied, I wanted more than sewing on a machine. One day while walking down Fifth Avenue on my way to do some shopping at Macy’s, I passed by a sewing machine shop that had a curious machine in the window, it was a knitting machine. I had never before seen one. I went into the shop to inquire, and was given a demonstration. When I saw what it could do, my imagination exploded with design possibilities for my wall hangings. A week later I had put together enough cash to buy one, and then spent three frustrating months learning how to use it. Once I had enough technical skill I began using the knitting machine to make my wall hangings, very pleased that now I had a unique technique and tool to produce my artwork.
Our second daughter was on the way. We adopted an eight-month-old baby from South Korea, satisfying the strong desire to have Asia in our family ever since our days in Okinawa. While awaiting her arrival, we gave up our fourth floor walkup on West 72nd Street and made a down payment on a fixer-upper brownstone row house in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. At first, living conditions were not much better than our first months in the hotel room, but at least there was ample space for two little girls to run and grow, and studio space for both my husband and me. We lived in our wonderful brownstone for thirty-one years. It was early in this period that I made my second acquaintance with Sasha dolls. I saw the photos of Blonde Gingham and Gregor Denims in the Fall 1968 Creative Playthings catalog. I remembered the article in Graphis I had seen, and how impressed I was by Sasha Morgenthaler’s work. I wanted one of her dolls, and promptly ordered a gingham girl. I did not tell my husband what I had done, as we could not afford the $15.75 price tag for an expensive doll our girls were too young to play with. She stayed hidden in a closet, secretly looked at from time to time, until the girls were older and the doll came out to play. She is the doll pictured on the cover of our book, Sasha Dolls: Serie Identification.
My babysitters were college girls from nearby Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, studying in the Fine Arts program. There were several of them interchangeably, madly knitting or crocheting on something sculptural every time they came to care for my girls. Some of them were making their fiber sculptures into wearable garments – this time period was at the beginning of the Art-to-Wear movement. I was impressed by their use of traditional needlework techniques for creating fine art. They in turn, were impressed with the machine-knitted wall hangings I was making. At their urging, I put together a portfolio of my work and took it to Julie Schaffler Dale, who owned a high-end wearable art gallery on Madison Avenue, called Julie: Artisans’ Gallery. Some of my babysitters were showing and selling their work there, and after seeing my portfolio, Julie promised to show my work, too. I was elated, no more wall hangings for commercial spaces, now it would be wearable art, as soon as I could figure out how to make my wall hangings wearable!
Three examples of my wearable art creations: Left, “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder,” 1977, made to honor my father’s service in the Army Air Corps during WW-II. Center, “Shakespeare Dream Coat,” 1977, with a Shakespeare quote knitted into the interior of the coat. Right, “Oz Socks,” 1978, made for an invitational show at the American Crafts Museum in New York City, called The Great American Foot. I am pleased that all three are now in museum or private collections. Much of my art work, together with Julie’s other artists, was documented and published in Julie’s book, Art to Wear, Abbeville Press, 1986, ISBN 0-89659-664-8. The three photos above, are from Julie’s book.
My love affair with wearable art continued to the end of the 1980s. Many of my pieces were sold to individuals in the public eye, and once in a while I would see one of my wearables on the back of a person in a television newscast, or in the case of Elton John, worn for a few numbers in one of his televised concerts. It was very gratifying to see others enjoying and displaying my work, and to know that I was able to contribute to an important period in the fine arts.
But the teacher, educator, researcher in me was also at work, restless for a change of pace from the constant output of imaginative combinations of images. By now my techniques on the knitting machine were well-honed, and I began teaching workshops, writing articles and designing garments for several knitting magazines in the UK and USA. I had also written two books, one on the technical aspects of producing patterned fabrics on the knitting machine, and a second one on the hand knitting of lace-patterned fabrics. The second book, Knitting Lace, was the result of my work for several years at The Brooklyn Museum of Arts, deciphering and documenting an antique knitted lace sampler in their collection. Ann Coleman, curator of the Costumes and Textiles department at the time, not only made the sampler available to me, but also taught me much of what I know about the conservation and restoration of textiles, and how to mount and document a major exhibition. If you the reader, are a doll collector, you might know about Elizabeth Ann Coleman in another way, the collaboration with her mother Dorothy and sister Jane, to produce the volumes called, The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Dolls.
My first two books. Left: first published in 1986 by Lark Books, it went through three publishers and at least five printings. I was the author, and my friend Julia was the editor; she taught me how to write a book. Right: first published in 1992 by Taunton Books, it had at least two printings. A few years ago it was republished by Schoolhouse Press and is currently in print, ISBN: 978-0-942018-31-8.
When my girls’ interests eventually turned away from playing with dolls, our first Sasha became totally mine to play with, and I used her to model quarter-scale prototype garments that I was designing for knitting magazines. At left, Sasha and her sister Marina model hand and machine knit versions of a garment I was designing for a 1990s issue of Knitter’s magazine. The center photo is the adult-size finished garment as it appeared in the magazine. The right photo is another hand knit version I made for the Children’s Fund Auction at the 2015 Sasha Festival in Fort Worth, Texas.
