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Doll-maker’s handicraft on display

If you were able to take a trip back in time 40 years and you walked down Arthur Street in downtown Elmira, there is a good chance you would have seen Esther Otto’s family’s doll shop. Before the building became what is now Woolwich Community Services, the red brick structure was home to Esther’s family and rows upon rows of hand-crafted dolls.
Dolls of all different shapes and sizes lined the walls over the years– they had Cabbage Patch dolls, angel dolls, the characters from Anne of Green Gables, some firemen, a train conductor, a limited edition Santa on a train and a number of historically-based characters such as Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

“Our house was just filled with them. We had hundreds of dolls of all shapes and sizes,” reminisces Otto from her Drayton home. “People came from all over the world to see them.”

The collection began when Otto’s mother received a number of dolls as gifts, and the assortment began to accumulate.

IN SEARCH OF NEW HOMES Esther Otto is clearing out the many dolls she's collected or made over the last few decades.

“She never had a doll as a child, and once she was grown up she said she would like a doll,” Otto remembered.

“From there, people would give her a doll for every occasion and the collection just grew.”

In addition to purchasing dolls, Otto made her living as a doll-maker. She has handcrafted hundreds of unique dolls over the years and has also taught a class in doll-making to dozens of students.

“You start by pouring the mold,” she explained of the process. “Then you clean them and fire them and then put a coat of polish on them. Then you paint it, fire it, paint it and fire it again. Each doll is fired five times.”

The family ran their home like a museum filled with collectors’ items, but what promised to be a profitable investment for the Elmira family has now become somewhat of a burden. When Otto moved from Elmira to
Drayton, she took the dolls with her but had no place to display them for sale, so the collection now sits in her basement.

The root of the problem for doll-makers now is the decreased popularity of handmade dolls as collector’s items.

According to Otto, interest in her doll-making class has declined over the years, a fact she attributes to the availability of cheaper, mass-produced plastic dolls now found in stores.

“Each piece that a doll-maker has to buy for a doll can be expensive,” she explains. “Nowadays you can go into Walmart and get an entire doll for the price that a doll-maker will pay for just a pair of eyes for a handmade one.”

Struggling to make use of her collection now that she has retired from the business of doll-making, Otto has opened a display at Studio Factor in Drayton where they will be available for show and sale for the month of December. Otto hopes that the community will realize the amount of time and work that goes into each doll and consider purchasing one for a family member or friend for Christmas. The dolls range in price from $100 to $600 each.

“What is disappointing is that we are not considered ‘artists’ in the art community,” said Otto. “Many people think that doll-making is a stay-at-home craft kind of thing, but it is not. A lot of work goes into each piece. People don’t object to paying that much for a painting, but they think a doll at that price is too much money.”

The exhibit is open to anyone, even visitors who don’t plan to purchase. The studio on Wood Street in Drayton is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., excluding Sundays. For more information, call Otto at 519-638-5194.

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