An eccentric portrait painter has paid tribute to the Queen to mark her platinum jubilee by creating a ‘wrinkles and all’ doll of Her Majesty using a remodeled Barbie.
Queen Elizabeth II is the latest subject former theater designer Lou Gray, 61, has brought to life using a curvaceous Barbie or a muscular action man as his shot, since he began his portrait shortly Orthodox during the March 2020 lockdown.
Inspired by a 2018 commission to decorate a Mexican Day of the Dead-themed nightclub, where she painted old Barbies to look like skeletal figures and hung them from the ceiling, she launched a Facebook appeal for people’s old dolls.
And the Bristol mum-of-three was quickly inundated, saying: ‘When the lockdown happened the theaters closed and there were no parties I could produce design sketches for, I so I needed something to do.
“I asked people for unwanted dolls and one woman said she had a whole house of them.
“She would come on her mobility scooter and drop them off outside my door.”
She added: “It was so exciting. I started by creating drag queens. The Action Man dolls were so macho, I thought it would be fun to turn them into these amazing drag queens.
Lou, who lives with her 17-year-old daughter Katie Lawlor and builder husband Scoob Lawlor, 58, says her doll portraits were quickly in demand.
And she now spends five hours a day, four days a week, designing and creating people from dolls, which she sells from £50 each through her online business, Lou’s Decorium.
Despite her unflattering Action Man doll of her husband, based on a photo of him dressing up as Superman for a fancy dress party, she says he’s a big fan of her work.
She said: “I made him like Superman because everyone calls him ‘Super Scoob’.
“He always solves people’s problems, so I created him in his Superman costume.
“He loves it – although he thinks I’ve been a little mean to his hair, which is starting to thin.”
Also subjecting herself to scrutiny, in a self-portrait that shows her wearing her “scruffy” clothes, one of the accomplishments Lou is most proud of is the unique proposal portraits she gave to her friends Abi and Enzo Hill. as a wedding gift.
She said: “My two friends were getting married so I created dolls of them and this silly story I told as I re-enacted their proposal with their dolls on stage on their wedding day in May.
“It was only a five minute skit, but I think they loved it!”
Today Lou, who has made 180 dolls to date, hopes to make enough money from her portraits to allow her husband to retire, although she admits she struggles to part with them.
She said: “When I make a doll, I get very attached to it.
“I don’t really want to put it up for sale at first, because I want to enjoy it for a while.”
She added: “Everyone says nice things about them.
“My husband thinks they’re great, he’s really supportive.
“My daughter is not a fan, however, she thinks it’s very embarrassing that her mother has hundreds of Barbie dolls all over the house!”
But Lou, whose sons gardener Finn Waterman, 29, and stonecutter Johnny Waterman, 24, also love her dolls, won’t let Katie’s opinion dampen her enthusiasm.
Armed with a degree in theater design, until the 1990s when she went part-time as an artist working in schools while raising her children, Lou worked with theater companies across the countries, designing sets and costumes.
When her children were older, she then began to design and create extravagant party sets. This led to her first experience with “doll art”, when she decorated a nightclub for a 40th birthday party in 2018, using the Mexican Day of the Dead theme – when people are briefly reunited with the souls of their deceased loved ones.
She recalls: “That’s when I created my Day of the Dead Barbies – painting them all like skeletons.
“They depicted dead acrobats and I hung them from the ceilings.”
Her wacky idea continues to pay off today, as she has adapted her skills to create doll portraits.
The detailed process involves her first peeling the dolls off of their factory paint to make faceless mannequins, before painting and molding them into shape.
“Once they’re clean, I can start painting them,” she said.
“I always do a lot of research and sketches before I start too, looking at photos of people to capture their essence.”
She added: “Sometimes it’s hard to make people look like a doll.
“I recently created one for this handsome French actor and singer, who had quite an unusual look – very tall and very thin.
“It was hard to find the doll I wanted, so I used a sander to reshape one and make it sleek.”
Along with the Queen’s portrait of Lou, she based it on Her Majesty’s official Barbie doll before the Jubilee.
She said: “I saw the Queen’s official doll and just thought, ‘That’s not what she looks like.
“I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, because I really love the Queen. I think she’s quite wonderful, but I wanted to do something funny.
She added: “In my head, I pictured her with this half-naked man in his garters holding her purse, like her private, personal purse holder.
“So I made it a doer to go along with it too.
“I was sitting there in my little studio at home, laughing.”
Ironically, as a child, Lou never had his own Barbie doll. She only had one Sindy, whom she considered “second best.”
She said: “I desperately wanted a Barbie, but all I got was Sindy.
“I always went to my friends and played with them. I’m definitely catching up on that now!
As well as portraying some of her favorite figures, like drag queen Baga Chipz, she has transformed dolls into everything from circus performers to eco-warriors – reflecting her own views as a member of Extinction Rebellion.
She said: “I love creating the dolls.
“These are my little people. As I paint them, their stories come to mind.
Lou added, “I feel like I’m re-designing theater, but I have absolute control. “There’s something about them being dolls that appeals to my inner child as well.
“I’m involved with an amazing circus troupe in Bristol called Invisible Circus, so I started creating characters that reminded me of those times,
“I bought a children’s circus tent so they had a set and I started telling their story on Instagram in installments.”
Meanwhile, her more political doll paintings have depicted mermaids dying by the ocean, Ukrainian soldiers at war, or she displayed “protest dolls” on the windowsills of her home, often giving messages environmental.
She said, “My dolls give me a voice.
“I also like the fact of using these unwanted dolls and saving them from the landfill.”
Lou has even put the limbs of dismembered dolls to good use, reshaping them to create creepy spider-like creatures, which helpfully need eight legs.
She said: “I made these weird spiders to be in a freak show in the circus and then made them eat all the animals. It got a little surreal and out of control!
Now happily lined up with portrait commissions, there’s a public persona she’s still keen to give the doll art treatment.
She said: ‘I am very keen to do a Boris Johnson doll.
“I want it to be squishy, so I can stick pins in it!”
- To see more of Lou’s dolls, go to: https://www.instagram.com/lousdecorium/