Being creative doesn’t require being original. Remember that only God creates ‘out of nothing.’ Creativity, rather, is the new arrangement of old stuff. If I have a philosophy, it must be that music is essential – kindness and beauty last forever – and perseverance can accomplish miracles.~Charlene Westling
Born in Kansas in 1923, Westling always made the most of life’s opportunities. It wasn’t usual for a woman to attend college in the 1940’s. She studied art and music at a University in Pittsburg, Kansas and Louisville, Kentucky. During World War II, she became the first woman radio operator for Delta Airlines, later traveling to various jobs with different airlines. However, as Dorothy of Oz, she found home on the prairies of Kansas best, married, raised two sons and a daughter. Her busy life as wife and mother included music she cherished since childhood and studied at college. She became a violinist with the Topeka Symphony. There was a “hodge-podge” of arts and crafts for her children and tole painting and watercolors for herself, never the slightest indication that dolls would one day become a central part of her life.
NIADA Patron Betty Hodges describes Charlene – “Charlene comes from a doll making family who are delightful, unfailingly polite, cheerful and endearing.” Westling and her sisters, Virginia Studyvin and Alice Swisher became captivated with dolls, took reproduction classes, joined local clubs and began attending dolls shows in 1982. In 1983, the sisters collaborated on an original Santa Claus doll winning a blue ribbon at a UFDC Regional. Westling sculpted, creating head and limbs based on photographs of their father poured in porcelain. Alice designed and crafted accouterments. Virginia designed and crafted the body and the costume. The Williams sisters became part of an extended circle of doll artists and enthusiasts in Kansas, which then included nieces, Kathryn Kluhsman, and her sister Nellie Lamers, ODACA Members, NIADA colleague Elizabeth Brandon and Patron Hodges. Regretfully Kluhsman died a few years ago.
It is remarkable that Westling didn’t begin making dolls until she was almost 60. She became a member of NIADA in 1991 at the age of 68 finding that coming to dolls late in life empowering. “I often imagined my mother and grandmother at my age. They were just sitting at home and seemed so old. So much more is available to women today! “I was never a collector or doll lover,” she said, “but I could always sew, draw and paint. Age is no barrier to accomplishment.”
For the most part Westling created children revealing her deep affinity for them. Her inspiration and remarkable perception came from the many small folks she enthusiastically worked with as a community volunteer in her hometown at the “The Topeka Latch Key Program” and “Library Reading Programs.” She also worked as a para-professional with learning disabled and PSA (personal social adjustment) children in the Topeka school district. “The joy and excitement as these children ‘create’ is inspiring,” said Westling, “supporting my conviction that art in any form is a vital force in our lives. These children did good art and even had their own exhibit at the Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka, Kansas.”
Westling found working with porcelain hazardous to her health. After studying the dolls of Käthe Kruse and Martha Chase, she experimented finding aspects of mask construction much to her liking. The warmth and flexibility of cloth appealed to her. She used oils incorporating skills and knowledge of color learned as an art major. An unlucky accident, breaking her wrist, cancelled her career as a violinist, but introduced her to the rudiments of the methodology she began using. The doctor’s technique of applying her cast seemed applicable to doll making. With a bag of scraps of plaster and gauze from the casting procedure she proceeded to experiment.
“In my efforts to push on I found “E” is the key letter — Experiments, Exasperation, Expendable and Embryo (current state of ideas.)” she stated in the 1993 NIADA Journal. After trial and error she found that she could press these materials into a mold and have something very light weight. “My goal for each doll I create is to record some of a child’s spontaneity, their moments of vulnerability; to imply by the image I paint and the posturing of the body that he or she is in the midst of an action of thought or movement.” wrote Westling in The Art of the Doll published by NIADA in 1992.
Mornings, Westling proceeded to her studio, a converted old pigeon loft with big sky lights separating herself from the telephone and surrounded herself with the melodies of her favorites, Brahms, Mozart, and Mahler. “I must have music!” It is like the air, or the sun. It is the flowing in the background of mind and shutting out all extraneous thoughts. It helped me move over to the right side of my brain.
Westling has enjoyed profound admiration from fellow NIADA artists, patrons and collectors.
Charlene’s dolls are the very picture of enchantment and delight, small children finely modeled and artfully painted with that spark of life in their eyes. Collectors adore them. But it is Charlene herself that I treasure. She’s modeled by the Master Artist, who has already accomplished an inner core of glowing steel, radiating strength, compassion and a delicious wry humor over the experiences of life.
I especially love the sweet expressions of the faces. They reflect the nature of the artist herself. She is a gentle person, this aspect being reflected in her dolls, which are winsome, sweet and charming.
NIADA Patron Barbara Steiker
Westling’s dolls have a great appeal to the doll collecting public because they are fresh and innocent. She puts a great deal of work into her creations. There is no monumental ego at work here. She made dolls with a clear, direct expression and was very exacting in her painting and needlework.
