Life Celebrated

February 2011
Written By: 
Stephanie Jo Chapa
Photographs by: 
Clayton Stairs (1) and Leah Loney (5) Dolls Provided by Scents of Charleston

Georgetown fabric artist promotes Gullah culture through doll making
and doubles as presenter, educator and speaker

Zenobia Washington is a strong, family-oriented woman, taking on the world one life, and celebration, at a time. After learning how to make wine and Coke bottle-based dolls as a child (a clever cultural tradition that teaches young girls to braid hair for the younger siblings), Washington has since been making her interpretation of the dolls professionally for 12 years. Originally crafted as a method of healing, the dolls have become her signature piece and an integral connection to the Gullah Geechee culture that has shaped her story.

“These dolls are celebrations of lives,” she says of the dolls modeled after the inspirational figures in the lives of her and her clients. Though size varies, the dolls are generally 18 inches tall (but have been as high as 6 feet) and can take anywhere from an afternoon to a few days to create. She uses recycled fabrics, a knit body, dried grasses for hair, and beads. “I’m into batiks for fabric right now,” she quips, praising the colors.

Washington is talented at her craft as well as with her presence. She is a presenter, an educator and a motivator. She can be found in the spring and summer down U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant at Boone Hall Plantation’s “Exploring the Gullah Culture” series teaching children’s programs and speaking on Gullah language, folklore, art and food.

Clearly one to stay busy, she is also serving as the South Carolina Arts Commission Artist in Residence. She works with up to 150 kids at K-12 after school and summer programs, aiming for as much time with each child as possible in light of smaller art programs across the state. Younger children require more volunteers onsite or perhaps a bit more prep work. But her favorite age? Middle schoolers—for their creativity.

“They give you the best stuff. The little ones are trying to figure it out, and the older ones are all copying each other,” Washington shares. “It is rare that one child won’t or can’t finish a doll of their own.” Each child will take home their own wire-frame creation, a Washington signature.

It is her “Building a Strong Foundation” program that leaves the greatest impression. She insists that students adhere to each step of the doll-making process specifically. In doll making as in life, she explains her focus with clarity and passion, “each step of your education is important and builds upon itself, so you can’t skip any step for the whole structure to be strong.” On a tangential theme, Washington also teaches workshops entitled “Finding the Little Girl Within,” through Coastal Carolina University in which adults create their own doll, but the main focus here is on the spirit of play cultivated during the session.

Her advice to aspiring artists? It’s right in line with her programmatic focus. “Learn the supports—know marketing, public speaking, pricing your work, the business of it all,” and “stay focused—and marry rich,” she jests. “It’s easy to get your head swollen when people like your work and then get frustrated,” she says of the highs and lows. “Be prepared, and hang in there,” she says encouragingly. “There’s a big life out there to celebrate.”