Real-life dolls

UF student shows her passion for people in a doll-making project

Published: Thursday, January 22, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2004 at 11:26 p.m.

Deborah Johnson-Simon is surrounded by the people she loves - 20 of them - all standing at attention on the coffee table in her living room.

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Deborah Johnson-Simon poses with her ``children of the Diaspora,'' 20 dolls she made using plastic bottles and Styrofoam, and dressed in fabric clothing and jewelry. "We aren't all carbon copies. People tend to lump black people into this one little person. We're a mix," she says. Johnson-Simon is a Ph.D. student at UF studying cultural anthropology.

LARA NEEL/The Gainesville Sun

She worked nonstop for about three weeks to create these dolls. Their bodies are made from 20-ounce plastic soda bottles filled with earth.

Their heads are Styrofoam balls covered with papier-mâché and painted. The fabric for their clothing and their jewelry she gleaned from yard sales and her own closet.

Each doll has its own personality; none look alike. They're all different ages, men and women, varying shades of black: milk chocolate, a lighter, creamier brown - just like in real life.

Johnson-Simon gestures over her creations, introducing them. "The children of the Diaspora," she says, chuckling. "We aren't all carbon copies. People tend to lump black people into this one little person. We're a mix."

Her dolls were the centerpieces Saturday at the UF Black Graduate Student Association's Martin Luther King banquet. Johnson-Simon is a Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology at the University of Florida.

Her focus is on museum anthropology, looking at how people and cultures use museums.

She says that she's not an artist. Artists, she says, are people who are passionate about art. Her passion is people.

"I'm working to use art, culture and museums to make better connections among black people, and to use those connections so that others will understand African-American peoples' lives and experiences," she explains. "People tend to stereotype us, and we do that to each other."

As she worked, Johnson-Simon said the dolls' personalities "just came forth." She'd go to dress a doll in a particular outfit and would get the feeling that those clothes were not what that doll had in mind, uh uh.

"She'd be saying, 'No, I don't want to wear that. It's not who I am,'" she says. "It's like they just kind of emerged. That's never happened to me before. Some wouldn't leave me alone. Their spirits kept going through my mind."

When she made her West Indian woman, she thought of all the women she'd ever met from that part of the world.

"They've been so confident, so immersed in themselves and their identity, they seemed larger...." she says. So she made a doll that embodies that spirit.

"When you see her dolls together standing on a table, you can't help but smile," says her friend, filmmaker and activist Patricia Hilliard-Nunn. "What comes to mind is Bob Marley's song 'Exodus.' You see this great diversity. They don't just represent Africans in America but Africans throughout the world. They each have a personality."

Johnson-Simon visited her daughter in Orlando over the winter break and enlisted the help of her grandchildren in the doll project. She used the experience for teaching. She talked with her grandchildren about being black, and about how black people are different but still share the same struggles.

She's the perfect person to give that kind of lesson.

Johnson-Simon, 54, was born in Petersburg, Va., and grew up in Baltimore, Md. In 1980, she moved to Orlando and worked as a mortgage loan officer for Sun Bank. Gradually, she took on more and more volunteer projects having to do with African American culture and history.

She went back to school at Rollins College when her kids grew up, earning a bachelor's degree in anthropology/sociology in 1997 - in effect, beginning to turn her avocation into a new vocation. She completed a master's degree in anthropology and museum studies from Arizona State University in Phoenix in 2001.

She moved to Gainesville in July 2002, and worked for the Florida Museum of Natural History while waiting to enter the Ph.D. program at UF, which she started last fall. She's also an adjunct professor at Santa Fe Community College, where her position is funded through a fellowship connected with the Office of Minority Affairs.

Along the way, she's worked for different museums.

"We made some dolls to sell in the gift shop," she says. That was at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Phoenix, where she was chief curator.

She made dolls with young visitors to the Historic Sahuaro Ranch, an 1880s living history ranch in Glendale, Ariz., where she also worked as a curator.

People universally seem to enjoy the dolls and the process of making them, she says.

"This is the first time I sat down and made this many myself."

Julie Garrett can be contacted at (352) 374-5049 or E-mail to

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