“Creating a work of art is hard work,” affirmed her most avid fans, her sisters. “Talent is a gift that demands to be used and Charlene responded to that demand striving constantly to make each new character better than the last. Charlene’s dolls express, so well her love of and joy in the innocent wide-eyed wonder of children and the serene and confident wisdom of maturity. She looked at people with love-colored glasses seeing beauty in the dimpled hands of children, the worn, well used hands of age and the various wonderful colors God has used to paint his people. Her dolls seem to whisper a secret to your heart capturing your imagination and involving you emotionally in a joyous way.
Westling’s dolls have won innumerable awards and have been featured in many exhibits. Perplexed Princess, was featured in “A Celebration of The Doll — The Figure In Cloth” which traveled the United States during 1994 and 1995.
Curator, Beverly Dodge Radefeld: “Charlene Westling is one of the most talented, sharing artists I have ever met. Her quiet demeanor instantly makes you feel very comfortable. Her work brings that same warm feeling that you get talking to her. Her dolls are absolutely exquisite in their presentation, and the workmanship is perfect. She uses techniques that are both established and her own innovative ideas to get the effect she desires. I love her dolls!!”
Her dolls are in collections in 16 states and five foreign countries — The Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and England. She promoted the art of the doll diligently. She was the guiding force behind the exhibit “A Cast of Characters” presented by the Mulvane Art Museum in Topeka in 1993. Her dolls have been featured at The Springfield Historical Museum in Eugene, Oregon, in the series “Dolls for the 21st Century” showcasing dolls by contemporary artists in the United States and England. She was featured in the book, The Doll, by Contemporary Artists (Abbeyville Press) by Krystyna Poray Goddu and Wendy Lavitt. She is also featured in the video “the doll, A Documentary” produced by Lee Hubbard Crowe and Mel Metcalfe III.
Westling: “Keturah’s posture reveals the nurturing love she has for her child. Emotion transferred by the figure to the view is the goal I seek. She further quotes Edith Pargenter: “Line, form, proportion — these are the body of beauty” This piece created much excitement at the 1996 NIADA Gallery when it was presented. In 1994, using Super Sculpey she began to create older people finding strong appeal in the faces of senior citizens whose lines reveal their character. The same generous heart and spirit of Westling is evident in these later figures.
“Creating dolls made a profound change in my life,” said Westling acknowledging that she never had a deep reason for creating dolls. “Maybe it will be comforting for some to know that you can make dolls just because it is fun and probably a therapy and uses up lots of the bits and pieces you have collected over the years. “
This lovely lady’s ability to engage in the world at large with her incredible talent has come to a close. Charlene Westling, revered member of NIADA, was diagnosed with ALS some months ago and recently passed away just a few days before her 80th birthday. Charlene and her art will be deeply missed. ~Maralyn Christoffersen
Anyone who ever spent five minutes with Charlene did not know that they were in the presence of a genuinely lovely, kind hearted woman. Although I did not know her well, Charlene was a quiet and loving support to me during my years as president of NIADA. I will always think of her with affection and admiration for the beauty she brought into the world.
I feel very sorry for our loss. I can imagine how much deeper the sense is for those who were very close to her. I thought of her as one of the most beautiful women that I have ever known…inside and out! Heaven is a prettier place now.
So sad to hear about Charlene, she was one of the sweetest people I ever met.
The world has lost one of its sweetest inhabitants. I am deeply saddened to know I won’t see Charlene again. The friendship she bestowed on me was truly a blessing. She will always remain in my heart. She was not a typical artistic ego; she was genuine, kind and humble. Her art was not what she lived for, but was fit into a complicated life that mainly centered around caring for other people. She seemed to bring joy to her work in an unselfconscious way, and received back joy for her endeavors. Her love was freely given; that is what I will remember most.
Charlene was one of the best friends anybody could have; some of the most fun I’ve had in life I had on trips to NIADA with her and I will sorely miss her. Thank all of you who wrote and sent gifts to her during these last months; her whole family so much appreciated your kindness.
There was indeed in Charlene a most unusual quality, a gentleness and warmth that took you into a world of serenity. She will be sadly missed. We remember loving her instantly, the moment of first meeting. How many people can one say that about? Charlene’s work seemed to be the outer revelation of her inner light.
~Maggie Finch – Marta Kozlosky:
The first time Richard and I had the pleasure of meeting Charlene was in New Orleans in 1991. We were ‘family’ immediately because we were part of that year’s inductees into NIADA. The first thing that drew us to Charlene was her warm smile from across the room. When she spoke her voice was soft with purpose. From the congratulatory hug we received from her — well, Richard and I both felt ‘hugged’ for life. Her wit, charm, talent, smile and yes ‘her warm hugs’ will live within our hearts forever. We are forever honored to have known her.
~Jodi and Richard Creager
We most certainly have lost a very special person in Charlene Westling. With very few exceptions I have found artists to be special, gentle and sharing people. Most often humble about their own achievements and eager to nurture and help those around them. That said I think we all found Charlene to be one of those extra special people who instantly made you feel you had known her for years, always remembered who you were and what you did and offered constant, quiet, positive energy. I can’t end without mentioning that I thought Charlene was much younger than almost 80. No doubt this is a gift of being a giving spirit. I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to know her.