Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Nancy Gwinn Goodland’s Unsung Artist | Nobody Did It Better

Goodland Life

When Nancy and I arrived in Goodland in May 2006, the first thing we did was to decorate our first floor with her artwork. A lot of thought went into how we should arrange it. It was a combination of her magnificent photographs of memorable scenes from our past and her exquisitely beautiful porcelain dolls, each of which started out as a gallon jar of plaster/slip. She made every one of those dolls from scratch. When I married Nancy back in January 1985 (See “Barry and Nancy Get Hitched” at, I had no idea that she would fill both my heart and home with her talents and her joy of living.

Unlike many of the other artists in Goodland, Nancy had never inclined toward artistic pursuits in her earlier life. Hers was mostly a hard scrabble life, scrambling to make ends meet. There was no time for anything else. When we moved to Swarthmore in May of 1985, we had our hands full with our blended family and trying to get by in suburban Philadelphia on an FBI agent’s salary. In addition to riding herd on our kids, Nancy became a real estate agent, in order to help out.

Nancy’s mother, who lived in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, had been admitted to a nursing home because of failing health. Nancy would make the long drive (170 miles) up to see her every month. The trip involved a leg through the environs of Harrisburg, where one day in 1991, on a sudden impulse, she pulled off the road to investigate a craft show by the roadside. “I hadn’t been thinking about this previously,” Nancy told me, “I was just suddenly curious.” Once inside the tent, she was particularly drawn to the porcelain doll display. “The dolls were beautiful,” Nancy said, “I wondered if it might be possible for me to make something like that.” On the spot, Nancy signed up for a series of six classes which were being offered by the maker of the dolls she had so admired. “Those classes taught me everything I would ever need to know about making porcelain dolls,” she said, “Now it would be up to me to actually do it. I never doubted that I would try.”

Photo by Nancy Gwinn | Our Swarthmore home, 1995. Nancy’s attic studio is at upper middle (small window at top). Our office is just below. The row of impatiens at bottom, along with the perennial tulips and daffodils, was another of Nancy’s artistic touches.

By this time, our kids had moved on. My retirement business was doing well, and Nancy had some time for herself. Starting in 1992, there followed a remarkable burst of industry and creativity, which lasted for the next eight years. It was impossible to ignore and contagious to be around. As with most crafters and artists, our 110-year-old Swarthmore home became ground zero for the manufacturing of the dolls. Notes from her doll classes and a daunting pile of catalogues were her starting points.

Our basement became the heavy work area. A cozy garret in the attic became Nancy’s studio. Catalogue orders and trips to arts and crafts stores soon yielded an impressive list of supplies. We installed heavy duty shelving in the basement, which were soon groaning under the weight of molds for the different dolls and gallon jars of ceramic slip to be poured into those molds. The slip came in different colors to provide appropriate skin tone. An electronic ceramic kiln was installed and later, when demand for her products had grown, another was added.

Up in the attic, the garret was turned into a retreat for Nancy to which she would repair at the end of each day, often working late into the night. She even took to sleeping up there. Nancy found peace of mind with her amongst her dolls. In that room and in an adjacent garret, were the supplies she would need to paint and dress the dolls – paints, brushes, clothing, wigs, eyes and eyelashes, footwear, hats, bonnets, and jewelry. It was all first class stuff.

Down in the basement is where I came in. Pouring the slip into the molds was a two-person job. The molds themselves were quite heavy as were the gallon jars of slip. Using an ancient workbench, I did most of the pouring and made most of the mistakes, ruining some of the work. Neither then nor ever, did I get a scolding from Nancy. We had to buy a lot of molds. The molds for the heads came in different sizes, so correspondingly sized molds for the legs and for both right and left arms had to be purchased also. We were drowning in molds. When things got rolling we were pouring molds for three or four dolls at a time – as many as some 28 different molds were needed for those four dolls. After pouring, the molds were left to sit for 20 minutes; then the slip was poured back into the jar for reuse. At first I was aghast at this, not realizing that a thin layer of slip had adhered to the mold. Left to dry for another 2 hours, the molds were taken apart, exposing the body forms. (They came in halves, which fit together, leaving a hole in which to pour.)

When the body forms were sufficiently dry, they were taken up three flights of stairs to Nancy’s garret studio, where they were painted. Then it was back down those three flights of stairs and placed in the kilns set at about 1200F. After two hours of this, they were ready to be carried back upstairs, attached to a stuffed cloth torso which Nancy had made and fitted with wigs, eyes and clothing. All of the above processes were incessant and ongoing. I can’t imagine how many round trips Nancy made on those stairs, dimly lit in the basement, steep and narrow up to the attic. It must have been in the dozens, perhaps over a hundred. But it was a labor of love for her.

At least once a week, Nancy would pack her folding table, along with a sampling of her dolls into our 1976 Buick Le Sabre, and travel to the various craft shows in the area. She also had an album of color photos of all the other dolls she was making. Customers could order the doll(s) they liked and would stop by our house to pick them up when ready. Nancy spared no expense or effort with her dolls, and connoisseurs were telling her that they had never seen anything better. Business was booming; we could barely keep up with it. Word got around and Swarthmore’s local paper, with a wide area circulation, published an article about what she was doing; it made the front page.

Nancy was selling her dolls from $75 for a cute 4” baby doll in a pocket (into which customers were to insert a lock of their baby’s hair) to $700 for her piece de resistance and masterpiece of grandma and grandpa dolls, sitting together on a bench rocker. She only was able to make two of these, before the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease began to assault her body. She sold one set, the other is the first thing we see when entering our Goodland home.

Just as her favorites had lined the rooms of our Swarthmore home, they now do the same in Goodland. Our hallway, living room, and kitchen bear enduring testament to the exquisite and at the end, heroic work of this remarkable woman. I have fallen in love with many of those dolls.

Unfortunately, except for the photos that accompany this article, most of you will never get to see Nancy’s work. She is a private person and increasingly so, as the symptoms of Parkinson’s slowly advance. She had to accept my assurances that there will be no visitors as a result of this article. However, I suppose she can now find solace that she can finally take her place among the many artists who make Goodland their home and add luster to its reputation.

Barry was a practicing attorney before he worked as a Special Agent of the FBI for 31 years. Barry worked for several government agencies another ten years before retiring to Goodland in 2006. Barry is a former Secretary of the Goodland Civic Association.

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