Selvedge Johanna Flanagan circus softies

Selvedge – Johanna Flanagan

The reason that Johanna Flanagan’s dolls captivate is because you can’t quite work out whether to be spooked or charmed. The question hangs in the air and keeps you pondering. by Susan Hurley

Some of the more waif-like figures seem to implore you to pick them up and protect them, while other wonky-eyed, naked dolls chill you with their vacant gazes and ghostly presence. Either way, your focus remains fixed on these ethereal creatures, and that has to be the mark of true artistic success.

Selvedge Johanna Flanagan circus softies dolls

Learn hand appliqué!

“I’m generally more attracted to things that fall somewhere between one world and another – things that are mysterious or never quite revealed,” says Johanna. “I am fascinated by the point where a piece of cloth becomes a character with its own ‘soul’. Someone once described my dolls as looking like they’d been frozen at the point of being transformed from one thing to another. It’s not that I aim to create a sense of foreboding or suspense in my work; it’s more that I am drawn to a point of transformation that creates that sense.”

Unquestionably, the eeriest element of the designs is the missing or mismatched eyes – the thing of nightmares for many. But this has varying responses, according to Johanna: “Some people are very drawn to it and some people are completely terrified by it. I think it comes back to my interest in the point where one thing changes into another – where beautiful becomes frightening, and vice versa.”

Selvedge Johanna Flanagan circus softies dolls

There’s also circus-clown references, with ruffed collars and striped stockings and garments. But those dolls seem spent – exhausted from the performance of life itself, just waiting to be revitalised. Meanwhile, they sit mutely staring back at you with a sadly haunted look on their hand-painted faces. Again, Johanna is much more pragmatic about these references than this particular viewer, putting their appearance down to her background in dance, rather than a forlorn story the dolls have to tell. “I think that being a dancer from a young age, I have a real love for performance and costume,” she says. “I don’t often add clothing to my dolls, but the ruffled collars definitely add a bit of a performance context without looking too dressed up.”

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Selvedge - Johanna Flanagan

Some of that theatricality must also be attributed to Johanna’s work in museum costuming. Her profession base of Glasgow, Scotland, has a network of museums that call on her design prowess to produce costumes for their exhibitions and events (she has a Masters Degree in fashion design from the Royal College of Art and an Honours Degree in textiles). Most are historical interpretations or replicas, and lots of her hand-sewing techniques for the dolls are extensions of her historical work.

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Johanna is intrigued by the disparate responses people have to the same doll – some will see sadness, others fearlessness, vulnerability or drama. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, she thinks. As to her own thoughts: “I would describe my work as intimate and elemental. There’s a primal quality about the dolls – they look like they’ve been around for an incredibly long time. I think every one of them is a self-portrait in one way or another.”

Selvedge Johanna Flanagan circus softies dolls

For more information about Johanna Flanagan, visit The Pale Rook at

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