Healing to evolve with creative purpose: The Back Talk Cafe doll project

I started the doll project, BackTalkCafe.com, little more than a year and a half or so ago with a simple idea:

Create a story series using dolls as the character actors. Simple, no cost, no pressure.

Yet, it unfolded in ways I could never have expected.

Not enough gravity

Almost two years ago, reeling from the brutal end of a multi-year series of overwhelming losses and idealistic-shattering experiences in many aspects of my life to the point of … well, I was at the bottom, and feeling very much alone. Looking back, I see that I was not alone, rather I had become so overwhelmed with fear and defeat that I couldn’t be around people without having mental shutdowns: I would freeze, go blank, couldn’t breathe. If I did or didn’t say the right or wrong thing, pain and more confusion would follow. I was confused about everything, all the time, nothing made sense, and it was unbearable. Everything I thought I believed in and fought for had been shattered into millions of pieces; I felt I didn’t have enough concentrated gravity to hold myself, much less a coherent thought together.

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Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in far Eastern Utah are a few of our favorite day trips when needing to get away for reflection and thinking — or not thinking — any time of year.

I had taken too many hits and had been far weaker than I thought I was (ah, the youthful illusion of invincibility) as the pressure increased. In short, I was terrified. The more people yelled at me, blaming me, the more I sank under their blows, drowning, confused by their vitriol.

But I have to produce something!

Having spent decades in professional media where I thought words mattered, the end being a niche lifestyle magazine publisher (yes, ink on paper), I had to produce SOMETHING, subscribers or no, or I would at that point lose my mind. What else could I do? I had no resources. No publication. Those days were over.

My tears of mourning over the beautiful magazines we’d published with such care turned to shame and hate. I hated myself and the decades I’d wasted learning and caring about publishing standards. I was angry at myself; hated myself for wasting my life on such a bullshit career. I wanted every piece of anything I’d ever written, edited, photographed, directed, and published to be burned, erased from the face of the earth as digital everything seemed to mock my every move, dismissing publishing standards and First Amendment free press accountability right and left; a basic gutting of thousands of years of publishing insights and the integrity of a man’s word as his bond without so much as a glance at what was being destroyed, mocking and dismissing all the way down. I was defeated and not handling it well at all; I needed some tools to help figure out where I was, why I was.

By the end, I felt so ashamed of the truly beautiful works I’d sacrificed so much for, put so much of my heart and energy into, been part of — published over several decades. I felt ashamed of my self. And felt very alone.

Fortunately, in the ensuing purge, my husband rescued most. Even now as I write this, thinking which photos to add to it, I can’t bring myself to post photos of those magazines. No doubt at some point as I share this backstory I will, but I’m not there yet.

So, purge, we did. Paper purges turned to good old fashioned house cleaning, throwing away crap we no longer needed or wanted that was just taking up space (and in some cases bittersweet memories of a bygone era, which only added the whole aging thing to the mix).

Frowns turned to smiles as stuff went out the door, the spaces began to open; we were on a roll and it was the best thing we could’ve done — on a lot of levels. (It’s ongoing and the decisions to toss get easier and faster!)

The cool black rolling file box

While emptying a forgotten closet, we came across a very cool and very clean rolling file box full of files; files that immediately went to the shredder. My husband then wheeled the box out to the garage next to the growing stack of items tagged for a yard sale. But, having an affinity for cool bags and boxes, I figured there just had to be a justification for keeping that cool file box. After throwing out a few very lame ideas that I knew would never hold water, I jokingly said, “Barbies! It would hold Barbies and … um, some little Barbie chairs and maybe a little Barbie stage and it could be a little show in a box …” I was off and running. Why Barbies, specifically, occurred to me is still a mystery.

File Feb 16, 12 48 23 AMI knew I had a Barbie buried in my fabric bin somewhere from years ago. I knew I had to put something in that box to justify keeping it and the more I talked about “making a little show” with dolls that could all be packed up into that box and taken on the road the more it began to form in my mind, a welcome distraction from the depression. I found that old Barbie; and yes, she fit just fine in the box. We laughed at the silliness of it. Just thinking about it made me smile, I needed some silliness to pierce the gloom. Seeing the Barbie reminded me of the lavender satin & lace evening gown and red velveteen lined cocktail dresses my Granny made for my raggedy-haired Barbie when I was a little girl. (I wish I still had those dresses.)

As the idea of a photo story with dolls began to take hold, I could almost feel Granny with me in my mind. (She lived to 94.) Could almost smell the scent of cloves that seemed to burst from her purse every time she opened it (cloves that I later learned were to mask the snuff).

Memories of those little Barbie dresses made by her, the way each was displayed when I woke from a nap as a little girl, gave me a sense of comfort in the most rudimentary sort of way.

I was missing her deeply of course. Even now, as I write this …

Granny’s name was Ina. I’ve always thought that to be one of the most beautiful names I’ve ever heard. Ina. Anyway, I found my thoughts turning more and more to the idea of the doll story because it simply made me feel better and took me back to a more innocent time; a time before I knew fear and trauma so intimately; and I think now that better feeling I had when I thought about the doll story was the connection with Granny; whenever I think about the doll story, its as if she is present with me in a way.

