Rag dolls and spiritual riches

Here is an unusual case of art for the heart’s sake.

Joseph Connelly and Rachel Gordon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Joseph Connelly and Rachel Gordon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joseph Connelly and Rachel Gordon have turned giving into an art form. In a massive 26-hour campaign, starting just after midnight on August 18, they reached almost all Jerusalem neighborhoods and left 1,000 handmade baby dolls in places like benches, in phone booths, on walls, on stairs, and bus stops to be adopted by whoever was lucky enough to find one.
The special delivery by the couple was the culmination of a three-year project, entitled Yad Shniyah (Second Hand), which was born in pain. Joseph and Rachel, who were high school friends in Cleveland, Ohio, have been married some 12 years. Like most young married couples, when they decided the time had come to start a family they assumed a child would soon follow. But fate determined otherwise.
And so began the difficult decade of frustrating and ultimately fruitless fertility treatments.
Anyone who has been down even part of that painful road will instantly recognize the journey. Their lives, they recall, became monthly cycles of hope and disappointment while they watched friends and family celebrate births and child-related milestones.
Five years ago, they made aliya partly to see if a change of location could help and partly because the virtually free availability of fertility treatments in Israel.
But despite what seemed like endless rounds of conventional (and alternative) treatments they did not reach the miraculous stage of holding a newborn in their arms.
“Everyone said give this six months and you’ll be pregnant,” says Rachel. “We went for it every time. The months went by, the years added up. We measured time in months. It wasn’t 10 years, it was 120 months.”
At that point, in their early forties, they were told that barring a miracle, their chances of conceiving a biological child were over.
The process of trying to get pregnant had been so all-consuming that other interests had fallen by the wayside.
“We didn’t really know who we were anymore, other than people who were trying to get pregnant,” says Rachel. “We really felt lost.”
In an effort to redefine themselves, they returned to art and conceived the idea of the doll project.
“If we had a 10-year-old now, we would be sending them out into the world more and more independently at this point,” notes Joseph. “There are so many people we would want them to meet and experiences we’d like them to experience.”
They sent the dolls as a proxy, distributing them – mainly by foot – on what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year.
The fact that they are both big walkers also played a role in the development of the project.
“As we walked around the city, we noticed all these bags of clothes that people leave out and wondered what we could do with them,” says Joseph. “That’s the job of an artist – taking what is at hand and making something new and different; or taking a situation and helping people see it in a different way.”
Since the cloth came from so many different types of clothing none of the dolls – each about 26 cm. high – are identical, notes Rachel. But they bear a strong family resemblance.
This is their fourth collaborative piece focusing specifically on fertility.
“I think some of this piece is definitely about mourning for us, but it’s also a way of hopefully starting conversations and making connections for people,” says Rachel.
“The dolls are an easy way to start conversations,” Joseph concurs. “They’re cute and fun.
Although we've been surprised by how many people who know we don’t have children have asked us what the piece is about.”
Since each doll had a tag with the words “For you” and their Web site (www.gordonandgordonart.com), they soon began to receive reports from those who found the dolls, although not yet as much as they had hoped for.
“Someone thought it was some kind of marketing campaign,” says Rachel, but in general people have found the idea poignant and many admired their courage.
Asked what advice they would give to others from their experience, Rachel says: “Include people. There are some things – like going to the zoo, for example – which are more fun to do with kids. Families with children should ask couples without whether they’d like to come along.”
Joseph’s advice is “don’t give advice; just ask people how they’re doing.”
Nonetheless, he has some special thoughts for the couples whose fertility treatments do not end successfully. “There may come a day when ‘no’ is the only answer you’re going to hear. It’s a hard answer but it’s an OK one,” he says.
The couple credits their collaboration on the piece for helping them work through the heartbreak and r e d i s c o v e r themselves as artists and a married couple.
“It definitely brought us together,” says Rachel.
After this mammoth labor of love, they are now beginning to think about future pieces “perhaps using wood and lumber left lying around or perhaps from old shoes found on the streets,” says Joseph.
It’s a matter of take and give.
Particularly give.
Rachel Gordon and Joseph Connelly might not have children of their own, but it can never be said they haven’t loved or given love.