When we ask Dirty Show proprietor Jerry Vile for some of his favorite works of art from this year's edition of his annual erotic art show, he is excited about a piece from Washington state-based artist Nicole West. But we're confused when he sends us a few photos of a pink-haired gothic Lolita seductively licking a lollipop — we're not quite sure what exactly we're looking at. Is it a sculpture? A photo? A real person? Vile keeps referring to it as what sounds like an "oak" doll, but the meticulous likeness sure doesn't look like it's carved from wood.
"It's always a huge compliment to hear that," West says by phone with a laugh when we explain our confusion. Turns out that's "O.A.K." as in "one of a kind," an acronym used by online retailers to describe artwork or clothing that is handmade and not mass-produced.
"Each one that is created is the only one that exists," West says. "It's hard to describe what they are. People have to see them for themselves."
West says the "doll" designation is a bit of a misnomer. "I would never call it a doll," she says. "That to me is something you dress up and play with." West prefers the term "sculpture" to describe her work instead, though she readily admits her work is inspired by dolls. "I started out in the doll world years and years ago — which is weird, because I absolutely hate dolls," she says.
West says her interest in dolls came not from her own childhood, but instead from her mother. "She had a collection of dolls, and it creeped me out. So I asked her what the deal was," West says. Her mother explained that when she was little, she had a larger doll collection. But when she moved with her father to Los Angeles from Romeo, Mich., she left much of the collection behind, and her mother gave them all away.
Something about that made West, then in her late teens, decide to try to make a doll for her mother. "She told me that, and it touched me," she says. "I had only ever done animal sculptures. I had never done humans. So the first thing I ever made, I made for her. And it was hideous."
West says her mother took it into work to show it off. That's when people told her about "the doll world," or miniature sculptures. Soon after, West stumbled into a community of fellow artists who made "one-of-a-kinds" out of polymer clay. The "OAK" designation, she says, helped convey a separation from what people typically thought of as dolls, such as use of materials like porcelain.
Since 2004, West has sold her creations on her eBay store, Nicole West Fantasy Art. Indeed, West says much of her work is in the realm of fantasy — lots of fairies, mermaids, and other nymph-type creatures. But she says she also likes to work in more of a modern, pin-up style. (She has even created a likeness of the pin-up queen Bettie Page.)
"I get bored really easily, so I sort of bounce around between subject matter," she says. "But pin-up is something I prefer. I admire them, and I have fun with them."
West says her creation process starts with a two-dimensional image. "For me, my brain process is that I need to have a pretty solid idea of what I'm doing," she says. "It can come to me as a thought, it can come to me as something I find in a photograph. I usually take a bunch of different things I find and put them together into something new. But I have an image, and I work from there. It's important to know for poses and stuff like that because the face is so important to me. I need to know where they're going to be looking, and what the emotion is going to be before I start."
West says she then makes an armature, or a sort of skeleton, and fleshes out the sculpture with polymer clay. To create her sculptures' realistic eyes, West says she developed her own technique since she couldn't find anything on the market, using a mix of glass and polymer clay. And similar to that first doll she made for her mother years ago, West designs her sculptures' hair and clothing.
She says it usually takes her five or six days to create one of her creations, or 40 to 50 hours. She says her sculptures are typically built at a nine-inch scale. On eBay, bidding usually starts at $700, and some have gone up to $5,000. Her Dirty Show piece, "Lollipop Sugar Rush," is priced at $2,995.
It's a rare opportunity to see one of her creations in person; she says she no longer exhibits in art galleries. "I don't travel well," West says with a laugh. "This is kind of me coming back out in a different form, for a different kind of audience."
The second weekend of The Dirty Show runs Friday, Feb. 16-Saturday, Feb. 17 at the Russell Industrial Complex; 1600 Clay St., Detroit; dirtydetroit.com; 21+ only; Tickets are $30.