Shelley Thornton

Shelley Thornton poses next to one of her cloth dolls at her showcase in the Home Economics Building on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Before even having conscious memory of it, Shelley Thornton had an interest in art. Since she was two years old, Thornton has had a drawing utensil in hand and can’t recall a moment when being an artist wasn’t her dream. Art has always been a crucial part of her identity — it was never a question whether she wanted to be anything other than an artist. 

Thornton’s exhibition, “Shelley Thornton - Textile Art Dolls” will be on display at the Robert Hillestad Textile Gallery located on East Campus until Sept.13. It will showcase Thornton’s journey toward fulfilling her lifelong dream of becoming an artist. The exhibit is free and open to the public on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Thornton, born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a printmaking and graphic design double major. After graduating in 1973, Thornton went on to become a freelance illustrator. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Thornton became interested in doll making. 

Thornton’s hobby of doll making all started because of her young son and daughter. She would often make dolls for her kids to keep them entertained. Eventually, Thornton started making connections with other local creators who enjoyed doll making as well. 

“I got acquainted with the fact that there were artists making dolls for sale for others to collect and I hadn't really thought about that before,” she said. “I started working and going to shows and I got accepted pretty quickly into the field.”

In only a few years, Thornton was recognized for her work by the National Institute of American Doll Artists and was elected into the organization in 1995. This kind of recognition drew the attention of several doll collectors, and therefore, her career as a doll maker blossomed. According to Thornton, this was a career that she was thrilled with, not only because it was a job that she could do from home while she took care of her children, but also because it was something that matched with her skills and hobbies as an artist. 

“It's something that really suits me in terms of the things that I like to do and materials that I like to use,” Thornton said. “It requires skills that I'm actually good at so it's a natural thing for me to do.”

In terms of artistic style, Thornton is different from other doll makers because she does not strive for realism with her dolls. Her dolls lack excessive details such as eyelashes or fingernails. Thornton is more interested in a stylistic concept for her work rather than a replica of reality. Her inspiration usually comes from a piece of fabric. From the fabric, she will gather other pieces she feels appropriate and creates the costume, and from there, she will create the doll. 

“We dress for ourselves, but I work the other way around,” Thornton said. “First, the costume comes to mind then the person wearing it develops after that.”

According to Michael James, director of the Robert Hillestad Gallery, much of the fabric used in Thornton’s work is from her everyday environment including clothes she wears and pieces from where she lives and works. 

“It's all part of the notion of living with fabrics and textiles, which we all do,” he said. “But most of us don’t curate that fabric environment as well as Shelley has done.”

James described Thornton’s work as expressive and of a style that gives life to the characters she creates. For her work, Thornton uses her intellectual and instinctive knowledge of color theory, an understanding of how to mix and match colors and patterns to construct a particular concept. Thornton uses this theory to create a welcoming and calm environment in the gallery. 

“I believe that this collection of dolls is about as uplifting and visually inspiring as almost anything we might show in the gallery,” James said. “If people leave with a little extra energy in their step, it is probably due to the wonderful atmosphere that Shelley has created in the gallery.”

According to Thornton, she is very proud to be able to sustain this career at the age of 69, and still continues to develop her skills and learn new methods of expressing herself artistically. For example, Thornton challenged herself with this exhibition to create a fully digital animation of her home studio. She had done animation in the past with painted cells and film and was interested in trying her hand at using new technology and creating an animation that was completely digital. 

Thornton said that although learning how to use the technology was difficult, it was worth her time and effort. Art has been a part of Thornton’s life for as long as she can remember, and it  will continue to be for as long as she can hold on to it. 

“I hope to keep working as long as my eyes and my hands hold out,” Thornton said. “It's something I do that I love. I think that's an achievement, to look back and say I did something that I love.”