Heirloom art produced in a Southern Santas Workshop
It’s not uncommon in this area that families have a seasonal vacation home. But who would have ever guessed that nestled deep in a wooded hollow in the Walnut Creek community between Franklin and Highlands, N.C., just around the bend from a classic little country chapel, an unassuming home would harbor a southern “Santas workshop?”
The use of the plural form rather than possessive is no misprint or misspelling. There are no elves to help with the labor at this Santas workshop. Nor are there flying reindeer waiting to deliver good cheer. The Southern Santas workshop doesn’t crank out toys and gifts for good little girls and boys. Instead, this workshop produces uniquely designed Santas themselves, artistic heirloom collectible dolls that bring joy to children at heart, no matter what age, or how nice — or naughty — they’ve been this year.
Each one of the sophisticated 22-inch tall Santas is an expression of the child-like, funloving wonder and imagination of their creator, Alane Bartnik, affectionately known as “Nonna” by her grandchildren. The term “Nonna” means “grandmother” in Italian. And while this vivacious, creative, fast-talking, motorcycle- riding craftswoman and artist with a grip stronger than most men her age doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the average granny, she still qualifies to be called Nonna.
The same spark that keeps Bartnik young is also what motivates her to craft her handmade Santas.
“My childhood Christmases were just such a magical time,” she said. “Sharing my Santas with people keeps the spirit of those Christmases alive. My Santas feed my soul, and it fills me with joy to have other people feel the same when they see my work.”
Each of Nonna’s Santas is magical in its own right, representing a culturally and historically accurate period depiction of the jolly old elf, originally a priest known as Saint Nicholas, as he delivers gifts of toys and candy to children and families all over the world, all in a single night. Usually it’s the night before Christmas, as the famous poem describes, but in some cultures it’s Dec. 6, with Christmas Eve being the time when Baby Jesus brings gifts to everybody.
Bartnik said she finds it fascinating that, while the details vary, the mythology of Father Christmas can be found in so many different countries and cultures. She does a lot of research on the folklore of a given region, and studies the history of the era — as well as artistic renderings of period dress and costumes — as she zeros in on the concept for a new project.
But what makes her process truly unique is that she never works on more than one Santa at a time, choosing instead to focus on making each of them one-of-a-kind, three-dimensional renderings representative of a particular time period or cultural heritage. Over the years she has made Scottish Santas, Dutch Santas, Norwegian Santas, Irish Santas, Santas from Russia, Poland, Iceland, and all over the globe. Anywhere the history and mythology of Father Christmas is alive, Bartnik has made an heirloom art doll representing the legendary figure. She’s made Victorian Santas, “country” Santas, woodsman Santas, pretty much Santas of all kinds. Of them all, her least favorite was the typical mid-century red-and-white suited Santa. “It just wasn’t that much fun,” said Bartnik. “I couldn’t be as creative as I normally can.”
After only four years creating her dolls with Nonna’s Santas, Bartnik has found her niche in the market with her original handcrafted designs. And it’s a good thing. She said making Santas is addictive, and that she would probably keep making them even if people didn’t buy them.
“I would be like the ‘crazy cat lady,’ except I would have a house filled with hundreds of Santas,” she quipped. Fortunately for her, it appears that collecting Santas is just as addictive to some. “I had a woman contact me from Alaska,” said Bartnik, “and now she’s bought her fourth one this year. That tickles me to death.
“Another woman came up to me and asked if I was going to be at the Annual John C. Campbell Folk School Fall Festival, last year, and I said, yes. And she goes, ‘Good! I’m saving my money,’ which is just the biggest compliment. So, I gave her the previous year’s price.”
But the incident that touched her most was an elderly couple that she met at a show. According to Bartnik, the husband had to go away for ten days on a trip and the couple had never been separated for that long the entire time they were together. “So he bought his wife one of my Santas to keep her company until he returned. I just thought that was so sweet,” said Bartnik.
Bartnik’s husband Richard, who at this point is as much her publicity agent as her patron Saint Nick, guides the way into a side bedroom and approaches the closet door. “This is the best part,” he said. “Supposedly she’s claustrophobic, but this is where she works.” With that, he opens the door to the walk-in closet.
