Baby Dolls

A Jerusalem couple’s street art breaks the taboo on discussing infertility.

rachel gordon311 (photo credit: gordon and gordon art)
rachel gordon311
(photo credit: gordon and gordon art)
AT MIDNIGHT ON A HOT night in August, Joseph Connelly, 45, and Rachel Gordon, 44, a married pair of Jerusalem-based artists, set out to deliver 1,000 handmade baby dolls to the city’s residents.
Working through the night, they carried huge plastic bags filled with the dolls through lonely streets and alleyways, following a carefully plotted route through each neighborhood.
They set the dolls down in abandoned parks and at empty bus stops, sometimes hanging them on telephone poles. As the night wore on, they grew tired; their backs and legs ached, but they kept on, into the next day, until all the dolls were lovingly placed, waiting to be found by passersby.
For the American-Israeli artists, who have been married for 12 years and have lived in Israel for five, their tour around the city was the culmination of three years of intense work on a piece entitled Yad Shniyah (“Second Hand”). Using discarded clothes they found on the streets of Jerusalem, they crafted the soft dolls, sewing, stuffing them, and dressing each one in a cloth diaper before leaving them in public places.
But Connelly and Gordon’s journey into doll-making started long before. For the past 10 years, they have been struggling with infertility.
Despite numerous medical treatments and the incessant hope that they would one day be parents, three years ago they were given the news that, barring a miracle, their chances of conceiving a biological child were over. As they struggled to accept this new reality, the pair, originally from Madison, Wisconsin, began to reexamine their situation as a childless couple.
“In the symphony of our lives, it often comes down to one note – that we don’t have children. We get a lot of ‘pity’ looks,” says Connelly. “It can be very isolating. Parents of school-age children get a circle of friends through their children, which we don’t have.”
“Family and friends don’t think to invite us to their homes,” adds Gordon.
According to the couple, their isolation was compounded by the “monthly cycles of hope and disappointment” that came with actively trying for a child. Medical practitioners generally promised success without even mentioning the possibility of failure, playing on the couple’s hopes and setting them up for disappointment when treatments didn’t work.
About five years ago, Connelly and Gordon found themselves seeking a change.
The couple had become more committed Jewishly and felt they wanted to live in a Jewish community that was bigger and more developed than Madison. Israel, where they had spent a happy honeymoon, seemed like a good choice. The fact that treatments for infertility were part of the general healthcare plan was certainly an attraction too, they say.
“I guess we also wanted to move elsewhere and change our luck,” says Connelly, quoting a Hebrew saying. “We had come to the end of where we could go career-wise and thought it would be good for us in terms of a child and that we’d also find jobs and settle in.
Although by the time they had moved to Israel, they had reached the “trail’s end” of medical treatments for infertility, they were now surrounded by a kid-centered culture, in a neighborhood with plenty of babies, and in a culture where people feel free to offer advice on personal matters. So the couple began to take a new look at their old pain, and decided to deal with their feelings through art, a natural outlet for them.
CONNELLY IS A CLASSICALLY trained conceptual artist, while Gordon is a photographer, graphic artist and web designer. Past collaborations by the couple include a menora situated on a hilltop near Ma’ale Adumim, which they created using candles placed in paper falafel bags filled with sand, as well as “The Famous Cats of Jerusalem,” a series of candid photos of street cats placed strategically throughout the city.
They have explored infertility in a durational performance video, featured in shows in Chicago and Wisconsin and posted on their website, entitled “August 18th 2000, Cycle Begins in the Evening,” in which they are seen reading a chronological listing of dates and times of unsuccessful attempts at conception as well as medical files, letters, test results and diagnoses. Another video, Untitled (Calendar), records the dates and times of seven years of menstruation and sexual contact.
This time, they set out to make dolls, and the theme and its particular meaning to them became apparent. They decided that they would send them out into the world as they would have a growing child. “If we had a 10- year-old now, we would be sending him out into the world more and more independently at this point. There are so many people we would want him to meet and experiences we’d like him to experience,” says Connelly.
