Child’s Play

Handmade dolls embodied marginalized workers’ desire for autonomy—and, now, the plight of children at the United States’ southern border.

Then

Milwaukee Handicraft Project, 1935–42

Milwaukee

Courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum

Then

Milwaukee Handicraft Project, 1935–42

Milwaukee

Courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum

During the Great Depression, as people were plunged into an uncertain future, nostalgia for the past contributed to an effort to revive and preserve “traditional” folk arts and crafts.

The Milwaukee Handicraft Project, which started in 1935 as part of the Federal Art Project, aimed to impart design skills to unskilled workers—especially women. The jobs that were open to women in President Roosevelt’s job creation programs were limited in number and typically gendered: cooking, cleaning, sewing, or clerical work. The Handicraft Project aimed to address that gap.

Elsa Ulbricht, a member of the art education faculty at Milwaukee State Teachers College, was offered the job to lead the project. Harriet Clinton, of the WPA Women's and Professional Division, suggested she could have the women make themed scrapbooks of magazine articles. Ulbricht accepted the job, but waved away the suggestion that her charges would scrapbook; she wanted women to learn useful skills, so she decided to teach them how to make products they could sell.

Doll designer Helen Clark (seated) worked on the WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project. Courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum. MPM #49626.56

“When the Milwaukee Handicraft Project opened its doors, November 6, 1935, a motley, careworn and harassed group of women were greeted and received by a small number of eager and socially sensitive young women and men into hands they were to be entrusted,” Ulbricht wrote in a 1944 issue of Design magazine. “They were of all ages, all nationalities (some speaking very little English), some could neither read nor write, Negro and white, of all degrees of intelligence and education.”

After learning a set of basic skills, workers could then choose—based on their interests—which of 11 units to join. They designed and bound children’s books, which were decorated with linoleum block prints. They painted wooden toys and designed a line of furniture, draperies, and rugs. They unraveled surplus military burlap and also wove fabric on looms. They crafted a set of theatrical costumes for the Milwaukee State Teachers College that were so popular, the workers’ wardrobe services started to become in demand, and they opened their own costuming department.

Dorothy Phillips Haagensen, a WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project designer, holding cloth counterpane dolls. Courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum. MPM #H49639.58

They also created a line of cloth toys, including an “unbreakable” doll that was 22 inches tall and jointed, with a face made of fabric dipped in cornstarch, making the doll washable and practical for families to own. The dolls were meant to teach children early skills, such as how to tie ribbons or button clothes, and they were made with a variety of skin tones, from light beige to dark brown.

The Milwaukee Handicraft Project was unique in its racial integration of its workers. In many other WPA programs, African Americans often had to work in segregated divisions. Ulbricht did not support the idea of separate work spaces, so all participants worked together. (Although the program was designed for unskilled women, it also accepted men, in particular African American men, who were often shut out of other opportunities.)

The project was ended in 1942, as national focus and funds turned to the war. Ulbricht’s program, although part of a renewed national nostalgia for handicraft, defied the trappings of sentimentality; its mission was to equip women and minorities with updated design skills. One former worker later recalled, “I have learned to do things I would never have done otherwise … and above all I have learned more of the human side of life through my sponsors, taking us as unskilled labor, bringing out that which we never knew was in us.”

Then

Milwaukee Handicraft Project, 1935–42

Milwaukee

Courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum

Now

Lucia Cuba, 2019

New York City and Lima, Peru

Now

Lucia Cuba, 2019

New York City and Lima, Peru

My new work draws inspiration from the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, which included the design of a doll that could uplift the general public, as well as the unskilled female laborers hired to create them. The Milwaukee dolls were notable both because of the quality and quantity the program produced, and for their distinct design identity: they were larger than most dolls, at 22 inches tall; they were washable; and they were jointed, so they could sit and stand, and children could learn to dress and undress them. They were varied in race, gender, and clothing, made to represent the perceived identity and history of the American people. There were black dolls and white dolls, and even a doll that represented an immigrant, though a white European one: it had two blonde braids and wore a red kerchief, embroidered shirt, and skirt.

I wanted to use this same reference and device, a doll, to bring attention to the current experience of immigrant children at the US–Mexico border who have recently entered, or plan to enter, the United States with or without their families.

These dolls follow some of the design guidelines of the Milwaukee Handicraft Project, including their characteristic height, fully functional clothing, and ability to sit, stand, and educate. However, their bodies and varied skin colors suggest the reconfiguration of “Americanness” through immigration, as well as slavery, both of which started long before the existence of the United States.

The 35 wearables created for the dolls, which represent the number of countries in the Americas, can be combined and layered on their bodies; this suggests a move away from a singular experience of migration, and highlights instead a shared experience of displacement by immigrant children in the Americas today. I also use a lot of text in my work, and here I appliquéd fragments of recorded stories about these minors, taken at the border by the police and separated from their families. To pull out information, I generally go to newspapers and other forms of media, including the New York Times, the Guardian, Reuters, and Spanish-based sources. I also used testimonies collected by organizations that help unaccompanied children who enter the country.

These dolls aim to reify the situation and experience of unaccompanied children, facing an absurd but ultimately cruel institutional context marked deprivation, trauma, and loss. The doll form serves to bring an adult audience closer to children, by creating a dystopian world in which the voices of children are systematically ignored.

I am from Peru and I first came to the US in the 1980s, for the years my dad pursued his master’s degree. Twenty years later I returned as a graduate student myself, then stayed on as a teacher, artist, and researcher. As an immigrant and a parent, the stories of child migrants resonate greatly with me, as they underscore issues around of mobility, relocation, and family separation, whether voluntary or forced. The experience of these kids, accompanied or unaccompanied, facing trials alone, being forced inside of cages, traveling hundreds of miles and expecting a better life as they try to escape murder, rape, kidnapping, or hunger, moved me to create a work that questions current ideas about American identity, and about who or what decides where we can or cannot belong.

Lucia Cuba is an artist who lives and works between New York and Lima, Peru. Her work incorporates design, textile art, and the exploration of garments as performative and political devices, broadening the understanding of the role of fashion design and wearable objects—from purely functional, commercial, or aesthetic considerations, to social, ethical, and political perspectives.

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