“I love it! I came over to your booth because your dolls were smiling at me,” the woman says. Her eyes roam over an array of hand-crafted Gullah dolls. How can she resist?
Kerrie Brown, the creator-birth mother of Gullah Dollhouse, nods and smiles. Many folks such as this woman have ambled up to her table at the Gullah Festival, beckoned by the artist’s hand-stitched fabric dolls: Dolls with embroidered flower eyes, yarn hair and clad in Kente cloth dresses, shirts, and pants. Sizes range from mini to large, some as big as toddlers. A few mermaids are born out of an intriguing bit of native islander folklore.
I recently caught up with Brown at the Art League of Hilton Head Academy where she held her first gallery show, Gullah Dollhouse: A Collective Exhibit by Kerrie Brown & Friends. An 80-year-old quilt, stitched from her great-aunt’s dresses and great-uncle’s ties for their wedding day, provided a colorful backdrop for dozens of her dolls, along with a variety of artworks from family and friends.
[LOCAL Life] You’re a fifth-generation native islander who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s before the island became so developed.
[Kerrie Brown] You could say my mother was a single parent because my father had to go to Savannah to work (he was a chef at the Hyatt), and in those days transportation was difficult. It wasn’t like it is now. We lived in Spanish Wells.
There were a couple of farms, and everybody grew their own vegetables and had their own animals like pigs, ducks and donkeys. Only three families had phones, and we were one of them. But they were party lines, and you had to wait until someone got off the line to make calls. But if it was someone you wanted to talk to, you could just chime in.
[LL] How did you get started making dolls?
[KB] I overheard my mother on the phone saying that she didn’t want to travel to Savannah to buy Christmas toys. Instead she decided to make our gifts that year. Because she had seven children, time with her was limited. I was twelve, the oldest of four girls, and we wanted dolls. So my mother taught me to dye muslin cloth to match our complexions.
We made eyes, noses and mouths out of felt and doll clothes from old dresses, shirts and jeans. We recycled!
[LL] What gave you the impetus to turn your craft into a business?
[KB] I used to be the coordinator of the Gullah Celebration, and that took a lot of work and used up most of my time. Meanwhile I was making dolls for bridal showers, weddings and church Easter baskets as well as for friends who might want one as a gift for a hospitalized child.
One day my friend, Cora Miller, coordinator of Griot’s Corner, came to visit and saw all my dolls that I’d stored in my closet. She began pulling them out. “You are going to sell these!” she said. Then Amy Wehrman at the Art League Academy pushed me a little more. “You’re going to need to pull back on the Gullah Festival and start working on you.” So here I am. My nephew, Alex, created my Gullah Dollhouse logo based on an old photo of my two sisters holding the first doll I ever made.
[LL] Speaking of photographs, I see you have a photo memorial to Stanley Byars Jr.
[KB] Stanley, who was my father’s cousin and a great storyteller, died this year at age 73. He used to talk about how when he was a little boy, before they dredged the south end, he and his brothers and cousins could walk across the water to Daufuskie. Then they would walk back before the tide got high. He also used to tell us kids a lot of local history with fairy tales mixed in. The fairytale parts were how he held our attention. That’s when I heard about the mermaids.
[KB] He told us how when the slave ships sailed between Port Royal Sound and Daufuskie during the Revolution, they had cannon balls fired at them. The ships wanted to get out of the way quickly, so the crew would throw slaves, rice and other weight overboard so they could move faster. The fact that they were tossing people into the Sound and some of them couldn’t swim would catch our attention.
Stanley said mermaids would pop out of the water to save the slaves and bring them ashore on Hilton Head.
Then when the men built bateau boats, the mermaids would show them where to catch fish and guide them through safe passages to Bluffton so they wouldn’t get hurt or recaptured. With Covid going on, I decided to make these mermaid dolls to keep the story alive.
[LL] Tell us a little bit about how you work.
[KB] When I’m visiting my mother (she’s a professor of Black history) in Columbia, I go to the little African store there to buy cloth. I find stitching by hand relaxing, so whenever I’m home and I’ve got free time, I sit down on the couch with baskets of materials and stuff I need and go to town. I listen to music –– R&B, gospel, pop, jazz or I put on movies.
My aspiration is to have a little boutique where I can move all these dolls and have my room back. Right now they live with me! They’re on my dresser, in the closet, on shelves…
[LL] I hear there’s one doll you won’t sell.
[KB] That’s Elizabeth. Ten years ago I had a real bad accident and messed up my shoulder. My physical therapist said ‘keep your fingers, arms, in motion.’ So I made a group of dolls. The last was Elizabeth. [She holds up a sweet looking doll that is the size of a four-year-old.] Everybody says, “I want her.” They can’t have her. She’s mine.
When I first made Elizabeth, I drove around with her in my grandson’s car seat. One hot summer day as I was getting out of the car, a police officer came over and said, “I know you’re not going to walk into that store and leave your baby.” I told him to look in the window, and he saw it was a doll. We both laughed.
[LL] Now that the Art League Academy show is ending, where can we find your dolls?
[KB] I sell them at the Gullah Market and any kind of market or festival that will draw a crowd. I’ll be at the annual Juneteenth Celebration at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park on June 18. You also can find my dolls at the Art League of Hilton Head Gallery in Shelter Cove. LL
Have a special artistic talent? Step into LOCAL Life’s and the Hilton Head Island Office of Cultural Affairs’ monthly Creative Conversations spotlight. Go to culturehhi.org/portfolio/artist-of-the-month/ to apply.