Hello Dolly! Sally Heath’s Collection of Nested Christmas Dolls at SRJC’s Mahoney Library through Friday, December 17th, 2010
When Sally Heath saw her first set of Matroyshkya dolls in a Santa Rosa gift shop in the early 1990’s, a hobby was born. Heath, a retired SRJC Physics instructor, and long-time Santa Rosa resident, now has 121 sets of these charming wooden nested dolls and 117 of these are on display in the Connie Mahoney Reading Room at the Mahoney Library on SRJC’s Petaluma campus.
A Matryoshka is a Russian nesting doll. Matryoshkas are often used as symbols of Russian culture, but nesting dolls actually have their origins in Japan, The first Russian matryoshka was made in 1890 in a folk crafts workshop near Moscow. A Russian folk painter encountered a set of seven Japanese nesting figures representing the Seven Gods of Fortune and he and a wood turner made a set of eight alternating boy and girl dolls. It is thought the word “matryoshka” originates from the Latin root “mater” meaning “mother.”
Matryoshka are most often made of wood from trees of the genus tilia. Species of genus tilia are commonly known as linden wood or lime wood (not the citrus lime tree) and as basswood in the United States. The small solid figure in the center of the nest of dolls is first turned on a lathe. The bottom half of the next larger doll is turned so the center doll rests inside it and then the top half of that doll is turned to fit on the bottom half. This bottom and top turning process is continued until all the layers are completed.
Matryoshka are considered folk-art, kitsch and camp and come in at all price and quality points. When Sally Heath first started collecting in the early 1990’s, the only dolls that she could find locally were from China and were sold under a label called “Authentic Models” and came in a box with a plastic cover. She encountered her first Russian-made matroyshkya couple of years later in a Christmas Shop in Santa Fe and immediately recognized their superior workmanship and fine painting detail. From that point on, she has collected mainly Russian-made matryoshka.
The display in the Connie Mahoney Reading Room occupies 6 cabinets. The first and second (left most) cabinets contain Russian-made matryoshka, including Heath’s largest set which contains 15 hand-painted dolls. The largest doll in this set is about 10 inches tall while the smallest is about the size of a peanut and skillfully painted.
The heads of many matryoshka are greatly enlarged and the face dominates the body, a distortion which gives them a primitive but very expressive and endearing look. “The attention to detail can be impressive” said Karen Petersen who runs the Mahoney Gallery. “In some, the clothing is finely embellished with glitter and flourishes. And some of the dolls here serve as portraits of churches and important landmarks.”
Many of the “Santa” figures in the display are not Santa Claus but rather “Ded Moroz” or Grandfather Frost, who serves as the Russian equivalent of our Santa Claus. Grandfather Frost leaves presents for children on the New Year Tree. Unlike Santa Claus, he doesn’t travel down chimneys and does not drive a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He enters houses through front doors and either drives a troika or walks with a long magical staff.
Ded Moroz is commonly accompanied by Snegurochka, or Snow Maiden, his granddaughter, who helps him deliver his toys and treats. Snegurochka’s name is derived from the Russian word for snow, sneg. She is most commonly depicted with blond hair and wearing a long silver-blue robe and a furry cap.
The upper shelves of the third cabinet and forth cabinets contain Russian-made Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. Below these are some uncommonly shaped sets of dolls, including some round, oval and sharply pointed sets. A number of these open at the bottom rather than in the middle.
The last two smaller cabinets contain nested dolls from different countries, including a set of three Limoges porcelain Santa dolls which don’t really nest and each has a hinged opening at Santa’s belt. Heath says this set has doubled in price since she bought it.
When Heath discovered the nested dolls for sale on the Internet, she went into high gear and began buying sets on Ebay. “You can spend hundreds of dollars on these. I sort of have a limit. I try not to spend over $10 per doll. The
math is like this. If I have a set of 7, the limit is $70.00 or less for the set. The last set I went over though. They’ve got brown fur that is hand-painted on against white and there’s some blue and the heads have lovely gems set in. I paid the most per doll I’ve ever paid for this set. ”
Heath brings her matryoshkas out every holiday season and delights in arranging and displaying them throughout her home. When they’re not on display, she stores them in special protective containers that she’s constructed from milk cartons and several sets can be kept safely in one big box. She always keeps a few out in her kitchen though. “There’s just something about them that makes me smile.”
The Connie Mahoney Reading Room is located inside the Mahoney Library on Santa Rosa Junior College’s Petaluma Campus, 680 Sonoma Mountain Parkway, Petaluma, CA, 94954. Parking on campus is $4.00 and is by permit only and the machine requires exact change.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 1 PM Friday. Phone (707) 778-3974. The library will close for the holiday/semester break on Friday, December 17th, at 1 p.m.