A selection of the miniature dolls Teresa has made.

Making memories with bespoke dolls

Geraldine Grennan

When Westmeath artist, Teresa Doyle, lost her beloved father, Brendan Kelly, in May 2005, it was the catalyst that started her on the road to opening her own business – even though she was totally unaware of it at the time!

“After my Dad passed away it was the end of an era for our family and I found that I couldn’t bear to part with his clothes, particularly his cardigans, as he had a cardigan for every occasion,” recalls Teresa, “so I decided that I would reuse his clothes to make a memory doll, and by that Christmas I had made a keepsake doll for each of my seven siblings.”

A selection of the miniature dolls Teresa has made.

That simple gesture, rooted in sentiment and nostalgia, resulted in Teresa setting up Teresa Doyle Bespoke Dolls at her home in the rural north Westmeath village of Ranaghan, outside Collinstown, over 60km away from where she was reared in the townland of Kilcavan, Geashill, on the Laois/Offaly border.

A gifted artist who graduated from Limerick College of Art and Design with a Diploma in Fine Art in the early 1980s, Teresa is rapidly making a name for herself as the doll maker of Ireland’s Ancient East, and her magnificent bespoke dolls now have pride of place in many hearts and homes across the world.

Memory plays a big part in what Teresa does, and having come from a happy home where she watched her late mother, Lil, “toil, sew, mend and remake” clothes, she believes that fabric plays a big part in all our lives even though we may not realise it.

“All of us have a favourite item of clothing, it could be that well-worn jumper that has seen better days, the fluffy pyjamas, or a coat we can’t bear to part with,” she says. “We store and hold on to precious items like baby clothes, the school uniform, a man’s cap or a granddad’s overcoat, and they get moved from house to house, and from press to drawer, and we can’t let go of them.”

Teresa takes these precious pieces of fabric and uses her skills in arts and crafts (which she says she undoubtedly gets from her late mother) to create a doll that is a combination of fabric and memory. “Instead of just having a load of clothes that people can’t bear to part with, they have a precious family heirloom made from those clothes that stores sentiment and evokes memories every time they look at it,” she says.

Having lived in New York – where she met her husband, Tommy ‘Jogger’ Doyle from Collinstown – for a decade before returning to Ireland Teresa says the experience of being an emigrant has helped to shape her work as an artist. “I spent a lot of time in New York observing the Irish community, and I think when you move away from everything that you are familiar with, and observe how people either flourish, or don’t, in a new environment, it teaches you a lot of life lessons, and I have tried to bring that emigrant experience into my work since returning to Ireland.”

Teresa also spent some time travelling around Europe in the early 1980s having been the recipient of a summer scholarship from the Italian Cultural Institute to the prestigious Accademia Di Belle Arti in Perugia, Italy after graduating from Limerick College of Art and Design.

Returning to the role of memory in her artistic work, she says that when “everything that is familiar to us is taken away, it is then that our memories become most dear and precious”.

She uses the image of the wraparound apron in a lot of her work, and in her doll making, and she says it was such an integral part of daily life in Ireland when she was a child that people barely noticed it, yet it evokes very powerful memories for many people when they see it in her work today.

“Some things are so ordinary that we barely notice them until they are gone from our lives, like the wraparound apron,” she observes.

The process of ordering a memory doll can be “a very emotional experience” for many people, particularly those who have lost a loved one, so Teresa advises her customers to spend as much time as they want selecting items of clothing before they order a doll. Her dolls cater for all occasions, including, birthdays, memorial, graduations, anniversaries, brides to be, and family dolls.

Teresa at work in her studio.

“The handing over of precious clothing is a cathartic letting go of emotion by the giver, but it allows me, as an artist, to refashion and rework what I have been given and return all those precious memories in the form of a doll which will outlive all of us and will be a permanent reminder of a person’s life or a very special occasion,” she says.

Teresa has worked with numerous groups across county Westmeath over the last 20 years, participated in a number of exhibitions, and published a book called ‘The Colouring Book of Extraordinary Ordinary Women’ says she was always “a visual learner” but it was only in recent years that she realised the powerful influence that her late mother, Lil, had on her life.

“Watching someone mend and make, and to work with what they had, as my mother always did, and to see the skill in just those two hands, had a profound effect on me,” she says, “it was, and still is, awe-inspiring for me.”

She has also been inspired by the groups she has worked with over her years as an artist in the community in Westmeath, and mentions the late Sr Finbarr Breslin, who founded the Mullingar Community Projects as being “one of the many truly inspirational women” she has had the pleasure of working with.

Having received ongoing support for her artistic endeavours from Westmeath County Council, Westmeath Community Development and the Local Enterprise Office, and with the valuable support and advice of people like fellow artist, Ursula Meehan, and others, Teresa feels “truly blessed” to be able to pursue her passion for art.

She has always been a strong advocate for the power of art to transform people’s lives, and passionately believes that art is for everyone and is a powerful educational tool.

As the mother of three adult children, Thomas, Brendan and Mary, she says she gets her inspiration from the people who cross her path and leave an imprint on her life, and her dream is to “leave a legacy” through her art.

“If something I have made, drawn or painted evokes a memory for someone and causes them to turn their head and stop in their tracks, then it will all have been worthwhile,” she says.

Teresa Doyle can be contacted at: teresamdoyles@gmail.com or on her Facebook page: Teresa Doyle Bespoke Dolls & Craft.