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She makes paper dolls. But these aren’t your mother’s paper dolls.

Paper dolls invade a fine-art setting in Jackson County

Tracy Williams’ love for the art of paper dolls grew out of her love for fashion design and illustration. Now she is sharing her passion with the world in an exhibit at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Jackson County campus in Gautier.
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Tracy Williams’ love for the art of paper dolls grew out of her love for fashion design and illustration. Now she is sharing her passion with the world in an exhibit at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Jackson County campus in Gautier.

Her paper dolls might be flat, but there’s nothing one-dimensional about Tracy Williams’ creations.

Williams, who taught art at William Carey University for 12 years, now works in advertising, coordinating media for a Coast casino. Work time might be dedicated to designing logos, promotional materials and ads, but in her free time, she goes into her air-conditioned attic studio, built for her by her husband, Scott, and reaches into all the corners of her imagination.

Several of Williams’ works in her exhibit “Where Fashion Illustration Comes to Play: The Paper Doll Art of Tracy Williams” at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Jackson County Campus through Sept. 22.

In what many people consider strictly a toy from childhood, Williams tosses together fashion, fun and clever twists to make paper dolls the subject of SERIOUS art. It’s a combination that’s long held her interest.

“I’ve always loved fashion illustration, drawing clothes,” she said. She received a bachelor of fine arts from Syracuse University in fashion illustration, and for her master’s thesis, she carried the subject forward even as she took a retrospective look.

“Fashion illustration continued to happen, even as photography had taken over,” she said. “You know, there’s a long history of paper dolls, going back to early Japanese culture.”

From ancient Japan, where the figures first were used in purification ceremonies, paper dolls progressed to become representatives of clothing makers to the elite.

“They were a way of communicating fashion,” Williams said.

The 19th century saw paper dolls growing in popularity, as printing and magazines became more plentiful. Lithographed sets of richly colored dolls and their costumes were imported from Europe. Starting in the early 20th century and continuing for decades, women’s magazines such as Good Housekeeping and McCall’s produced their own paper dolls, making names such as Betsy McCall and Polly Pratt as familiar to little girls as those of their best friends.

“Paper dolls are really important in the history of women illustrators, too,” Williams said. “It was a way for women then to make a name for themselves in the illustration world. You have Rose O’Neill, who created the Kewpie Doll.”

Today, Williams carries on the art that women before her developed, adding her own playful touch. By the way, she is a passionate “Star Trek” fan and lately has been influenced by the Monster High dolls.

“It’s the clothes,” she said, explaining her quirky looks. “And I do weird mashups, too. My subject matter is a little ... niche-y.”

Since 1991, she has made paper doll-themed Christmas cards for friends. “The first one was on a Christmas card for 1991, and it was called Tannenbaum, the doll and the tree. I designed three costumes to put on the tree named Tannen Baum.”

One she is working on is “The Holly and the Ivy.” But, rather than give it a predictable Victorian Christmas image, she opted for something quirkier. “There’s Holly Go Lightly from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ Holly White from ‘Breaking Bad’ and Holly Hobbie. And Ivy Stewart from ‘Downton Abbey,’ Ivy Winters from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and Ivy Supersonic, who designs animated characters,” she said.

Rather than become mass market paper dolls, Williams’ creations often follow her to the International Paper Doll Convention, which she’s been attending since 2009. “It’s where all the paper doll designers go,” she said. “There’s also a lot of crossover there with doll collectors.” At the convention, Williams offers her Paper Couture service. A designer might have a doll that needs a new look, so Williams will take on the challenge, creating “outside the box” costumes for the doll.

She’s a member of a paper doll round robin group, with members from around the country. One member will send out a doll she designed, and the other members will design costumes for it, creating a unique paper doll set. “These become one-of-a-kind costumes, and it’s really fun,” Williams said.

The MGCCC-JC campus is at 2300 U.S. 90 in Gautier. Its gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information about the exhibit, contact Marc Poole at 228-497-7684.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

If you go

What: “Where Fashion Illustration Comes to Play: The Paper Doll Art of Tracy Williams” exhibit.

Where: Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Jackson County Campus, 2300 U.S. 90, Gautier.

When: Through Sept. 22; gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Details: Marc Poole, 228-497-7684.

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