The wish for intimate connection seems to be a powerful theme for the couple and is echoed in the act of leaving the dolls in public spaces. Each doll sports a tag showing the address of the artists’ website, www.yadshniyah.
com. When you log on, you are invited to leave your impressions of finding the doll and what you might do with it. “We’re putting these dolls out to meet the people for us and that way, these people can meet us – in a way,” says Gordon.
Who do they hope will find the dolls? Anyone, they say. They imagine that a child who might have potentially been their child’s classmate might pick one up, or the firstgrade teacher that their child might have had could find one and take it home. “Once out of our hands, their [the dolls’] fate is their own,” adds Gordon.
While they admit the concept is unusual, they reject the contention that it is morbid to muse about the life of an imaginary child. For them, the act of doll-making and distribution,and of seeing the dolls as a proxy for such a child, has opened the door to authentic dialogue about infertility.
“It’s like a blister and everyone knows it’s there but nobody talks about it, and there’s all this pressure. People don’t know how to ask or what to say to us. And now, we have popped the blister: ‘You want to know what’s been going on? This is what’s been going on and we’re not afraid to talk about it and we’re OK with you talking about it. We’re not hiding anymore,’” she says.
The act of rethinking infertility is symbolized by the look of the dolls as well as by the process by which they are crafted. Made from discarded clothes, the dolls are meant to help people see new possibility in the familiar – not just a new use for old rags, but also a fresh way to imagine parenting or a new view on what it means to be childless.
Although the dolls have a similar appearance and structure – soft angular limbs, matching fabrics – that the artists term a “family resemblance,” each one is faceless, allowing people to conjure their own connections to the dolls. Additionally, the dolls were assembled in a random way: The artists first sewed multiple tops and bottoms and then joined them together at the waist. Even the pink or blue string attached to the arm of each doll, indicating its gender, was assigned at random. In the world created by Connelly and Gordon, one doesn’t get to order a child at will or make undue demands on nature. “You get what you get,” they say.
It seems that many of the choices the artists made for their dolls were formed in direct response to their own experiences dealing with infertility. The artists are giving the dolls away for free unlike the expensive fertility treatments couples undergo in the United States, or the high cost to their health that some women pay for multiple rounds of medical treatments.
And while continuous dashed hopes for a child once dimmed the couple’s zest for life, the dolls appear to be aimed at cheering the “inner child” of even the most hardened citydwellers.
For the artists, however, delivering the dolls was not a completely lighthearted experience.
They chose to do it alone, turning down requests by friends to help them out. It took them over 26 hours, working through the night and the next day, stopping only for an occasional snack or catnap. They describe the whole tour as “personal and private”: “It was something we needed to do on our own and all in one shot, just to have that focus and be able to go through this in our own space and time.”
At times they split up, with each person focusing on the experience as an individual. At other times, they walked side by side in intimate silence.
As they describe their impressions after the mission, it is clear the night and day were intense. “I am in awe of us,” Gordon says.
“My back ached, but we just kept going until it was finished. Now I even have a labor story to tell, complete with back pain,” she jokes.
Most of the time, the couple went unnoticed, but when they were spotted, the response was pleasantly positive.
The ultra-Orthodox residents of Me’a She’arim are one such example. Towards the end of their nighttime delivery, the couple reached the haredi enclave, where they were concerned that residents might be especially suspicious of strangers distributing dolls.
Several passersby did stop them, asking sharply why they were leaving dolls in public places. When the couple explained the concept behind the dolls, including their own struggles with infertility, the demeanor of the residents changed dramatically. The couple received heartfelt wishes for success on their mission.
It is clear how much they welcome such unexpected responses. Friends who received dolls by mail together with a personal letter have also responded in surprising ways – several said they too had struggled with infertility and could relate to the couple’s story. Others said they would treasure the dolls “as we would have treasured your child.” Already, it seems, the walls of silence are crumbling around this painful topic.
Gordon explains that those who receive or find the dolls will be experiencing the artists through their work. “They are getting our spirit through the dolls because no one else, but us, would think of coming up with this,” she says, smiling. She glances at Connelly, who smiles and nods back in agreement.