The World of Life-Like Reborns: From Doll Collectors to Alzheimer's Patients

Now in its second year — but already one of the largest conventions of its kind in the world — the R.O.S.E. International Doll Show will shine a light on the lifelike world of reborn baby dolls. The meticulously crafted creations are a favorite of doll collectors, but they also serve a special purpose: These realistic-looking infants are used for “cuddle therapy,” aiding in the emotional well-being of many patients, especially those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The convention’s content will focus on the people who paint and create the vinyl and silicone reborn babies — but makers and collectors of all types can also come together to see the wide selection of porcelain dolls, teddy bears and other cute, one-of-a-kinds on display. In advance of the show coming to Denver next week, Westword spoke with convention co-organizer and reborn doll artist Sarah Mellman on the fascinating world of these lifelike collectables and therapy babies.

Westword: You are a reborn artist yourself, meaning you paint and construct these lifelike baby dolls. How did you get into such a specialized artistic medium?

Sarah Mellman: I got into reborning because of my mother. She wanted to learn to reborn herself, but at the time she was terminally sick with cancer and I dissuaded her from doing that. I have five kids and I had to take over her job at her work and I was busy and exhausted. She had made every other kind of doll and so I just assumed it was the same kind of doll. Without even looking at what a reborn really was, I talked her out of it. Then she died a few months later.

About a year after she passed away, my daughter had one of my old dolls and the eyeballs started going the wrong direction. We went to the craft store and found a new pair of eyes and the package said "reborn doll eyes" and I realized it was for the dolls that my mother had wanted to make. I went home, Googled reborn dolls and was just absolutely floored by what I found. There are thousands of them on eBay. Not all of the dolls out there are high-quality, fabulous creatures (laughs.) This is partially because most of the higher-end artists have stopped selling much on eBay because of scams. Many artists do prototypes, which are the first of an edition of reborns — these are an honor in themselves, because it means you're a good enough of an artist to create those. The prototypes traditionally sell on eBay.

Can you walk through what it takes to make a reborn?

It takes talent; not anybody can just pick it up and make a fabulous baby. But a lot of people try, so there are a lot of sub-quality dolls out there called reborns that are just not great. Even the ugliest reborns can look better than a store-bought doll, but sometimes artists have this mindset that they can sell those dolls for thousands of dollars but are then disappointed when they only sell for a hundred dollars. Which is still expensive for a doll, but they are expensive to make. The cost of an average kit (an unpainted reborn doll) is about $15 for the vinyl head, arms and legs. But if the doll is "awake," it doesn't come with eyes and you have to buy those, and the cost depends on the quality. Then you have to buy a body, which can cost up to $25 depending on the size and quality. Then there's the glass beads that go to in the arms, legs, feet and tummy that weight the doll and make it feel real. Some artists will try to use playground sand to achieve the weighted effect, but that can stain the vinyl different colors; it can also grow mold if the sand is moist at all. That's the sign of a beginner doll artist, because glass beads can be expensive and harder to find.
On top of all of that, you can spend weeks painting the doll and rooting the hair. If the hair is real — like mohair from a goat — it can be very pricey. Mohair from a goat is around $50 an ounce. Rooting the head takes weeks because as an artist, you're putting in one hair at a time. Lower-quality artists will use big needles to root the hair, which puts it in the head in giant clumps and you can see the plugs. This is what makes rooting one of the hardest aspects of the doll — there's the angle of the rooting and the swirling to keep it looking like a natural hair pattern so it doesn't look like a porcupine. It's taken me about two and a half years to really understand rooting and perfect it. It is all very time-consuming, which is why the best quality reborns end up in the several thousand dollar price range.

Were you a painter or worked in other mediums before you began reborning?

I've been painting my whole life; I'm a painter and sculptor and have done hundreds of foot-long mural projects for schools and inside people's homes. I was a photographer before I moved from Loveland to Littleton and had my own studio. Great photos are also a big part of reborning — getting a fabulous picture of a doll is what sells them. My mother taught me to sew when I was a teenager, so I make a lot of the boutique-style clothing for my reborns. I don't use patterns; I make up my own baby clothes.

Can you explain "cuddle therapy" that is done in nursing homes with the reborns?

The reborns are neat — they look so lifelike. We take them to nursing homes and the reaction is just great — they can't tell the dolls aren't real babies. They are weighted like babies and feel real and are very cuddly, which is what makes them therapeutic. They transport a lot of (older people) back to when they were younger, to happy memories of being a loved parent with babies. Psychologically, having these dolls, it automatically puts the seniors back into that frame of mind when they were younger and the dolls become real to them. This makes them less agitated and forgetful and worrisome. It's a very successful alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s and dementia patents.

We started the R.O.S.E. Doll Show with the idea of giving back first; I am a reborn artist myself and make the dolls and I've worked extensively with local area nursing homes with cuddle therapy. That was one of the biggest components of this show — we wanted to educate people on the benefits of cuddle therapy so that it could help as many people as possible. So we designed the show with the idea of getting the community aware of the dolls and the therapy and get as many nursing homes as possible to the show. The elderly will get free tours of the expo and we're hoping to get enough donations of reborns to donate one or two of the dolls to each nursing home for cuddle therapy.

The R.O.S.E. International Doll Show opens Tuesday, July 14, and runs through July 20 at the Crowne Plaza DIA Hotel & Convention Center. Tickets begin at $12; workshops and classes are extra and require advance registration. To purchase tickets or learn more about reborn babies and the convention, visit the show's website.

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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies