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Small Souls

Small Souls

The Yukon through the eyes of a Dawson doll-maker
By Hannah Eden
Oct 27
From the Oct/Nov 2017 Issue

Louise Levett is bringing Muskox Girl to life. She sifts through bags of beads and scraps of material on the table in her Dawson City cabin. The air inside her home smells of tanned moosehide, which will be used for a future creation. One of her dolls—the personification of a raven—is perched on a living room shelf. “The next batch will be a moose, a fireweed girl, Bombay Peggy, a driftwood girl and a prospector,” says Levett, reciting the Yukon figures and symbols inspiring her at the moment.

I had dolls when I was little,” says Levett. “But when I started to travel throughout Canada, I began to collect dolls.” While some people would purchase art along the way, she cherished the small representations of the places she visited. “One of my first dolls was from a canoe trip where we ended up in Inuvik. I still have her—she’s like 40 years old.”

She had always been interested in making dolls, but never got them quite right until 2012 when she connected online with a fellow doll-maker, Evelyn Santiago, who became a mentor until she passed away in 2015. “Her dolls were sad and reflected her life,” says Levett of Evelyn’s work. “I thought, I want to reflect my life—my life up here. When we came to the Yukon, we were young in the 1970s. This is where my youth came from, this is where my identity came from—a sense of adventure.”

The Yukon was easy inspiration. “I think about what people do here, what the land is like and I try to cover everything,” says Levett. “And then the ideas pop into my head and I can’t stop them.” The wooden tabletop is covered with fish scales, and fur and hides from local trappers. Nearly all of the material used to create her dolls’ clothing is acquired in the Yukon. This is important because it gives the dolls their true Yukon stamp.

But crafting Yukon-themed dolls was more than just a way to stay connected to the landscape and people she has loved for the last 40 years. It’s an emotional and spiritual experience. “Having these little things in your hand—little people—and you put a life into them and it’s like they speak to you and they tell you when they’re finished,” says Levett. “They say ‘Put that extra thing on,’ or ‘The hair isn’t right,’ and then when you look at it you know, okay, I have to stop now. They have these little voices—these souls in them.”

Levett’s dolls are not your typical Western-style porcelain creations. Instead, she carefully crafts their skeletons from a hand-made wire frame and then builds them up with paper clay until they’re dry and ready to be sculpted and sanded. The size and shape of each doll is particular to its character-design. A pointed black beak sits on the face of the feminine raven girl, whereas a Gold Rush prostitute’s white skin and eerie blue eyes create a stark contrast.

Collectors and potential buyers of Levett’s pieces can be sure their doll is unique, as she will never make the same character twice. “They are little people—souls unto themselves,” says Levett. “I couldn’t duplicate them.”