In 1993 I discovered that Sasha dolls had a collecting community, and I attended my first festival that year. It was hosted by Sherry Foggan in New Jersey, and the theme was Sasha Morgenthaler’s 100th birthday party. Prior to that festival, I had no idea that so many wonderful adults were as enthusiastic about Sasha dolls as I was, and were using the dolls in so many different ways. After the festival, I was on fire with Sasha dolls. The first thing I did was to purchase a few more dolls. Next, I began using them as teaching aids in my weekly machine knitting classes at Parsons School of Design in New York City, and three-day hands-on machine knitting workshops that I was teaching in the spring and fall each year across the USA and Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia. Two Sasha girls would travel with me to each workshop and model simple garments made from fabrics that were being taught in the workshops. The girls were very popular, they lightened the mood created by the intense course of study in the workshop, and acquainted my students with Sashas and their quarter-scale bodies. Some students had never before seen Sasha, while others either had one as a child, or had wished for one during childhood. Nearly everyone did not know that a Sasha collecting community existed, or that dolls could even be obtained. Of course, this was during the days when the internet was just getting started.
A photo collage of my Sasha girls attending knitting machine workshops. The first photo shows a typical set-up for a workshop – a room big enough for up to twenty machines, plus people, computers and cones of yarn. Since the machines are electronic, most of the fabric design is done on a computer. After the machine is programmed and swatches are knitted, my girls help with critique, but mostly they want to play. Sometimes a doll visitor (belonging to one of the students) would generate a lot of curiosity with my Sashas. The final photo pictures them in their travel bag, tired and ready to go home for a few days before the next workshop.
I was using Sashas in my own work, but as I became more acquainted with the two (at that time) productions, I also became intrigued with all the differences in the dolls. I carried on correspondence with Dorisanne Osborn, who was publishing Friends of Sasha at that time, and asked her a great many very detailed questions. Dorisanne was publishing everything she knew or could observe about the dolls, but finally, she wrote and said that in order to answer my many questions, I would have to help and do my own research. That was all I needed to give me the motivation to start a new research project, to document and date the progression of style changes in the dolls and clothing during the two productions. In order to do this I needed to examine and document a great many dolls. I contacted my collecting friends in the USA and England, and photographed and documented all the details about the dolls in their collections. I began a Sasha repair service, so that I could examine and document more and more dolls. I published my research in the Sasha Dolls Charts, updated every two or three years as I was able to draw more conclusions. I started a website, www.sashadoll.com, launched in January 1997, in order to have exhibits about the dolls, sell knitting patterns, the Charts, and a few dolls, so I could fund my research. Remember that there were no digital cameras at that time, and film and processing cost money!
The New York City Toy Fair in February 1995, was especially exciting because of the launch of the new Götz Sasha dolls. Dorisanne Osborn, Yvonne French (owner of the New York City toy store dollsanddreams) and myself, met at the Götz toy fair showroom to see the display of Gregor, Angela and Maria, and the prototype for LE Marianne (she has warm brown eyes, not the turquoise of the final production doll). Later in the day, we three travelled by subway to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, to compare their very early Dungarees doll, donated by FAO Schwarz toy store, to our own examples of the same doll. L-R: Dorisanne holding her Dungarees, Susanna holding her Dungarees, and Yvonne holding the museum’s Dungarees. All three are 1967 with original clothing and no-philtrum heads.
The tragic events to the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, which I witnessed from the windows of my brownstone studio, brought an abrupt end to my travelling and workshops for the fall season. Within a week, I decided to permanently retire and remove myself from the city. The brownstone was sold, and I moved to a quiet rural place in the Hudson Valley where I could be near our daughters and their families. Now, I could put the horrible tragedy and its aftermath behind me, focus fully on finishing my research of the serie Sasha dolls, and begin work on several other projects that were on my “bucket list.”
Fellow Sashaphiles Ann Chandler and Anne Votaw, and myself made the decision to work together to produce a book about Sasha dolls where we could combine our research on Sasha history, clothing, body and painting styles. We wanted to make a comprehensive volume covering everything we knew about Sasha dolls to date, knowing full well that more information would come to light in the future, especially detailed variations in the dolls. Both Ann and Anne have written to you in their profiles on this blog, about the trials we had getting the book put together, and the final decision to make three books instead of one. These three books are a very large accomplishment for all three of us, as they represent twenty-plus years of research and development for each of us, hard work, a large financial investment, and a dream come true. Many of you helped by contributing your dolls for research or photos, and many others have written to say how helpful the books are to you, and that you are enjoying them. We fully appreciate your contributions and kind words, they make the years of work and effort very worthwhile. Thank you, thank you!
These are the three Sasha doll books, resulting from years and years of research and collecting, and a collaborative effort by Ann Chandler, Susanna Lewis, and Anne Votaw. If you want a copy, or to print out a copy of the errata, visit my website, www.sashadoll.com.
Now that the books are finished I can really enjoy play time with my Sashas. One thing I love to do is design knitting patterns for Sasha. Being a teacher at heart, I can continue to teach knitting techniques through my patterns. They are available for sale on my website, www.sashadoll.com.
Since I love knitting, most years I try to make an outfit for the Children’s Fund Auction at the annual festival. Here are a few examples.
Now you are up-to-date with my story “From Childhood to Sasha.” My last paragraph is to tell you how much I appreciate the wonderful friendships and acquaintances I have made through the years with my fellow Sasha collectors. In common, we share Sasha Morgenthaler’s values and ideals that she presented through her dolls. May we continue our play, our coming together at festivals and local events, the Yahoo and Facebook groups, and persevere in our work toward a better world through Sasha dolls. A big thank you to Theresa O’Neill, for inviting me to share my story with all you fellow Sashaphiles on her blog!
All good wishes to you all, Susanna.
Thank you so much for taking part Susanna, your knitting skills are incredible. Once again everyone please do not copy or upload any of Susanna’s photos without her permission.