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Gift of this doll was more precious than money

Sunday, May 02, 1999

By Marilyn McDevitt Rubin, Post-Gazette columnist

On important occasions, I have given my children works of art. I also have given them money which, while well-received, melts away without a trace and is soon forgotten.

Nine years ago I gave my daughter, Ani, a doll -- a doll to hang on the wall and to contemplate. It cost $300, a significant sum. She could have used the cash, no question about that, but this doll seemed so right for her that, with it, I decided to honor her graduation from college.

I found the doll at the Society for Contemporary Crafts, Strip District. It had glowed in my mind as I contemplated the purchase. The dollmaker was Charla Khanna.

Taking the doll from its gift box, Ani wrapped her arms around it.

"I love her," she said.

And she has continued to love her doll, moving it from New York to Chicago, to several apartments in Prague, to Warsaw and, most recently, Moscow. When I visited her there last year, I remember saying that loving the doll as much as she did, perhaps she'd like another.

The question made her thoughtful.

"Would my doll like the company of another doll?" she asked. "She is the guardian of the house, the presence I depend on. A second doll might come between us."

The doll had become an icon.

I learned from those who admire the dollmaker that her dolls often do. Charla Khanna came to Pittsburgh last month, and because the Society for Contemporary Crafts keeps good sales records, I was invited to attend the lecture she was giving and to look in on her two-day workshop, sponsored by the Fiberarts Guild of Pittsburgh. I was happy with the invitations. In the intervening years, whenever I saw a Khanna doll on the Society walls, I was drawn to it. I wondered how this magnetic quality could be explained.

What I learned was that Charla Khanna has no secrets, but there are things about her production that she doesn't know. At her workshop she appears genuinely pleased about your wanting to copy her work.

A true teacher, she holds back nothing. She will guide you in everything from choosing a sewing machine (She uses a Bernini) to choosing a fabric (Her preference is silk). She will show you her stitches and her threads, talk to you about making heads and arms and legs, stuffing and attaching them, about the decorative finishes she's discovered, about her use of beads, a metaphor for seeds, implying growth, development and change.

Ask her what you want to know, and if she can pack the information into words, she'll speak to you. If words aren't enough, she'll demonstrate. What she can't tell you is how a doll evolves. It's a mystery.

"The whole reason for my making a doll is to see what it's going to be," she says. "I don't keep my work. It's the process that interests me."

She sends her dolls out into the world where other people dote on them. At the annual Ann Arbor Street Fair, where her work first came to public attention, customers bed down in front of her tent so that they can have first choice in the morning.

At her slide lecture, she told a story that I won't soon forget. It was about leaving the fair on the evening of her second day. Almost all her dolls, the work of months, were sold. She had boxes under each arm and, preoccupied with what to do about tomorrow, she tripped on a piece of raised pavement and fell forward, spread eagle. The boxes she was carrying hit the sidewalk and fell open, spilling their contents. Two women who were walking toward her rushed to her aid. Trying to help her to her feet, one of the women noticed a doll that had fallen to the ground.

"You're the doll lady," she cried.

The women dropped her. They grabbed for her dolls.

"They dropped me," says Charla Khanna, incredulous still. "I fell to my knees."

Had it happened to me, I would have been shocked, too, but I can understand it. So much is packed into her dolls that they take on the significance of sacred objects.

Charla Khanna understands this and says with some dismay, "I don't want to bleed off into my work."

And she doesn't. But she does. Her dolls sing with life. Her own life is full of mighty sweeps -- a mother who committed suicide and left a permanently introspective offspring, the birth of her daughter, Avani (the significant reason why she makes dolls), separation from her husband, her return to school and the completion of a master's program, her success as an artist, her recent move to New Mexico.

As she describes it, she does three kinds of work: production pieces of small size dolls ("my mugs," she calls them), limited-edition pieces ("my goblets"), a few of which will be available at the Society for Contemporary Crafts this Christmas; and her one- of-a-kind pieces, which sell for thousands of dollars. In the future, it is to this last category to which she would most like to devote her time.

"I want the challenge," she says. "I believe in my ideas."

All of us who love her work believe in them, too, and have decided long ago that the cost, no matter how large the figure, only begins to measure the worth.

An exhibition of Charla Khanna dolls has opened at The Society for Contemporary Crafts' satellite gallery at One Mellon Bank Center. Continuing until June 8, it features 14 works from regional collections.

I can't make a doll, but I can grate a fresh coconut.

Buy a fresh coconut, free of mold, heavy for its size, a sign of ample liquid keeping flesh from drying out. The thin clear liquid can be used in making soups or cooking rice.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pierce the softest eye of the coconut with a metal skewer or screwdriver. Drain the liquid into a bowl to sample. If it is sweet, the coconut is fresh. If it's oily (rancid), discard.

Bake coconut for 15 minutes. With a hammer, break shell. With the point of a strong knife, remove flesh, levering it out carefully. Remove brown membrane with sharp paring knife or vegetable peeler. In air-tight container, refrigerated fresh coconut keeps for 1 week. Grate coconut as needed on the small teardrop-shaped holes of a 4-sided grater or finely chop in processor. May be frozen in an air-tight container 3 for months. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

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