Kathleen Rumfola of East Concord has been making and collecting dolls since her mother taught her how to craft clothespin dolls in her family’s North Buffalo home. More recently, Rumfola’s business, Artfully Elegant Folk Dolls, has garnered national attention.
Her 35-year doll-making career has seen her creating a variety of types of dolls, most notably AppleHead folk dolls and life-size nylon dolls for many local, national and international venues throughout the United States and Canada. Her work has been featured at the Buffalo Museum of Science, Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, JC Penney’s shop windows, commercials for Kodak and in a variety of trade shows, festivals and juried art shows. She also created a how-to book for art and home economic high school classes and taught a class at SUNY Buffalo on this unique art form.
For the past six years, Rumfola has been creating painted linen dolls in the Russian Matryoshka style, modeled after the “nesting dolls” so many people know and love. Since Rumfola herself is of Polish-Ukrainian descent, she said she considers the dolls an expression of her heritage, her God-given inspiration, her life experiences and herself.
She first got the idea for the dolls when her granddaughter Maria had a friend over to play and they brought out the nesting dolls, some of Maria’s favorite toys. “I have a collection of Matryoshka nesting dolls that must have looked good enough to eat, because that is exactly what the friend did! I came up with the larger, non-edible version after that,” Rumfola said, with a laugh. The story won her a $50 gift certificate from the Creative Home Arts Club Publication, and her business continued to take off from there.
“The more you get your name out, the more people want to know what it is you’re doing,” Rumfola explained.
Most recently, Rumfola and her dolls were featured in Doll Castle News, a national publication geared toward doll makers and collectors.
“I was contacted by Barry Mueller, the publisher, who asked me to write my story and submit it to them,” Rumfola said. “Barry asked if I wrote the way I talked, so I just started jotting it down.”
Rumfola said Doll Castle News’ down-home values are what drew her to the magazine, which was originally started in 1961 by Mueller and his mother Edwina in their kitchen when he was only 7 years old. When his mother passed away in 1996, Mueller took over as publisher and his sister Dorita assumed the role of editor. The award-winning magazine has continued as a family operation ever since.
After Rumfola wrote the story for Doll Castle News, Mueller approached her about featuring one of her dolls on the cover. “The cover wasn’t anything I had ever given any thought to. He gave me an extreme honor and blessing, putting me on the cover,” she said.
Such industry celebrities as the Ginny Doll, Raggedy Ann, Barbie and Vogue dolls have graced the cover of that magazine, Rumfola noted, putting her in good company. After she learned one of her dolls was going to be featured so prominently, Rumfola was under the wire to design something special.
“With this doll, because I was under a time constraint to get it done for the cover of the magazine, I used a decoupage-like technique for the magazines, because that tiny detail would be hard to do with paint, especially that quickly,” Rumfola explained, indicating the intricate detail on the tiny magazines the cover doll holds.
Although the Doll Castle News feature will be widely-viewed, Rumfola’s talents are also in high demand at teas, doll shows, luncheons and other events across the country.
The Buffalo Regional Doll Club asked Rumfola to be a guest speaker at its 14th annual luncheon in September 2010 at Salvatore’s Italian Gardens Banquet Center in Depew, where there were 100 people in attendance; Rumfola had a wooden replica of her dolls made for each attendant. Truman Whiting of Brandywine Woodcrafts, a retired Air Force colonel who has made wooden replicas for the Smithsonian, among other high-profile clients, worked with Rumfola to create a wooden replica of one of her folk dolls.
“We worked together to get everything just right, the color, the shape, everything,” Rumfola explained.
She also partnered with Whiting to create tiny replica pins for the attendants as a special thank-you for allowing her to participate.
In June 2012, Rumfola will speak at the United Federation of Doll Clubs tea, which she said will probably be held at Salvatore’s, although no location has been set for sure yet. There will be 50 people attending, and Rumfola plans to hand-paint a doll for each person to take home.
After viewing Rumfola’s work, a representative from the Susan Quinlan Doll and Teddy Bear Museum asked the East Concord resident to be a teacher at a show in Philadelphia, but Rumfola had a conflicting show in Toronto, the CreativFestival, hosted by the Canadian Doll Artists Association, of which she is a member.
“You could be running all over the world all the time, so you have to pick your battles,” she said.
One of Rumfola’s favorite pursuits is the variety of doll clubs and organizations to which she belongs, mostly in the Buffalo and Niagara area.
“I never realized, until I got more involved, that these [doll collecting] groups are like an octopus with many arms. There are local clubs, national clubs, so many different levels. Many of them support charitable works with their fundraisers, which I think is another good aspect to it,” Rumfola said. “For the Love of Dolls Club gives blankets to the VA Hospital, for example. It just goes to show that not everybody is in it just for themselves.”
Some clubs host events for young doll enthusiasts, to teach girls about the finer things in life. “The girls are supposed to bring a doll and they learn poise, etiquette, social interaction. It’s structured to introduce little girls to lovely things and how to focus on others,” Rumfola said. “They learn how to focus on each other instead of turning the focus inward, which is so important for little girls today.”
Rumfola herself comes from a creative family, and has always worked to get her children and grandchildren involved in artistic pursuits. “I try to get the kids involved. My granddaughter Jordan painted a doll, and she’s going to be an art teacher. My grandson Charlie did a New York Yankees doll and entered it into the fair, and Maria, who’s five, entered a fabric design contest. She didn’t win, but a fabric company is making her a sample of the fabric that we’re going to make into a tote bag for her,” she said, showing off Maria’s design, which is an imprint of small rocks painted to look like the Matryoshka dolls the little girl loves.
In addition, Rumfola’s granddaughter Jessica and her fiancé are helping to create a card line, which should be ready by June 2012. The cards feature pictures of Rumfola’s dolls in scenes and decorations, most of which are public domain. She mentioned the importance of branching out and keeping her product fresh and diverse to keep people interested in her work.
When asked how she creates her dolls, Rumfola first pointed out the varying shapes of each, although they appear similar at first glance. “When I make a doll, I start out with bookbinders cloth, the same cloth that used to cover old ironing boards. I then layer on gesso to make the painting surface and wait for inspiration from the Lord. Once I see it in my mind, I can get it onto the doll form,” Rumfola explained. Each doll is between 16 and 18 inches tall and approximately 16 inches wide at the base. A piece of wooden fence post is inserted in the base for stability.
“When I first look at it, I turn it and twist it and however it is, I work the design into the shape. Each one is unique, based on the shape they come out.” she added.
Although her product is unique, Rumfola credits her doll club friends for helping her out whenever she needs anything and God for keeping her going.
“The thing about a lot of these people, is they’re very helpful. If you don’t know how to do something, they’ll know somebody who knows somebody who can help. With my dolls, I like the idea that they’re made in the USA. Having things produced en masse, that’s a different market, and I’m not at that place yet,” she said, although a friend had approached her about the possibility.
“You’ve got to find your niche and run with it. If you’re producing beautiful, unique, one-of-a-kind dolls, you’re not going to be sending them to China. On the other hand, if you want to make money, maybe you would. It’s kind of a balance: I like the aspect of letting God tell you what direction to go in. If you wait for the Lord to tell you, you’re not going to get tripped up. And even then, if you do, you know that’s how it was meant to happen anyway. It takes it out of your hands,” Rumfola said.
Rumfola is a member of the Austin Friends of Folk Art, the Arts Council of Wyoming County, the Buffalo Regional Doll Club, Canadian Doll Artist Association, Polish Artist Club of Buffalo, Inc. and Professional and Business Women of Polonia. Artfully Elegant Folk Dolls can be reached at email@example.com.
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