On the mend in a doll hospital

Last updated 05:00 26/05/2013
Doll
MICHAEL BRADLEY/FAIRFAXNZ

On the mend: A patient gets a touch-up at the Auckland Dolls Hospital.

doll
MICHAEL BRADLEY/FAIRFAXNZ
Full health: A recovered patient of the Dolls Hospital awaits her owners.

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Leana Watson wields her scalpel like any top surgeon.

Steady hands, smooth movements, clean cuts. Her patients should feel confident: she knows exactly what she's doing. But the bodies on Watson's operating table don't feel anything. Dolls are just toys with human faces, right?

It's an unassuming place, the Auckland Dolls Hospital. Tucked away in the industrial corner of Mt Wellington, and now a wing of the Wrightway Studios art restoration company, this is the latest in a string of homes for the business that opened on Karangahape Rd in the 1940s.

If you weren't looking for it, you wouldn't know it was here. But steer past the nearby pie-and-coke bakehouses and the building's own dirty white concrete exterior, and there is something inside that has the magic of an old antique-store jungle: dusty, and chaotic, but it's clear everything is exactly whereit is meant to be.

The only difference is at this shop,all the products are broken. That's where Watson and 14 other staff come in. It's early on a Monday morning and her worn apron is already covered in blue and white dust from a china plate. It's not all about dolls, but they are never far away. Watson's workspace is a hodgepodge of glues and varnishes, hair samples and boxes of eyeballs: brown, blue, near-turquoise, all with the most enviable, fluttering eyelashes.

There is a photo of a perfectly serene, although slightly hairless, doll pinned on a board in front of her, next to one of a ceramic face with deep black holes where the eyes should be.

"Just go down past the biggest statue of Mary and it's by the baby carriage," she yells to a visitor looking for the bathroom. The strangeness of that instruction doesn't seem to register with Watson. She's been here two years -she answered an ad in the paper because she like dart, and dolls. And, despite Hollywood horror flicks like Child's Play that imagine evil dollies, Watson isn't the slightest bit freaked out by the things she works on.

She's used to their glassy eyes and unblinking stares. "For a while, though, there was a Jesus statue standing behind me. It felt like there was always someone looking at me but I'd turn around and think, 'Oh no, it's just Jesus watching over me,'" she says, laughing.

Her current project looks pretty menacing; a porcelain head with no body, and right now, no eyes. It is covered in a white spider-web-like pattern of plaster-filled cracks reaching from the crown, across the forehead to the cheekbone. No one here knows how the damage happened but it is, surprisingly, fixable. Watson smoothes the plaster with postage stamp-sized bits of sandpaper, followed by that scalpel, slowly working away the excess to be perfectly flush with the rest of the doll's face.

Once that's done, she'll get to work with the paint. She proudly shows off a previous job, a perfect example of a flawless English rose complexion. Other recent patients have included a Darth Vader toy, a not-so-giggly Tickle Me Elmo and a GI Joe. The other day they had an urgent overnight fix-it job fora little girl who couldn't bear to spend more than afew hours apart from her beloved doll. She showed up the next day in a princess outfit, too shy to talkto anyone except her very-much-missed best friend.

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When the injured dolls first arrive for treatment, it's Trilby Conway who casts a well-trained eye over them, examining for loose limbs, lazy eyes and bald spots. The softly spoken blonde used to paint mannequins for a living; now her canvases are a little smaller. There's a sign announcing the "Triage" area near the front door - it's not the most dignified location, but it seems to work for Conway and her patients.

In nine cubby holes are nine plastic washing baskets, each filled with a teddy bear or doll, each registering somewhere on the dismantled jigsaw spectrum, discoloured feet poking over the end waiting for a final diagnosis. Patient names hang on the bed-ends on big white cards. Evans is an elderly teddy bear with a nasty looking head wound, stuffing oozing out fromhis neck and ears.

Goodwin has lost a toe and her porcelain complexion looks busted and broken, her forehead shattered, faded blue eyes stunned. Their worried families leave them in the capable hands of Conway and her team - usually for six toeight weeks - as medical notes are pinned to them.

The remedies often sound unpleasant, but apparently necessary: re-stringing, re-painting, new eyes, new hair, fixing a shattered shoulder or replacing a lost limb. The waiting room they are held in is also the prosthetics room. The injured masses are surrounded by spare torsos, noise-making "mama boxes", arms, legs and extra heads. It's more than a bit off-putting, but like the human versions, many of these transplantable parts have been selflessly donated by dolls unable to win their fight.

Conway says they don't lose very often though. "Pretty much no, if we can't do it, nobody can. There are cases, when a body is really ruined on a doll, we will put a new one on but we always keep the original head, because that's what people remember. It's nostalgia. You don't want a doll that looks like your doll; you want your doll that went through your childhood with you. You have all those memories with it."

The Dolls Hospital usually has at least five new patients a week. This morning Conway welcomeda Ghandi statue that lost the top of its walking stick ina house move - not really a doll, but the techniques are the same: precision, clean work and a delicate touch.

Then there was the China-faced doll brought in by an older woman obviously attached to what she introduced as "my little baby, my little girl". It turns out this is a 65-year-old doll that has become the plaything of a nine-year-old girl. Rather than collecting her pension, a few touch-ups are needed so she can keep earning her keep as the ultimate companion.

Conway undresses her like you would a baby that's on the verge of drifting off to sleep, gently removing the faded lemon nightie and bloomers. The baby blue booties get to stay. As the legs pop out of their joints, it's clear this baby needs re-stringing - it's the technique that keeps the limbs close to the body, and tight in their movement.

Some worn skin around her arms and legs will needto be fixed too. To the pride of her owner though, Conway deems her face to be perfect. The only improvement is a little bit of lippie, nothing too gaudy. Something befitting a lady in her 60s. It will cost upwards of $500.

These aren't just toys; they are things that mean something to the people who love them. And Conway gets that. "I think it's really difficult to biff a doll in the rubbish bin - and if you've told them all your little secrets over the years, then it's very hard." 

- Sunday Magazine

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