Tiffany Gholar: Author, Doll Photographer, Painter, Interior Designer

Posted by: Elaine Luther

The Doll Project. In this series, you use actual Barbie Dolls and place them in situations where they’re shown having eating disorders. It’s so powerful and subversive, because at first glance, you just see dolls, a child’s toy, but then when you look closer, you see that these dolls, which may contribute to girls’ poor body image, themselves have poor body image an eating disorders.  How did that project come about? Is it ongoing?

I got the idea for The Doll Project while I was in graduate school in 2008. I was taking an elective in Native American art history and was doing a research paper on Kachina dolls. At the same time I was working at a nonprofit called Demoiselle 2 Femme that empowers teenage girls.

While helping proofread some materials, the media literacy curriculum got my attention. I thought about the way women are portrayed in media and our unrealistic beauty standards and considered the Kachina dolls and their role in embodying the highest ideals of the society and began considering what a contemporary American version of that would look like.

I’ve been collecting Barbie dolls since I graduated college (perhaps even before then because I kept the ones I had as a girl) and was aware of the infamous How To Lose Weight book and the little pink scale registering 110 pounds. To me, those two items taken together evoke the sense of a woman who will never be thin enough, not in her own eyes or in those of the fashion world.

In creating my photographs, I considered the role of fashion dolls as miniature mannequins. As their real life counterparts have gotten thinner, so have fashion dolls.

And sadly as girls become inundated with media messages about what they should look like at younger ages, they have also begun to develop body image issues at younger ages.

The photos in the series show this unfortunate progression, from 20-somethings wanting to look like Twiggy in the 1960s to little girls aspiring to be like skeletal supermodels in the present day.

I finished taking photos for The Doll Project in 2014 when I published all of them in a book. I enjoy working with miniatures and am still doing doll photography, though what I’m doing now is not part of that body of work.

You did a toy photography workshop at the Chicago Children’s Museum recently, how did that go and would you do it again? 

I had a great time doing the toy photography workshop with the kids. I really enjoyed seeing what they came up with and would love to do it again. 

How much interior design work do you do these days? How do you balance the fine art studio practice with the interior design work? Do they feed each other or relate in any way?

I am happy to say that I am finally doing more interior design work. When I graduated in 2006, I had a hard time finding opportunities to use my design degree.

I set aside space in my studio (roughly half of it, actually) to do design work and store the many design magazines, furniture catalogs, and design books I look to for inspiration.

I think that my art is influenced by interior design. The most obvious example would be the way I went from creating monochromatic paintings before I got my art studio to making multicolor work that often picks up on the colors in my studio.

You wrote a book! How did that come about?

I actually began writing my young adult novel, A Bitter Pill to Swallow, when I was still a teenager myself. It began as a short story for a summer creative writing class I took in Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development program.

My goal was to write the kind of story I wanted to read, one that featured African-American teens but wasn’t focused on racial or civil rights issues as the central conflict. I worked on it through high school and even in college until I got burned out. I returned to it in 2012 and made some major revisions that have shaped it into what it is today.

You’re a marketing machine! You have so many lines of products—your Zazzle store, your print book, your art books, your paintings, what have I missed? How do you manage it all? Which lines are the most successful? OR which lines would you like to sell more of?

Thanks. It’s actually really easy with print on demand services like Zazzle and Society6 to create lines of products. I would recommend that more artists try it.

My books are print on demand as well but formatting them takes more time, especially art books. I set aside time to focus on creating my products, then try to schedule posts on social media and announcements to my email list subscribers so they will know about what I have to offer.

So far out of all the things I’m selling my novel has been the most successful. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to sell it at some events around the city and suburbs, some of which have led to more contacts and sales. I would love to sell more of my artwork. I like getting it out of my studio and into the world.

You have studio space in the prestigious Fine Arts Building, right on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So many women artists don’t take up space, don’t claim the space they need. You’ve claimed your space. Why have you made that investment, and how has it paid off for you?

I live in a small apartment, so trying to set up a studio space at home was out of the question. I knew I wouldn’t get anything done there for fear of making a mess.

Having studio space in graduate school was critical to my development as a painter. So I decided to make the sacrifice of renting a studio. The location is convenient for me because of its proximity to my day job and public transportation.

Another thing I like about it is the opportunity to be a part of a community of artists. It’s so inspiring to be surrounded by so many creative and talented people. Hearing the musicians practicing over and over again is a good reminder that creativity is a process and you may not always get things right the first time, but putting in the effort to improve pays off.

Another reason I chose to have a studio in the building was so that I could have space where I can show my work to the public every month during our monthly second Fridays events. It’s hard to believe sometimes, but I have been there almost six years. It’s definitely been a struggle at times, but I have no greater desire in life than to continue my creative practices.

Do you have a favorite piece of art of yours that you feel should get more attention, but doesn’t? An underdog of sorts?

I feel like I have several pieces in my studio that need more attention, like “Cerulean Rhapsody.” I would show it in more art shows if it wasn’t too big to fit in the trunk of my car.

I used several shades of blue paint and ink to make it. It is made primarily of recycled materials. In fact, the only parts of it that aren’t recycled are the paint and the wire on the back. The support is a recycled cardboard box (which my easel was shipped in) and the textured surface is made from recycled paper. I’m really happy with how it turned out and hope it will end up in a good place someday soon.

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