Monday, April 4, 2011

A Niche Filled with Paper People

Why do children born of the same two parents around the same time become very different people? One hypothesis says that they compete for niches in the family, just as species compete in an ecosystem. Two kids born a year apart might both be extremely extroverted, but if one is 99 on the extrovert scale and the other is 90, the 90 kid will be labeled and treated as shy by the family, and that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Being born third after two 18-month-interval daughters, the niches in my family were already filling up. Daughter Number Two, a tenacious person, as it turned out, refused to surrender any achievement niche to Daughter Number One, so by the time I came along there was little left. I became an underachiever. They both read for pleasure, so I would not. They both got perfect marks in school, so I would not. To this day, I am predisposed to not want to do what everyone else is doing, though I manage to overcome it when needed.

My most reactive era lasted through elementary school, until the crucible of 5th and 6th grade brought some changes. I started reading for fun in 6th grade, though I tended to read different types of books than my sisters. And there was one other important area where I joined in instead of going it alone.

DN2 had an assignment in 6th grade reading to make paper dolls based on the characters from a book, which she did by tracing some paperboard figures we had, then changing their outlines a bit, designing clothes and faces, and coloring them with crayons. I think they may have been characters from an Alistair MacLean book. DN1, thinking that looked like fun, started making her own dolls.

Handmade male paper doll, crayon on cardboardSoon it was time for the 1972 winter Olympics. Both DN2 and DN1 made up characters who were skaters and bobsledders, skiers and lugers. They were Americans and Russians, so their story became a Cold War parable in our bedrooms. And I joined in, making a U.S. skier named Toby. He had blond hair and lavender eyes that matched his pants.

From then on, the paper dolls became my niche in the family. DN2 stopped making them soon after (drawing wasn't really her thing); DN1 continued to create sporadically over the next few years, but she was already in high school by then, so was busy with other things. (I would ask her to draw the faces on my dolls sometimes, because I thought she drew with more panache than me.)

Teenage girl and boy drawn with embroidered jeansAfter a while I stopped tracing the "real" paper dolls, and no longer referred to them as dolls at all. They became the paper people. They got ridiculously thin, with compressed faces and huge eyes. Their clothes were expressive of the age -- lots of bell-bottom jeans colored with faded-denim colored pencil, covered with embroidered patches with sayings like "Keep on Trucking" or "Make Love Not War."

They were all teenagers from huge families with kids born every year or two. Their multiethnic names were mined from the Encyclopedia Britannica entries on Hungary, Greece, Poland, Wales. For the most part they lived in poor neighborhoods in imaginary large cities, about as far from my rural setting as I could get. I designed their schools, and made maps of their streets. I kept track of them on lists with their IQs, heights and weights. There were basketball players, skateboard riders, gang members and runaways. Seriously. I still have all this stuff.

Eventually I started writing down some of their stories. They weren't very good, as I've written before, but they kept me busy, along with drawing even more paper people. By this time I was holding down the artist niche in the family.

How many did I eventually draw? You be the judge.

Big pile of paper people
At least I know where most of the cognitive surplus of my teen years went.


Linda Myers said...

Wow! Quite impressive. Probably you learned more than you would have from just reading whatever.

Blythe Woolston said...

I would really love to see those dolls mounted as an exhibit. One reason is this: I remember how I saw people in 1972 and they looked a lot like that. *I* didn't look like that, but *they* did. Keane was a big influence, pun acknowledged, on eye size.

In other news, I noticed a newspaper story about service animals that included snakes. No little vests involved, sadly.

Marsha Qualey said...

I have to echo Blythe's comment-- the paper people would make an interesting art installation. Very cool.

I'm the mother of 4--three of them are daughters and the niche idea makes sense to me.

Daughter Number Three said...

Thanks, everyone. Blythe, I wonder what the Capitol police in Madison would do if the epileptic guy with the snake wanted to come into the building...