Sure enough, tucked away inside the closet is the tiniest workshop imaginable for manufacturing the tiny, realistic replica clothing, toys, trees, and various accessories for the minute Santas. “The door stays open,” Bartnik offers, as if this is a rational explanation. Most people would go stir-crazy working for hours on end in the small room. Yet it’s a very neat, well-organized little workshop. There’s just enough space for Bartnik to sit in her chair at the worktable, surrounded by her sewing machine, remnants and complete pieces of vintage clothing, shelves filled with various craft supplies, pieces of lace, miniature buckles, an assortment of furs and hair used for the Santas, antique keys, vintage books used for researching the historical periods of a given project, and so much more that it’s all a bit overwhelming in such as small confined space.
Having spent the better part of two years completely gutting and renovating their home, her husband soon plans to build a larger workshop for her so she can spread out and have even more space for supplies, as well as storing her limited supply of remaining Santas. He may have an ulterior motive. As it is, they’re running out of space in the living room.
“I’d love to have a bigger room. But then a bigger room would probably look just like this,” said Bartnik, grinning.
Bartnik’s child-like sense of humor and imagination is dwarfed only by her work ethic and attention to detail. It doesn’t take long to realize that she is a perfectionist in everything she does.
“Both of my parents were artists and I grew up in a very creative environment. I’ve been making everything I have ever needed, since I can remember,” said Bartnik. “I grew up in a family in which, if you needed something, you made it. You had to figure it out. So I thought, why can’t I make my own Santa doll?” said Bartnik.
Bartnik said she started out making a Santa after she inherited a mink garment from her mother but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. It was too small to wear, and there was no market to sell it. So she decided on a whim to make a Santa doll that would have a mink coat. She built the first Santa doll to fit the coat, and it stood nearly four feet tall. It was a hit, but after that experience she decided that it would be better — and less expensive — to build smaller collectible dolls. From that point on, her work evolved as she strived to improve her designs with each doll.
“If you look at some of the other Santa dolls out there, sometimes sold for $700 or more, they buy these porcelain heads from China, then put them on a body that’s just a cone. They don’t even have legs on them,” said Richard. “And that’s how she started out, with the porcelain heads and the cone. But she just kept going,” he said.
As the process of creating her Santas evolved, she said she soon realized that prefabricated doll heads would never meet the standards of the Santas of her imagination. So she decided to sculpt the heads and faces for herself. “There are no molds or patterns,” she explained. Bartnik sculpts by hand each Santa’s head individually with a ceramic-like sculpturing compound that remains soft and pliable until baked. Then, said Bartnik, “I leave them for a day or two and live with them so I can go, ‘Oh, that nose is crooked’ or ‘his wrinkles don’t look right,’ so I can make adjustments before baking them in the oven.” The finished result resembles fine porcelain.
Each Santa has his own character and unique facial expression, looking like he could let out a hardy, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” at any moment. One can’t help but to notice a resemblance between most of Nonna’s Santas and her husband, Richard. But according to Bartnik, it’s not intentional in the least.
“I think it’s just because I see his face every day and well, he is so cheerful… and handsome,” she explained. “But sometimes one will come out looking like my brother, and sometimes my girlfriend will say, ‘Oh, that looks like [her husband] Jim.’ But really I just try to give them realistic faces and— it’s called ‘tracking’— one eye can’t be looking this way or that way. They have to be looking in the same direction.”
Nonna’s Santas have acrylic eyes, often blue, and their hair and beards are a high quality mohair, painstakingly applied by hand to provide a natural look. Each Santa’s body is made of steel rods, batting and wire, encased in his cotton “Union Suit” that looks like long johns underwear. Each one is securely fastened to a piece of oval or rectangular aged wood from barns or other structures, for a base that is approximately 9”x7”. Every item of clothing and all the accessories are handmade by Bartnik.
Her most recent project, a rural Scandinavian Santa, is a perfect example of the exquisite detail of Bartnik’s work. The Santa is clad in a multicolored “patchwork” jacket and all the accessories are decidedly “country.” Even the sewing differs from many of the other Santas. “They didn’t do top-stitching at that time so I wanted to keep it accurate,” said Bartnik. “It makes for a more realistic look.” She said she never uses glue if she can sew a component, so that it lasts longer.
