Beth Cameron Figurative Sculpture
 


Santa Dolls: A Celebration of Father Christmas Doll Art, Both Antique and Contemporary.

Ann Bahar. Cumberland Maryland: Hobby House Press, 1992.

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Book excerpt: "Beth Cameron"

Santa with child

 

 

 

 

 

Santa with child and tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Santa store window

 

 

 

 

 

 

Santa window display

Beth Cameron's studio is a chalet-style building a short walk from her family's stone house in western Pennsylvania. The studio, nestled on a wooded bank adrift with springtime fiowers and shaded by a century-old pine, provides the contained environment within which this extraordinarily talented and energetic artist works her special magic.

Inside, the rooms in which Beth crafts her Father Christmases are loaded with treasures, mystery and fun. "To costume and accessorize my work I collect everything-small-scale furniture, antique fabrics, trim and buttons, miniature books, leather, old fur coats-you name it and it's probably here someplace," Beth laughs, "waiting to be used for a chiId doll or Santa costume, to fill a pack or flesh out a vignette. Items I let pass me by I always end up regretting" she added. "I solved that one when I decided to let nothing pass me by!"

Thus, salesman sample chairs and rustic doll-size benches are suspended from nails and hooks hammered and screwed into walls and ceiling beams. Some chairs were found at flea markets and antique shops. Others are commissioned pieces, like the signed Windsors made for Beth by Richmond, Virginia-based master craftsman Fred Laughon and by Gerald Headley of Williamsburg, Virginia. Drawers, cabinets and an attic storage area up a twisting staircase from the studio proper are all filled with the clutter of Beth's collections, thousands of old and new buttons, bits of veiling and Victorian handkerchiefs endless objects, each electric with creative potential.

Family members and friends who contribute cast-off clothing and "findings" to the studio treasure trove are fascinated by Beth's power to "magic" old objects into exciting new ones. The artist, an ardent conservationist, has never consented to wear a fur coat or purchased a new pelt for studio work. Instead, the hair, moustaches and whiskers sported by her Santas, as well as the beaver, mink and raccoon trim on Victorian robes or American Santa jackets are cuttings from cast-off fur coats, flea market fox stoles, rabbit fur glove linings, snippets cut from Persian lamb coats, jackets and collars that date from the 1940s. "It's fun!" the artist explained. "You learn to look at things and see their potential for becoming other things. My Santas all have real fur, hair and beards, usually goat or lamb, but the source is always old fur."

An amusing story of old fur reused lies behind the bonny set of whiskers worn by a recent Beth Cameron Santa, for whom his own beard may well be the most bewildering object in his wide ranging experience. As a child, Beth told us, she wanted a dog desperately. Her parents did not share her longing, so in an unsuccessful effort to compromise one Christmas, they gave her a toy dog whose coat was genuine goat or sheep fur. Needless to say, that dog was not popular with Beth, and it soon moved to permanent quarters in a remote corner of the family attic. Beth's mother found it there a few years ago, a dismal survivor of dust, time and moths, and turned it over to the Artist. The dog was welcome as a "second-rounder since its real fur coat made ideal Santa whisker material "So," Beth mused, "does that particular Santa Claus have dog whiskers? Or are they goat? Or lamb? It gets confusing sometimes!"

What is not confusing is that Beth Cameron is a supremely gifted artist whose creative output is straight from the heart, so much so, in fact, that years ago when the artist experienced a troubled time in her personal life, her Santas, elves and one-of-a-kind fantasy dolls echoed her inner distress, edging toward the grotesque creatures that populate Tolkienesque woodlands or live in the shadowy depths of a Brothers Grimm fairy forest. As the artist's troubles receded and her private world became more settled, the change was reflected in her studio art. It is almost possible to date Beth's work during the 1980s by the degree to which it echoes dark elves-of-the-hills elements or is a forthright statement of love within a cheerful, open and exquisitely detailed composition.

