Las Cruces artist Christy Sexton makes "pretty-scary" things. Hide your Barbies.
By Jeff Berg
We're watching young Baron scramble around outside the Milagro Coffeehouse under the watchful eye of his grandmother. Inside, I sit with Las Cruces artist Christy Sexton, whose under-construction website pretty much says it all about her unique form of art.
It is called Dolls and Dead Things.
"When I lived in New Orleans," she says, "I learned a lot about voodoo, which is certainly a way of life for some people down there. When I was pregnant, I read about Baron, who is the voodoo god of death, and that was that.
"He loves explaining his name to people and kids at school. He once got in trouble at school for telling other kids about zombies."
One would think that Christy and Baron would be dressed in black, featuring jet-black hair, pasty white skin and way too much makeup. After all, Sexton's chosen method of art involves the, shall we say, reshaping of Barbie dolls, GI Joe dolls and other toys of note. (Barbie's boyfriend Ken is mostly off the hook, however.)
But Sexton is tall, sports a full head of lush red hair, wears just the "normal" amount of makeup, and is vivacious and very outgoing. "Goth," she is not. And the only thing that distinguishes Baron from other kids is the small queue of extra hair at the nape of his neck.
"People are sometimes disappointed when they meet me," Sexton concedes. "They're thinking I'd be more like Morticia Addams. They need to know that even though I am attracted to the dark side, that dark side also to have some beauty to it."
Sexton has spent most of her life in Las Cruces, not counting forays to England, France and other grand spots around the world. She returned to Las Cruces via New Orleans in 2003, and is one of the few people on the planet who has been able to make her living through the arts for her entire life.
"I've always been in the art business — teaching classes, working at art-supply stores, and I worked at the New Orleans Art Museum just before Baron was born."
But now, with a craft that is self-taught, Sexton makes her living full-time via her own creations.
Sexton recalls almost the exact moment when she knew that the unusual and macabre were for her. "I was nine when 'the moment' occurred," she says. "My dad loved horror stories and he had this set of Time-Life books called 'The Enchanted World.' He thought it would be too scary for me, so he hid it. But I found them. They had classic woodcut illustrations — prints and art — and I was terrified but also found them to be very beautiful. I also liked Edgar Allan Poe stories. I realized that I wanted to see 'pretty-scary' things."
The "Enchanted World" series had 21 volumes, covering everything from the "Lore of Love" to "Tales of Terror," which might have a lot in common.
Sexton says that she later began sneaking into slasher and horror movies. "But those didn't appeal to me. The blood and guts were scary, but not beautiful."
She became more aware of her interest through other films, those that didn't rely on a body count to keep an audience interested, and still maintains a deep interest in Japanese horror films. These films often, if not always, are several cuts (pun intended) above the same type of film made in America. The Japanese, Sexton feels, can meet the necessary standard of blending beauty with scary.
Sexton's work has proven to have broad appeal to the audience that shares her tastes and she is often busy with special orders from admirers. She attends at least two major "dark side" shows a year — Altered Barbie and Frightmare, which takes place in Dallas each year.
"I've had shows in galleries in the past, but don't currently have anything on exhibit," she adds. A show in San Diego took place when a gallery contacted her and asked if she would send a few of her creations — of course! She has also had her creations featured in magazines and at smaller horror conventions, where she takes orders and sells her unique work.
So why pick on poor, overly buxom Barbie? Sexton explains, "Barbie is the first toy that I remember playing with. My mom had them; my grandmother had them, I've just always like them and I feel that she offers that blend of beauty and horror."
She is also a Barbie collector of sorts, though sometimes a select doll will end up being a piece of art as opposed to something looking sweet sitting on the shelf. A tattoo of Barbie adorns one of Sexton's legs, and GI Joe occupies her left bicep as a tattoo as well.,
And Ken? Well, he doesn't rate as well as Barbie, nor do her friend Midge or younger sister Skipper. Barbie has had dozens of "friends" over the years, but few have been around for most of Barbie's life, which began in 1959.
"I did a Ken doll once," Sexton allows, "using his head as part of a victim for a Vlad the Impaler order. I didn't like it too much."
Barbie, however, is an endless source of inspiration. "My dog got ahold of one of the Barbies one day and shredded it. I was going to toss it, but then I thought: Wait! What can I do with a chewed up Barbie?"
A zombie was what first came to mind, and zombies worked well and remain popular for the special orders she receives.
"I've had many requests and I hand-design each one and sew all of the clothes by hand myself," Sexton says. "I won't use a sewing machine."
She describes what happens when, say, someone wants to order a "dead fairy" Barbie, a hot new design: "Someone contacts me via email or through Facebook/MySpace or directly at an exhibit or show and tells me they would like a doll in a certain style and we discuss what exactly they want. I sketch it out and give them a definite price. If they want to order that doll I charge 25% of the total price before work begins. I update them with pictures during the process of the doll-making, and the remaining balance is due when the doll is complete and just before it is either sent out or picked up."
Each doll takes about three to four days for Sexton to complete.
"Every doll includes its own metal stand, certificate and I offer free lifetime repair if any doll should need it. I've sent dolls out all over the world this way and it seems to work so far."
She adds that, yes, you can even play with the dolls: "They are strong enough to be thrown around."
An example of Sexton's work at alteredbarbies.com is "Mrs. Muffet: The Black Widow." It is noted that "Mrs. Muffet is a Fashionista Barbie doll who has had her head resculpted with polymer clay and now sports extra arachnid appendages. She remains fully posable so she can play with the other dolls. Her satiny webby dress and glowing glass bead accents were stitched and strung by hand."
Mrs. Muffet is pretty cool-looking, and if I had the money, I might give her a new home myself.
Sexton describes her home as being something unusual as well, noting that there are skulls of deceased critters here and there, among other things. "It is kind of like the Addams Family house." She laughs. "Birds frozen in nests, things like that."
There have been those who don't see the value of Sexton's art. "The LA Times said that it was profiteering on death and such and that it was morbid and creepy."
But Sexton shrugs off such criticisms, noting of her work, "It always leaves an impression."
She isn't about to change now, and in fact, is working to expand her catalog, so to speak, by working on dolls that are animatronics or stop motion. Her fianc, Dan, currently a sergeant in the US Army, is getting out soon, as he's tired of the life and wants to do something more creative than issuing orders.
"We're going to create stuff and live happily ever after," says this smiling woman who melts Barbie dolls in her oven.
To see more of Christy Sexton's art, check her Facebook and MySpace pages or the new website dollsanddeadthings.com, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Senior writer Jeff Berg appreciates the unique and unusual in Las Cruces.