When walking up to Arthur Cullipher’s apartment building, one doesn’t see dolls in the windows. No vacant stares from behind curtains, no porcelain — just a building made of bricks.
In the apartment’s living room, however, the local doll maker has shelves lined with figurines meeting one’s gaze. The room appears to be a casual hangout, as his friends lounge on the futon, talking quietly amid a floor cluttered with McDonald’s cups and filled ashtrays.
These dolls aren’t Barbies. Look closer and one can see tentacles, brain matter with busted sutures and genuinely creepy facial expressions.
Cullipher, who also devotes his time to running an independent film production company, Clockwerk Pictures, is inspired by the horror genre and has been for as long as he can remember.
As a child growing up in Orlando, Fla., Cullipher loved monsters and horror. His mother and father often supplied him with toys, influencing his creativity. Cullipher collected mermaid Barbies and monster dolls and began to disfigure them into creatures with more arms and legs than dolls tend to have. They had mangled facial expressions and hollowed-out eyes — befitting a horror film.
At age 3, Cullipher watched “The Exorcist” for the first time with his father.
He admitted he didn’t get through the whole thing until he was 12. Unfortunately, his father sculpted a bust of the devil and put it in his study.
“He would send me into his study to get something, and the study had big heavy wooden doors,” Cullipher recalled. “It would creak open slowly, and the first shaft of light from the window would reflect off the devil’s cubic zirconium eyes.”
A boy’s fear led to intrigue. Young Arthur conquered his fears by taking apart all the dolls he collected — action figures, rag dolls — and learning to put them together again.
As he got older, it became a way to cope with his parents’ divorce.
Cullipher hasn’t spoken to his father in years, and his mother, though supportive of his art, wished he would take an office job. Looking around his home, it became apparent that his mother’s dream is something he gave up long ago.
He occasionally co-writes and directs avant-garde horror films with one of his roommates, Kirk. A recent film, “Come,” is about a bewitched man who makes human dolls by killing people and rearranging their body parts. Cullipher laughed when he said, “(My films are) just an actualized extension of my doll collection.” In fact, Cullipher makes most of the special effects in his films, from masks to videocassettes with organs.
In the apartment, one finds several small boxes stacked on top of each other, filled with bits of fabric, needle and thread and tiny miniature toys. There are dozens of fully and partially created “little people,” formed from polymer clay, rubber, wire and various types of cloth.
A doll that looked like a baby fetus is in a glass jar. Nearby sat a four-armed magician named Nephaestus. The place featured other dolls that have more personal significance because they had their own stories, created as a reflection of events in Cullipher’s life.
Cullipher leaves the room for a moment and returns with a pack of Camel Lights and a burlap sack. He plops down in a leather easy chair and lights a cigarette. After a few puffs, he seems relaxed and out of the sack he pulls a floppy doll with button eyes.
Cullipher sits the doll in his lap as one would a baby and rocks it gently.
“This is Mr. Mojo,” he said. It’s the first doll Cullipher made after learning to sew by watching his Aunt Mona stitch dolls for him that looked like characters on “The Letter People,” a popular children’s after-school special from the 1980s. (“H was for Horrible Hair, G for Gooey Gum,” Cullipher added.)
Mr. Mojo has a series of uneven cross-stitches holding him together. He isn’t wearing any tailor-made doll costumes like Cullipher’s other creations.
“I love burlap dolls. Even the thought of burlap dolls is interesting to me,” Cullipher said. “I like the idea that if you didn’t have the most money, you could give your child some type of doll for Christmas because burlap is relatively cheap. Maybe it’s not the most beautiful doll ever, anyway...”
He trailed off as his attention was diverted to another doll seated on the futon across from him. Ms. Mirelda, as she’s called, has big, sad, green eyes and a black witch’s cape. This doll is a reminder of Cullipher’s mother.
“I remember my mom bought a perfume and a doll came with it,” Cullipher explained. “It looked something like Ms. Mirelda.”
The doll’s sad expression reminds him of a darker time.
“I haven’t lived with my parents since I was 17,” Cullipher said. He lights another cigarette. Another moment of reflection.
Cullipher created a story for Ms. Mirelda that fit the memories he had of his mother and that dark time in his life.
She’s a waiting lover in a swamp, waiting to meet a man that never comes for her. “So she waits. And she waits ... Dress me in black burlap, dress me in lace, look what’s become of my beautiful face.”
Cullipher seemed to snap out of it again.
One more doll holds special meaning. He dashed across the room and loaded an image on the computer. The image shows a “boy” doll that looks like something out of a Tim Burton film with a six-legged companion, a dog named Fetch. The boy is named Vidrighin, one of the names Cullipher had considered to name his now 10-year-old son. Vidrighin, as Cullipher described it, was made in his son’s likeness. His curly hair stands on end like a “mad scientist,” and his smile is surrounded by a constellation of freckles.
The doll was last year’s Christmas gift to his son, whom he hasn’t seen in “a while” due to conflict with his son’s mother and ex-wife.
Cullipher said he has tried teaching his son the importance of being creative. He drew on his own experiences as a child. “We would build cardboard play sets, boxes on top of boxes that had slides and trapdoors. He’d get irritated because he just wanted to play,” Cullipher said.
When Cullipher sits down to make dolls, he does it alone. As he molds a piece of polymer clay in his hands, he listens to it. It’s a process he lovingly calls “Dollwerk,” which requires self-communication with the art. The end result of Dollwerk is that others will do the same when they see the final creation. Dollwerk is a combination of meditation and magic.
“I listen to it tell me what it wants to become,” Cullipher said, closing his eyes.
He decided after playing heads or tails with a penny that he wanted to make a bunny rabbit.
The bunny’s head appeared cute and fluffy. This creation is Frankenbunny.
A cool breeze blew in from the open window, and nothing could be heard in the house but the purr of a computer and the sound of chirping birds — meditation.
Cullipher grabbed a sharp sculpting tool and carved sutures and a brain — magic.