As toilet paper (or the lack of it) made national headlines, artist Adrienne Doig turned a by-product of this basic commodity – the left over cardboard rolls – into a feel-good doll-making project anyone can do at home. Tracey Clement spoke to the Blue Mountains-based artist about using art to bring people together, and the impact of isolation on her practice.
Tracey Clement: In early March, toilet paper became a scarce commodity. Was toilet paper panic-buying the inspiration for your toilet paper roll doll (TPRD) project?
Adrienne Doig: Well, I had already been hoarding toilet paper rolls (but not toilet paper) because they are just practical. I find I have lots of little uses for them. And I had already been making dolls during isolation, rag dolls and Russian dolls.
The Art Gallery of New South Wales had asked me for an activity for their Instagram account Together in Art. And it came to me late one night. I thought: toilet paper rolls, dolls, Covid-19. It all just came together. We can utilise, you know, the joke. Because the hoarding was a bit of a joke.
TC: So was making toilet paper roll dolls a craft activity you did as a child?
AD: No. When I had the idea I had to go and turn on my computer and Google it to see if they were really a thing. And they are a thing. It’s not an original idea. But it just tied in so nicely with the Covid-19 pandemic.
TC: Your TPRD project was designed to engage children stuck at home. But adults love it too. The response has been phenomenal! Why do you think people have been so enthusiastic?
AD: I think it’s the humour. And one of the other things I have noticed is that people are creating families and portraits of people who they are not with.
You know, in some ways I guess this kind of relates to the dollhouse world – the idea that you could make your toilet paper roll doll have another life that you can tap into. That whole imaginative childlike play thing.
So in your toilet paper roll doll world you can have your friends over; there is no social distancing! You can do what you like!
And people have been really inventive too. Which is delightful, the way people have used materials in unusual ways is great.
TC: The TPRD project was a response to Covid-19 isolation requirements. But for a lot of artists, working alone is normal. How has it been for you?
AD: It has just been business is usual with a horror background. Which sometimes you just have to switch off.
But art is really good for that. Making art makes me feel good. So in some ways having an art practice helps deal with the pandemic, I think, because you can channel your energy into making. Making things, perhaps especially crafting things – you know embroidery or sewing where you stitch, those repetitive movements – that actually is very soothing.
TC: Portraiture, particularly self-portraiture, is part of your normal practice as an artist. What insights has the TPRD project, or the pandemic itself, offered that you might make use of in your work?
AD: I think the inventive use of materials in the toilet paper roll dolls – the make-do nature of using what is available – has definitely filtered through. I’ve been rummaging through boxes and finding stuff that is 20 years old to use in my work!
And the other thing is the little details, tiny details that people put on their dolls. I mean I have always known this – that when you put something specific into a work it can pull the whole thing together. But this has been really exemplified in the toilet paper roll dolls. Because they are also individualistic.
And sometimes it is really the most banal things. And my work does deal with that. It’s the everyday aspect of the work that makes it more interesting, I think. These are not heroic gestures. Not at all!
TC: Have the Covid-19 restrictions affected your exhibition plans? What are you working on now?
AD: My survey exhibition, It’s All About Me, at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery was postponed, but it’s back on for December. It will show work from the last couple of decades. And some new work.
But at the moment I’m working towards a show at Martin Browne Contemporary coming up in August. I’m still working with self-portraiture and for this one I am re-purposing discarded craft projects made by other people: needlepoint, tapestry, and embroidery pieces. I’m turning them into backgrounds for my own self-explorations.
TC: This is a strategy you have used for quite a while, has the way you think about it changed at all since working in isolation through the pandemic?
AD: I think it has changed. Whether it is related to the pandemic or not, I’m not sure.
I have a lot of these tapestries, but the ones that I’m working on now are ones that mainly show interiors with people sewing. So I’ve picked that up as a theme and I’ve worked myself into the scene so that it seems like there is a conversation that is happening between me and the maker and the people depicted in the scene.
So there is a dialogue happening. Or that’s what I’m trying to bring out. That is definitely a new development.
TC: Covid-19 restrictions are starting to ease, is the TPRD project over?
AD: No. It will keep going as long as people keep sending me pictures.
And if there is a silver lining to this whole thing, it is the fact that somehow I think it has made art more accessible to people. For example one person told me that she was no good at art. And yet she has made a number of these really fabulous dolls.
Maybe it’s because they are working at home with materials that are just on hand, but it seems to have freed up the idea of what art can be. And that is great.
Martin Browne Contemporary
20 August – 13 September
It’s All About Me
Bathurst Regional Gallery
11 December – 7 February 2021