Languages

Making dolls with love in Russia

Tatyana Gombash with five of her hand-made dolls. Photo: Catherine Benesch.

Murmansk-based doll maker Tatyana Gombash gives life to her fantasies through her art.

Location

There’s an old Russian fairytale of a frog princess who finds true love after being hit by a magical arrow. But in Tatyana Gombash’s telling of the tale, the story is a little more complicated. There’s one frog princess and five magical arrows.

“So this girl has a big, big choice, because it’s five princes,” Gombash says. “It’s my imagination, how it could be. I like to look at tradition from the other side.”

Gombash is a doll maker in Murmansk, Russia, and her craft of more than 20 years has afforded her an occupation where she enjoys a child-like playground of imagination. There are no boundaries, no rules; nothing is impossible.  

She “fell in love” with her art 20 years ago when she made her first doll – which she claims was “really ugly” – for a school assignment. Now, her work is her passion, and she doesn’t know what she would do if she wasn’t an artist working with her hands.

“Today I can be sculptor, tomorrow designer of clothes, after tomorrow, hair maker,” Gombash explains.  “It’s very interesting. It’s no routine every day.”

Sharing her art

She shares her joy by teaching students the doll making craft, an aspect of her business she began exploring two years ago. It’s an exercise in patience perhaps. Each doll can take up to two months to finish. But for the students who find a creative outlet in tiny stitches and details and colours, there is delight. Gombash’s dream is to start a doll makers’ club in Murmansk.

“I think there’s a little girl in all of us,” Gombash says as she tries to explain the ageless fascination with doll making.

Her dolls are individuals. No two are the same and over time, Gombash has given life to about 130 creations. While she loves them all, she says her favourite is a life-like doll with blond hair and blue eyes gazing toward the sky with an inquisitive face.

That doll was featured in an exhibit in St. Petersburg, and a photo from that exhibit was put online. One woman saw the photo and, enchanted by the blond girl, bought the doll as a gift for her boyfriend. The woman wrote a four page fairytale about the doll, and sent the story to Gombash.

“I miss this doll,” she says, “because it’s impossible to repeat again. I don’t use molds.”

Storytellers

Many of Gombash’s dolls now live in Norway and the United States. And while they are simply made of porcelain, wool, oil paint, silk, cotton and paper, to those who love them, they are special, and they tell stories.

Gombash is currenty working on a doll with three faces.  

“We women change our mood so often,” she says. “Now we smile, after we cry.”

Sometimes Gombash teaches her students to make paper angels. They begin by writing their wishes on pieces of paper, which then get tightly rolled together to form limbs. The wishes are carefully embodied in the angels, guarded and safe and given form in simple, beautiful art.

The dolls are as different as the people who make them, but the ones Gombash creates share a special bond.

“I make them with love,” she says with a gentle smile. “Every doll I think has a small part of my heart.”