BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - "You all are going to make your doll, and you're going to get to bring it home," Barbara Franklin announces to her class of Girl Scouts.
The dolls are lined up along table with clouds of poly-fill floating by. The Girl Scouts have deep looks of concentration on their faces. Troop leaders, moms, and one little brother have all gotten in the act and are stuffing the cloth doll bodies that Franklin, a master folk life artist, made for them. As they work, Franklin speaks.
"I have traveled with my dolls to Topeka, Kansas, California, many fairs and festivals. I just love it. I'm addicted to being outside with my dolls. You meet so many nice people!"
Franklin is talking about her life as a folk artist. Earlier in this session at the Greenwell Springs Library, she read from her story about when at age 37, she started her first dolls while living in uptown New Orleans. She had seen dolls being sold to tourists in a store on Decatur Street.
"I stood and looked and looked at the little black dolls because they were so well made and dressed so cute," she said. "The money received would help me and my children have a better life in a nice, safe neighborhood."
She first made dolls with black fabric, not with rags, but with crisp, clean, brand new fabric. She set up shop in the French Market. "From the time I started making my dolls, my dolls always sold well. My being a one-person doll maker with no help other than my own, I'm never able to get a large, large, large inventory," she chuckled.
At first, Frank followed what was already selling and made dolls she calls "mammy" and "pick-a-ninny" style. These were racial stereotypes of earlier times, and Franklin soon longed for something more. Since people are not all the same color, Franklin says she started making a "multi-culti" world with attention to detail.
At the Greenwell Springs Library in Baton Rouge, Franklin has a large array of dolls she has created. She says the clown dolls in the lineup were made the day the Challenger blew up upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. That day, she made 12 dolls at once, all clowns, each with a different style of clothing and face paint. She wasn't sure why she had broken the norm that day, but maybe it had something to do with the national tragedy that had just occurred.
Franklin loves detailing the dolls and tries never to take shortcuts. "I cut this purple. I cut that yellow. I sewed the two together and then I put the purple binding at the bottom. That's what master artists do," she says matter-of-factly.
Franklin sells her dolls at art markets and festivals, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In Natchitoches, at Northwestern State University, the Folklife Festival placed her in a Folklife Masters Hall of Fame. UL Lafayette wrote about her craft in an edition of Folklore Miscellany in 2017. Among folklore fans, she's big.
She grabs an armload of dolls. "Pleasant features. Her face, pleasant feature. Look at this one here," she said. She pushes a sunny Caucasian doll with blonde hair and freckles on her bright face. "Cute and impish," she exclaims. "Like a little fun doll. This one here, look!" She shakes it and hugs it. "Who wouldn't want her?" she chuckles.
"I'll be making my dolls until I leave this world," Franklin sighs.