After graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Donn pursued his love of puppetry by starting up his own company Space Monkey Productions. Donn’s puppets and puppetry were featured in the Fox Cubhouse, a national children’s television show. While working on the show, Donn was introduced to Fred Rogers which led to Donn making some animated short clips to run on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. This caused a change in career for Donn. He began to produce animated shorts and commercials.
After working for a while in the animation industry, Donn wanted to return to traditional media. Creating ball jointed dolls connected to his previous love of Puppetry. According to Donn, “It’s just a natural step, puppet and doll making blend together almost seamlessly. Puppetry is about giving an inanimate object the illusion of life by the manipulation of a performer, with dolls there of course is no performer so the illusion of life has to be created solely in the crafting, sculpture and finishing of the doll.”
The discovery of the Volks dolls led Donn to research other ball jointed dolls. “I returned home and searched for anything I could find about Volks Dollfies and ball jointed dolls in general. At that time, I discovered the haunting and beautiful work of artists like Ryo Yoshida and Hans Bellmer…From that point on, I’ve done nothing but make dolls.” First Donn began to experiment with resin casting. “When I started making dolls, it probably took me a year of experimentation to figure out how to get a consistent, blemish free matte resin cast right out of the mold… Casting resin for dolls and casting resin for props/model work are two very different things. When you’re casting parts for props or puppets that are going to be painted, your surface quality isn’t quite as important, you can cover up blemishes with paint and fill in bubbles, but with resin BJDs the surface has to come out of the mold perfect.” Donn’s work has tended towards larger scale dolls. “My first doll sculpt that I offered for sale was very stylized and a HUGE experiment for me. (I think he was roughly 31 inches tall) I was seeing what I could do with the materials and that was just the scale I settled on. My current sculpt is around 27 inches, which just happened to work out for his human male proportions.”
All of the design and casting work on the dolls is done by Donn himself. “I do all of the mold making, casting, sanding, drilling of my dolls myself, I even silkscreen the logos onto my shipping boxes!” Donn describes his design process, “I usually do some very rough sketches then I begin roughing in the sculpture with armature wire, wooden dowels and celluclay. For the parts of the body that have more visible subsurface anatomy like hands, feet and heads. I begin by sculpting a roughed out skeleton out of Premo (a very durable type of sculpey), I then go in and sculpt up from the muscle in layers of Super Sculpey Gray, once I have all of the muscles in place then I start filling in and building up the areas of where skin would be. Its helps me get a realistic base sculpt that I can then go on top of and add the subtle stylization that makes my dolls mine.” His approach to developing each character varies with each project. “It really depends on the doll, some are compositions of different people, some are modeled directly from imagination. I always have an attitude or character in mind when I begin to sculpt but not necessarily what the final face will look like.”
The Bishonen House dolls have a face-plate system that allows alternate expressions for the dolls.“The face plates were really just a natural progression, once you have the ability to remove a doll’s face and change their expression or eye position easily and quickly, it opens up a lot of fun possibilities. 2.0 (known to some as Dean) has 3 different expressions aside from his default face (angry, sad and sleeping), Nori has 2 (a sleeping and a smirking), Ian has one (a limited edition snarling vampire face) and Tyler came with one (a sleeping face). I’m also working on a few extras for Ian, faces tend to get worked on in my free time and lately I haven’t had much of that.” The newest doll, Logan became available fro pre-order in March. Donn plans to create face-plates for him hopefully during the summer.
The one area of design that Donn prefers to leave to others is apparel. “I’m very lucky to be able to work with two of the most amazing male BJD fashion designers on the planet, there’s Dreux of Eggangel and Brian Earl. Dreux, aka Eggangel has been creating costuming for my dolls since I began making them back in 2004, I’ve worked with Dreux for over 15 years on various projects and Dreux has worked as a professional costumer since I’ve known him. Dreux’s work using unusual fabrics is really is just incredible, I have no idea how anyone can get tiny prefect finished edges on pleather… that stuff just baffles and amazes me. I met Brian shortly after I began making dolls, he was actually one of the first people to purchase one of my old sculpts back when I first began making dolls. Brian has been a professional costumer for more than 35 years, he has created costumes for the Australian Ballet, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Opera. His historical recreations and formal wear are just gorgeous! The work of both designers is featured on the Bishonen House website, and both are available for commission work.”
Currently Donn’s biggest project is building a studio in West Virginia. As a result, he has had to curtail appearances at shows aside from a planned August visit to Happily Ever After, a Philadelphia store that has an exclusive on Logan cast in tan resin. He is also planning a new doll in autumn. “I’m working on my fall release, and also working on another sculpt for a holiday release… aside from those, I’ve been working on 2 completely different doll sculpts for over a year now (one is female), but I’ve been so busy filling orders and with studio construction this summer I haven’t had any time to devote to my new body sculpts… I’m hoping to actually begin work on them again in the late fall.” Donn has additional works in progress for a gallery exhibit scheduled for 2010. I’ve actually been working on two pet projects in my free time… I’m working on a life size doll sculpt, and the other is for a project me and a couple friends have talked about doing for years. The doll sculpts for that are around 8-12 inches tall. Sorry I can’t give you more detail, but I’ll of course be posting photos when those pieces are completed.”
Asked if he would eventually move on to another form of expression Donn stated “I’m not sure if I’ll get tired of doll work, at the moment I LOVE it and it’s keeping a roof over my head and my bills paid, all of my close friends are artists and I understand that in these times if you’re a creative person this is a very rare and precious thing, so I’m extremely grateful to everyone who’s supported my work. The level and volume of work that I do isn’t something I could do in my spare time. For people who’ve never lived entirely from the sales of something they created it’s a bit hard to understand, but I don’t have a part time job or a wealthy partner (with a “real job”) to support me, or a trust fund of some sorts, it’s a freeing feeling living solely on your art but it’s also very scary at times.”
He concluded “In the end, no matter how much you love something like doll making, there are always looming practical concerns that determine whether it’s feasible or not, to cast prefect resin parts you need to maintain a lot of expensive equipment and purchase lots of very expensive materials and supplies, and this is only possible if your work sells. Some of the greatest paintings ever created were done with around what would now be sixty dollars in materials or less… in comparison sixty dollars wont even pay for enough silicone to remold the lower legs on my guys… doll making is expensive! But having said all the above, I’ve had quite a convoluted career path so far and I can’t imagine there won’t be a few twists and turns down the road, minor or major. I never want to stick myself into a safe corner and say ‘This is what I’ll do forever and ever and ever.’ As long as my current creative path is interesting, and I’m able to sustain myself along the way there’s little reason to go off in another direction.”
Bishonen House – Company Website