The 88-cent City Market Barbies

A few days after re-identifying the file box as a Barbie story box, I spot a toys section in the local grocery store and, curious if they have any dolls that might be candidates for the doll story, I poked around. Lo-and-behold if they didn’t have six Barbies right there all with orange clearance stickers on them at $0.88 each. I took that as a sign, of course, and placed several in the basket; once home, they went straight into the cool black box.

I had characters! But what about a background? And what are these characters doing? What’s their back story? Why are they together? What’s the story?

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Since all three City Market Barbies looked exactly the same in the same dresses, I cut their hair in three different lengths. Now we can tell which character is talking in the photos, right? But why would they all be wearing the exact same dress? Backup singers? The Terri Triplets. Hmmm… That would put them in a club venue of sorts, maybe…

We’d watched the movie classic Casablanca the night before, Sam playing and singing “As Time Goes By” replaying in my head as I considered the triplet backup singer Barbies in front of me. Of course, a “Cafe” …

Strike Up The Band!

I grabbed my iPad and fired off an email to Frank Bregar, leader of the Frank Bregar Orchestra 10-piece big band I used to sing with before losing my singing voice. “Can I use our big band demo as the music track for a video using Barbie dolls as the band on my doll story blog I’m going to make, if I can figure out how to use the video program?”

Now my wheels were really turning. Why not a big band music video using dolls as the characters? Photograph the dolls, drop in the music track, and voila! He chuckled, responding with a “sure, why not?”

I felt genuine delight! The little girl in me was picking the locks on the chains of defeat and the depression that went with it. That little rascal! I could almost hear Granny giggling, urging me on.

But what to call this imaginary cafe with music with dolls as characters?

The Back Talk Cafe, of course

Building on the Casablanca ambiance and Frank’s permission to use our old big band demo, a vision began to take shape as I searched my memories for visuals of 1920s and 1930s era dinner clubs for more inspiration. Looking for color, mood, texture. Three came instantly to mind, the first being Rick’s Cafe Americain in Casablanca, the second being La Fermette Marbeuf in Paris, and third, the fabulous train station in the move Hugo (my favorite Scorsese film), also set in Paris. (No idea why the French undertone of inspiration.)

I scoured the house grabbing up toilet paper tubes, shoe boxes, spice jars, and anything else that even remotely looked like it might pass for art deco Cafe furnishings — a far cry from the classic locations in France and Morocco that I’d pictured as I stacked empty Fiesta Ware boxes into place for a stage.

No cost, no expectations. I was producing again, producing something with a sense of my Granny’s nearness; something just between us; it was fun and each day I was feeling a little better. I wrapped her memories around me like a warm blanket.

Perhaps I needed to go all the way back to a time when I wasn’t afraid. So much fear fatigue; I think I needed desperately to re-engage feelings of being safe, of being cherished in innocence, protected sleep in the night.

Through the dolls, I found comfort in their evolving connections as one by one I picked at the locks on the chains of my sense of defeat. And I didn’t feel alone or silly.

A longing for childhood innocence

After sharing with my husband about the Granny connection, he told me to check my Amazon music playlist, that he’d added a new song I might like. I was laughing and crying before the end of the first chorus.

“Barbies” by Pink. “I wish I could go … back to playing Barbies in my room. They never say that you’ve got to grow up quite this soon…”

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I gathered shoe boxes, spice jars, coasters, anything that might work for miniature set props and practice photos, lighting, angles, poses, doll types, and so on.

The feelings I was experiencing, the connection between the dolls and longing for childhood innocence, are the same feelings other grown women are experiencing; yes I knew that, but something about the song at that moment; the sometimes desperate need to escape from the noise, the greed, the arrogance, the pretense. I still listen to that song often.

I needed more characters. But there were so many different Barbies out there! I remember only a few when I was a little girl. So, of course, that meant some serious casting. That was 1500 or so dolls and their fabulous clothes, accessories, and furnishings ago. (Now I totally get that saying: “I wanna be Barbie, that bitch has everything!”)

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Those same chains of defeat that I thought would do me in two years ago are now rusting and eroding in the high desert wind, no longer holding me prisoner, discovering my voice all over again, new, yet definitely not new.

I never imagined that the little girl in me would have the power to unlock chains when and where the woman in me could not.

As for the fictional Cafe story, the first two chapters are posted. Whew. I likely won’t get to Chapter 3 until after LSAT test day late January as I am studying as much as I can; the doll story setups and photos take a full day per chapter as I’m new at this; and between the holiday busy-ness and studying for the test, I thought it best to wait.

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In the meantime, I hope to have most of my doll and fashion set inventory that is not going to be included in the BackTalkCafe.com story sold off over the next few months.

As a power seller on ebay with 100% positive rating for customer satisfaction over this past year, I learned far more about e-commerce and tech strategies than I did about Barbies.

In fact, what I’ve learned as an online seller in addition to what I learned over decades in professional media in combination played a major role in my decision to pursue a career interest in law.

The doll collectors who I’ve come to know and love when juxtaposed with the tech companies who I’ve come to understand have brought light in areas I never knew existed; only felt. Dolls have been around a very very long time; they were a natural choice for sorting through my own story and better understanding others, putting space between what was happening to me and around me and … me, so I could see it.

Feeling very thankful today. And that’s that story.

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Photos in this post © 2017-2018 Krystyn Hartman

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