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Studios dolled up for summer tour

But some artists find the going tougher as they roll out their wares this weekend.

There’s a phony $1,000,000 bill affixed to Danna Watson’s refrigerator. When it arrived in the mail one day, she took it as a sign.

“Okay, I can do that,” she told herself. “I can take it to that level.”

For nearly 40 years, Watson has hand-crafted art dolls of seemingly infinite design.

There’s the intricately painted and costumed animal series, each one with posable limbs and a hand-painted face.

The enchanted elephant series received a nod in a 1996 national design competition; every head-dressed and festooned pachyderm comes with its own story of “courage and kindness.”

And Watson’s fairies, an army of small, winged sweethearts, nestle together in a plastic box, all of them waiting for happy new owners.

These and other dolls have taken up residence everywhere in Watson’s home studio, in preparation for this weekend’s Bainbridge Summer Studio Tour.

And while the artist laughs about becoming a multi-millionaire – and her small roommates do pick up the tab for household expenses – she’s only half joking when she talks about the challenges that she and other local artists are up against in the marketplace.

“There’s a lot of squeeze going on,” she said. “The high-end market always does well. The people who have money can spend it.

“It’s the middle market – the arena I’m selling in – where people go, ‘I like that, but I can’t afford it.’ It’s tighter.”

As Watson moves through her vibrantly painted studio, she gets a call from Sydni Sterling, an Indianola painter who will set up for the tour near Watson’s pond late this week. The two talk logistics, and Watson considers where the two of them plus seven other area artists – who make everything from handbags to porcelain art to jewelry – will fit in Watson’s back garden.

This year, Watson says organizers have made an effort to get more artists into each studio space, so that “when people show up, they have a lot to see.”

The twice-yearly Bainbridge studio tour offers visitors one more accessible, non-intimidating way to meet artists and buy art. And it gives artists a chance to sell directly to the public in professional studio settings, under the umbrella of an established organization.

This type of show can be the life blood of artists like Watson who love what they do – and Watson herself admits that she might go crazy if she didn’t have her art as an outlet – but find self-promotion challenging.

Watson, no sales newcomer, has attended “gazillions” of craft shows and made a brief foray into the wholesale market. She’s also a 20-year studio tour veteran and a member of its steering committee. But even she encounters hurdles as she goes about the business of her work.

“The marketing has always been the toughest part for me,” she said. “It’s putting on a different hat, and using a different part of the brain.”

And as much as she loves making dolls, Watson also admits to the labor intensity of her craft.

She said she recently completed a contract with an airport vendor, where her designs did well. But the large orders took significant work to complete, and ultimately the vendor replaced her line with a line of glass because they said it would sell faster.

“It’s so up and down, the business of selling,” she said. “It just gets old, the older you get.”

So she’s considering larger-scale and more efficient production measures along with new ways to gain exposure while getting “more mileage out of one piece,” for instance developing a line of cards based on her doll designs.

Watson also says she wouldn’t rule out moving toward a manufacturing model and having her dolls produced overseas so that she could focus on higher-end pieces that go beyond her current $65-$160 price range. This, she envisions, could help her feed her creative needs while also feeding the family.

In Watson’s colorful world, work and home blend. Her studio is two steps down from her living room through a wide archway. She’s thinking of getting a curtain to separate the two rooms, but even that might not keep her from her craft – she said it’s tough work just to sit down to watch a movie without thinking she’s got to make a pair of tiny shoes.

Watson finds that having people visit the studio, both on tours and in private, provides both artistic satisfaction and another marketing opportunity.

“It legitimizes me,” she said. “They look and say, ‘oh, you really did make this.’”

At the same time, it’s about the magic. Watson said the biggest compliment she ever received was from a wide-eyed girl who attended the studio tour with her mother one year.

“She turned to her mom,” Watson said, “and said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a doll maker too.’”

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Garden arty

Dancing Spirit Studios, 7021 Fletcher Bay Road, will show the work of Danna Watson, Michael & Donna Day, Lauri Hewitt, Diane McNichol-Frost, Su Olsen, Dinah Satterwhite, Sydni Sterling, Darcy Thompson and Glenn West from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 10-12. More than 40 artists in five venues will participate in this weekend’s tour. Visit www.bistudiotour.com for maps and a complete artist listing.

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