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The Odd World of a Teenage Dollmaker


Anyone who has attended high school has felt like an outsider at one point or another — but there may be only one student at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, Conn., who is making outsider art. HVRHS senior Theda Galvin, who was home-schooled before enrolling in the small public high school, spends her free time in a well-populated fantasy land of figurines she sculpts, designs, dresses, and photographs. Her work has paid off, and she’s been selected as the first student artist to have a solo show at the school’s new Kearcher-Monsell Library gallery wall. Titled “Interior Motives,” the showcase will open to the public on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 2:30 p.m.

“I start with a wire frame, although some of the bases are made from grocery store twist-ties,” Galvin told me as we walked through the show ahead of the opening, along with Ellie Wolgemuth, a sophomore who is heading the library’s art installation as lead intern. The dolls wear the origins of their crude, mismatched materials proudly, Frankenstein-stitched from hot glue, notebook paper, floral wire, and craft yarn. “For the clothing, I’ve gone to the thrift store and found small pieces of fabric fuse under flower vases for a quarter.”

The disproportionately magnified eyes on the dolls might bring to mind Mark Ryden’s whimsical pop surrealism, while the diorama photographs of the figures at play might echo the miniatures in the work of Laurie Simmons, but Galvin’s influences are more in line with internet fandom. She draws from the English Gothicism of steampunk and the robot-limbed female iconography of Japanese cyberpunk, characters from “Ace Attorney,” a Capcom video game series, Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson’s Moomin characters, and the queer coupling of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, made popular by the 2010s BBC adaption of the British detective stories. Of course, plenty of well-established artists have worked by mixing "low" popular culture and fine art — when American painter Elizabeth Peyton had her 2019 solo show at the National Portrait Gallery in London she included a painting of Bella and Edward from “Twilight.”

At the core of Galvin’s work is a tender loneliness — the characters are drawn from the nerdier corners of the internet where “shipping” enthusiasts commune, even as scrolling through web pages remains a silent, solo activity. The photographs, too, are reminiscent of a child’s solitary playtime, when dolls could be paired and posed and taken outdoors for endless imaginative adventures. The work is empathetic, earnest, and the mark of an emerging talent.

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