Traditional Kokeshi Dolls Renew Artists' Bond With Nature and Heritage

Artist Lisa Holt-Hodson demonstrating her woodworking skills to create a traditional Japanese Kokeshi doll.  (Courtesy of Lisa Holt-Hodson)

Kokeshi dolls are pocket-sized, wooden figurines characterized by their lack of arms and legs. First gaining popularity following World War II, the dolls continue to serve as a memento of Japanese tradition and culture in the United States thanks to the work of artists like Lisa Holt-Hodsdon and Jacob Hodsdon.

The Japanese-American painter and designer Holt-Hodsdon says she draws inspiration from her multicultural background — her mother is from the Tohoku region of Japan, where the dolls originate, and her father is from Boise, Idaho. Her collaborator and husband, wood-turner Jacob Hodsdon, endeavors to bring out the innate beauty of wood. At the intersection of their talents, Hodsdon dolls are finely crafted examples that are said to bring joy, prosperity, and a sense of safety to any household that they occupy.

Asia Society had a chance to catch up with the Hodsdons recently. Our conversation is presented here:

What was your first encounter with Kokeshi dolls? 

Lisa Holt-Hodson: My mother had a Kokeshi collection that I was never allowed to play with. I used to study the eyes, look at the intricacies of the kimono, and paintings. They all had such different expressions — I was instantly in love. Now I have fun co-creating them with Jacob. We get to play with them all, paint different expressions, and really create them together. 

Jacob Hodson: I had some Kokeshi dolls over the shelf in my bedroom growing up, however, I didn't even realize what they were. I knew the bottom was signed "Japan."

What turned you both to pursue making Kokeshi dolls as your art form of choice?

LH: For me, bringing my Japanese heritage into our daily lives means more to me than I can ever express in words. I feel our artistic styles blend so naturally together in creating art that our combined influences and knowledge constantly elevate and compliment our finished work. They really do bring a sense of peace and prosperity to our lives, as they will for you. We both truly love sharing our art, story and collaboration with people.

JH: Growing up in a beautiful second growth forest, my best friends were the animals and trees. As an adult, this connection to the forest pushed my work in the direction of wood art. Working on the lathe and carving became a love of mine. In creating our own collection of Kokeshi we've found a combined art that we love — we love making them together and could not do with out each other. Kokeshi have become one of the many great blessing of our lives, they always bring us happiness, and so often bring a smile to other people's faces. Working with my wife and sharing in her heritage, kokeshi have certainly brought peace and prosperity in to our lives and home.

LH: Our design approach with the Kokeshi really inspires us to look for the natural movement of the wood. Utilizing these characteristics, each kokeshi develops its own spirit and personality. When people look into the faces and find a connection, we have succeeded in bringing out the spirit of the wood and have given it personality.

The Kokeshi doll is a deeply traditional art form. Is there an effort to sustain the tradition by appealing to the modern?

LH: For us there are so many efforts to sustain the craft, the art form, the connection to the culture, and also supporting and sustaining wood art. Appealing to the modern is always the way of things, I believe. Our approach is simply to work with our hands and the raw materials to create a little Kokeshi personality. We are able to use tiny burls and limbs that would otherwise be discarded. We entered this path wanting to work together, sharing our heritage, and sharing our story. There is always room for craft and art in today's modern society.

Lisa and Jacob Hodson will be at the AsiaStore on Friday, Mar. 11 from 12 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information on the event click here.

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