"From the beginning, I wanted to be an artist," Beth confessed then described her happy student days at Carnegie Mellon University, from which she graduated with honors and a degree in the fine arts. "it was while I was a student at Carnegie Mellon that I saw a Christmas display at Kaufmann's Department Store in Pittsburgh-a wonderful jumble of dolls and ornaments imported from Europe. Among them was a German Father Christmas with a stockinette head. He cost $80-the moon for a student in those days. I couldn't buy him, so I resolved to make my own."

In the course of the next three years, Beth quietly put aside fabric, trims and accessories to use for her Santa doll, then pulled everything out of the drawers where she had squirrelled it. "That first piece, with its funny cloth face, was a lark," Beth said, "and since he had been such fun, I went on to craft elves and more Santas."

For these, Beth turned her back on soft sculpture and used an imported sculpting clay, a medium she has grown to love. "From day one, I was fascinated by the waxy, translucent look of that material,"these creatures were elves, drawn from memories of childhood readings, an example being the Swedish folk elf she crafted from recollections of the "tomte' who plays a definitive role in Marguerite de Angeli's classic, Elin's Amerika.

Beth attended her first New York Toy Fair in 1985, where she displayed one Santa Claus and a wide range of elves. She quicklv realized that what was wanted was more Santas, and that her mid1980s "elves with teeth" were overly realistic, even threatening to collectors. "It was fascinating to witness people's response to my art," Beth said, "and I was quick to shift to Santas and to make my figures less threatening."

Today, Beth's l4- 22 inch (36cm to 56cm) Santas are among the most sought-after in the country, despite their four-figure price tags. "I have to charge a lot because of the investment in studio time that lies behind individually sculpted pieces. Also, there is a pretty steep monetary investment behind the figures-their antique accessories, the chairs, fabrics, beads, buttons, shawls and trimmings are all costly," she explained.

Each one-of-a-kind Beth Cameron Santa begins as a sculptured head and hands. "I think hands are as exciting as faces and just as filled with personality," she admits. Beth applies color to the clay directly, then fires the finished pieces. "I find the lines and wrinkles of age fascinating," she said. "They are character lines, the record of living. In fact, I'm intrigued by old faces, old hands, and it kills me sometimes to cover up a wonderful sculpted face with goat or lamb whiskers and a big moustache. I've left out the moustache a lot recently and left some Santas bald, just to avoid hiding the wrinkles. It's funny, but collectors don't mind a bit. They know very well who the wonderful old gentleman is!"

When finished, Santa's head, hands and feet are attached to a body constructed from a positioned wire armature wrapped round with cloth (in the old créche doll tradition) as well as coffon batting, foam rubber-whatever gives the result the artist is striving for. Clothing is nonremovable and stitched to the figure, since the positioning of fabrics and accessories is an integral part of each artistic statement. For the same reason. recent Santas seated on chairs and surrounded by wide-eyed, wondering children have posed problems for Beth who wishes to retain full control of the positioning of components in her groups. "I want my pieces to stay where I've placed them," she said, "but I hate putting dolls into cases and cabinets, one sure way to fix everything permanently. Since I want everything out in the open and free looking, I've got a problem that won't be easy to resolve."

When Beth Cameron first began crafting Santas, she saw them as just that, whimsical figures and holiday gift bearers. Over time, her conception of this immortal gentleman has broadened and deepened, until today she tries to embody in each Santa Claus everything that is good, fine and joyous about Christmas as well as the visible signs of a long, well-lived life. Her Santas have become less a traditional symbol of the holiday and more a symbol of the beauty of age, with its power to draw children-in fact all humanity-into warm, meaningful, shared experience. "Love is up front with my Santas, not packages with ribbons and tinsel," the artist said with emotion. "I'm moving toward more and more individualized faces," she added, "while at the same time the whole idea of Santa Claus is expanding to become a very personal statement of the universality of love and the beautiful interactions achieved by the young and old among us."

 

 
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