To add a special touch, an antique postcard from the turn of the century accompanies each Santa along with a note from Nonna with a detailed description of the inspiration behind the specific Santa design. It’s a masterful touch that provides the collector with a written account so they will always remember the history behind the work of art.
While many simpler, less sophisticated Santa dolls are sold for much higher prices, Bartnik said she enjoys sharing her work with more people by keeping her Santas affordable. She has a loyal customer base. Nonna’s Santas sell for anywhere between $275 and $350, half of what many other retailers charge for more generic, mass-produced collectible Santas. “It’s on a shoestring budget,” said Bartnik. “I don’t spend much money to make them,” a surprising statement considering the quality craftsmanship, while the materials used for the dolls’ clothes include expensive leathers, wool, and vintage mink.
“I never pay full price for anything. I get beautiful vintage clothes from thrift stores and Goodwill for the material for their clothing. I can’t put a lot of money into them. I don’t charge enough as is, but the hours that are in this, it’s tremendous. I mean, I make these,” said Bartnik, gesturing to a miniature Christmas tree on display next to her latest Santa. “These are German feather trees that I learned to make,” she said, grabbing a thin green ribbon from a nearby shelf and twisting it around wire to demonstrate the process, the ribbon fanning and feathering into what looked exactly like a tiny fir tree.
Bartnik applies the same accuracy in the details of every one of the accessories that she designs from the simplest materials. “I’m so proud of these,” she said as she pointed out tiny replica candles that decorate the old-fashioned Christmas trees. “I used a hole puncher and tin foil to create the bases, and the candles are sections of tooth picks that I’ve painted.” She added thin thread to simulate the candle wicks. Another Santa holds a teddy bear under his arm, ready for delivery under some lucky child’s tree. The teddy bear is painted perfectly to look like a soft, furry stuffed animal, but it’s actually sculpted from the same clay used for Santa’s head and face.
She also researches the toys to make sure that they’re accurate for the time period, usually working in a range from 1880 to the 1920’s. From miniscule doll houses to rocking horses, Bartnik crafts every toy and accessory by hand in the proper proportion for the scene she’s creating. At some point, Bartnik even started adding realistic miniature children’s books to Santa’s bag of gifts. “I strive for accuracy in everything I make,” she said, “so all of these books were actually published during that period. I look them up on the computer and print the covers out at the size I need.” In this case the books are about one inch tall. “Then I hand sew the cover and bindings around the pages. There’s no writing on the pages, but the covers are all accurate. These particular books are from the 1890s.”
The attention to detail is extraordinary. Bartnik even wraps the gifts that fill Santa’s bag or wait under her handmade trees. Most amazingly, she takes time to craft details that are concealed from the viewpoint of the scenario. The teddy bears even have a tail, whether or not it’s going to be seen or hidden within the folds of Santa’s coat. Belts and straps are made to be as realistic as possible, even when they are largely hidden from sight. For a pipe, she carved a hole in a wooden bead and added a stem, with stuffing to simulate a wisp of smoke.
For her most recent heirloom Santa art doll, Bartnik encountered a problem when she wanted to add a miniature “Jack-in-the-Box.” The solution: “I completely made it by hand.” She sculpted a small box with an open lid, and painted it with the exact replica design of the toys from the historical period. Then she applied her creativity to sculpt the jester head of the Jack-in-the-Box, which was then painted accordingly. Next came the handle, simulated with a bit of bent wire and tiny wooden handle. And to join the laughing jester head to the box? “I used a spring from inside of a pen,” said Bartnik. “I think that’s my favorite part. That’s what I enjoy most about making my Santas, is figuring out ‘How can I make that?’ in miniature, because you can’t buy it.”
Santa Claus is coming to town!
Alane Bartnik, a.k.a. Nonna, is participating in the Annual Fall Colors Fine Art Show hosted by the Art League of Highlands this upcoming weekend. The show will be held at Highlands Civic Center from noon to 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19. She said she loves to see people’s reactions to her Santas at art and craft shows, and usually displays the figures on a rotating 360º turn-table to allow people to view all the details of the front, sides and back of the miniature Santas.