Merrill is a girl who always loved to make things. This opening line was first issued as a creative brief from Mia Nielsen, a nuanced aesthete helming one of the most sought after posts in Canada’s art scene as in-house art curator of The Drake hotel. The formative snippet, just the first line from an anecdotal story penned by Nielsen resulted in Merrill, a re-imagined Raggedy Ann doll by Toronto-based artist Jane Boyd.
Commissioned to create a custom in-room amenity for The Drake’s newly opened sister-hotel, Drake Devonshire, Boyd was handed Nielsen’s aforementioned script in lieu of a standard set of instructions. The story was set to inspire a rag doll, but with grit. Merrill’s written code was not void of baggage; Nielsen was careful to authenticate the prose by casting Merrill as a suburban-grown free spirit who escaped to the city for art school, DJ’ed on the side and before long, had her heart broken for the first time.
“We’ve all been there,” lamented Boyd. “Without a doubt, my inspiration was to show Merrill as a strong, modern woman who was working her way through heartbreak to re-establish her independence.”
What we see in the nearly foot-long Merrill - unlike complacent rag dolls of the past - is a fighter, ragged for the first time with purpose. The gentleness to the classic rag doll’s character, the softness to her pedestrian smile and her floppy limbs, had never touted self-reliance or even a storied past. Instead, she was carried on through history with the same unconscious personality we’d expect of a pillow.
Without a doubt, my inspiration was to show Merrill as a strong, modern woman who was working her way through heartbreak to re-establish her independence.
Merrill, like the classic rag doll, is pulled together from leftover scraps of mismatched fabric, both hand-stitched and by machine when necessary. But Merrill is an original; not original in the hackneyed sense the word has become, but a literal one-of-a-kind, made-by-hand doll who personifies independence. Unlike the classic rag doll’s general plainness and tightly proportionate pigtails made of yarn, Merrill’s mop is unruly, twisted without avail with a conspicuous streak of bright blue at her nape. Her fashion is anything but mainstream and her scraps have greater meaning. Boyd collected these materials for years from her travels like natural wools, cottons and linens, and she’s even cut up her husband’s discarded custom shirts. Merrill’s subtle tattoo and even her belly button ring, coupled with her artistic pursuits, make her somewhat of the contemporary beatnik, albeit over half a century too late.
“I think her style and individualism bring out her inner strength, along with a touch of insecurity,” Boyd said. To that accord, it would seem that Merrill’s insecurity might also be her strength. A hand-stitched, mending heart is secured prominently to her front for the whole world to see. In this way, she embraces her vulnerability outright, recognizing heartache’s capacity to realize our false invincibility.
At any given time, only a dozen or so of Merrill dolls exist, one for each room in the Drake Devonshire’s thirteen. A handful are for sale at the Drake General Store in its lobby, too, and each is different, whether it’s a new outfit or hairstyle. Each one, like Merrill, is her own woman.
Boyd’s next stitched fantasy? “Ex-boyfriend dolls!” she boasted. To parrot the artist herself, we’ve all been there, and sometimes it’s nice to know how small those problems have become.
Keith Flanangan is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer. To view his work, visit http://keithflanagan.wix.com/