How We Got Stuck Together

Detail from (In)/Animate Objects Panel #1, 2019,  photo: Track 16

Whether it’s disintegrating dolls, mutant ceramic bunnies, or rescue animal pinups, the artists of Stuck Together: Marsian De Lellis, Simone Gad, Debra Broz, playfully handcraft responses to mass-produced objects and images charged with autobiographical fragments. Join me on a virtual tour, where we can survey the work for context…


The pieces I’m showing are comprised of decaying handmade dolls from the (In)/ Animate Objects collection. I’m presenting dolls in three formats: stuck together on a rectilinear slab, exposed on a wall grid, and entombed in a glass display case.

“(In)/Animate Objects Panel #1”, 2019, photo: Track 16,
fabric and thread, hand sewn with mixed media on wood panel, 66″ x 55″ x 11″

Upon entering Track 16, the viewer is assaulted by a large-scale panel swarming with a clusterfuck of dolls. For (In)/Animate Objects Panel #1, I have covered a wood structure with quilting upon which I have sutured more than a thousand diminutive dolls from the collection. Franken-stitched together, the dolls have endured a lengthy evolutionary process before settling into their current format, but we’ll get into that.

Who or what is the panel auditioning for?

The corporate buyer of a children’s hospital for the criminally insane? The McBathroom of an investment collecting oil tycoon with a dark side? Or the centerpiece in the midlife crisis of an underemployed contemporary artist in a last ditch effort to be taken seriously?

“Wall Dolls, Nos. A-1 to I-31”, 2019, photo: Track 16
Fabric and thread, hand sewn with mixed media.

Adjacent to the panel are two walls adorned with 279 dolls. Evenly spaced in a grid consisting of 31 columns and 9 rows, Wall Dolls, Nos. A-1 to I-31 range from primitive to elaborate. Each occupies its own space, where one at a time, the consumer may consider their flawed embodiment – from crooked smiles to walleyed gazes – or speculate on assorted assembly line imperfections.

As I arranged them, I imagined a hazmat-donned team of archeologists excavating ancient hoarder artifacts extracted from a condemned dwelling that somehow survived a nuclear apocalypse. How might anthropologists construct these relics for a natural history museum of the future that’s palpable to a shell-shocked public already contemplating their own impermanence?

The taxonomy design forms an alternative logic to the organizational principles of genus and species where small mutations (shifts in hair, complexion, texture, dress pattern, degree of damage, and scale) differentiate one doll from the next.

The formation creeps around the corner from floor to ceiling. It simultaneously wants to be a wallpaper for the nearsighted, an insta-backdrop for morbid social media starlets, and an adoption agency in which each doll vies for the viewer’s attention with the intensity of a pound puppy at an all-kill animal shelter.

Opposite the second wall, a display case contains 29 specimens. Seven of the collection’s larger-format pieces hang in the back of this transparent vault that functions somewhere between doll hospice and mass grave. Resting in its bed are 21 of the most at-risk, damaged dolls. Glass and steel protect these precious commodities from completely crumbling and the viewer from contamination (an emotional half life radiates from their every fiber). These dolls have been loved… Too loved.

I have gone to great lengths to simulate the wear and tear of actual deterioration processes: the dolls have been oven-baked, burned, singed, stained, sanded, scraped, buried in dirt underground for prolonged periods, run over by a friend’s PT Cruiser, left in the sun, and treated with chemical agents – evidence that they have been used.

Case Doll #13, photo: Track 16
fabric and thread, hand sewn with mixed media, 3”x 2” x 1.50”,

All that remains of Case Doll #13 is a decomposing face, held together by just a few remaining fibers. Riddled with fabric fissures, its poly contents have all but completely prolapsed from beneath the ooze of emulsified tears.

(In)/Animate Objects, 2016, photo: Alex Griffin

(In)/Animate Objects History

I began mass producing the dolls in 2015 when I was awarded the COLA (City of Los Angeles) Individual Artist Fellowship.  In the original installation at LAMAG (Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery), a mountain of decaying rag dolls towered to the ceiling, upon which their maker, the grandmother, presided from the throne of her wingback chair. But it didn’t start quite there…

Object of Her Affection, 2014, Automata, Los Angeles, Photo: Rafael Hernandez

The installation was the second half of a diptych. Its companion, Object of Her Affection, was a solo puppetry performance focused on a woman, who in her search for true love develops intimate relationships with inanimate objects.

The performance charted Andrea Lowe, an Object Sexual and her life of heartbreak from the loss of her baby blanket to doomed romances with monumental structures. Whether it was nature or nurture that made Andrea an Object Sexual, she happened to be raised by someone who also shared a complicated relationship with things – her grandmother.

Object of Her Affection, (excerpt), 2014, REDCAT, Los Angeles

In the original iteration of the installation, (In)/Animate Objects, years have passed since Andrea fell from Roy, a crumbling tenement she was in love with. In sorrow, her grandmother has amassed thousands of rag dolls that testify to the insatiable need for love at the heart of the obsessional life.

But back to the fall of 2015 – I posted photos from an initial batch of dolls I whipped up for a curator visit. They were spotted by Sharon Challenger, areal life grandmother from Connecticut and a long-time collaborator with a sick sense of humor, who immediately wanted to enable me. So I mailed some patterns and fabric and polyfill across the country. Sharon’s enthusiasm was infectious. It wasn’t long before a pop-up community of helpers formed not only here in Los Angeles or there in Connecticut, but beyond in Louisville, Brooklyn, Boston, Providence, and even as far as Amsterdam.

Our process appropriated aspects of quilting bees: As our hands collectively stitched irregularities, our minds contemplated the contagion of identity: a repetition of a repetition for which there is no original. Debra Broz (creator of The White Rabbit series in Stuck Together) even volunteered to sew. We stayed in. We listened to breaking news. We gossiped. We ordered pizza. We got needle sticks (and lovingly rubbed our blood into their faces).

Marsian De Lellis, 2016, Los Angeles, Photo: William Short Photography

We made over 1,248 dolls for that first exhibit. And after I lost count, because I never really stopped making them. But every time I work with the dolls I see my collaborators reflected back in every fiber of every miniature distressed body, indelibly embroidered into my mind’s eye.

(In)/Animate Objects opening at LAMAG, 2016, video Alex Griffin

While there have been other projects since (In)/Animate Objects, I never really stopped making the dolls. Louise Bourgeois once said, 

“the act of sewing is a process of emotional repair.”  

It was an entire year after the COLA Fellowship Exhibition and after experiencing a devastating breakup I found myself back at it – stitching again.  I had already moved on to writing my next body of work, Model Killer and premiering Object of Her Affection, but I still had a lot of leftover materials from the initial production period and well-wishers continued to donate yarn, fabric, faster than I could use it. I was running out of room in my small apartment and storage space.  And I wanted to fully honor people’s efforts – my mom had sewn button eyes and cut them out and they were just sitting in a box unused next to hundreds of dress pattern pieces that were pinned together. I didn’t want everyone’s effort to go to waste, so I kept working (solo this time) and the dolls kept multiplying and getting more complicated.

2019, video: Anna Dale / Angeleno Stories

Restoration Anxiety

The White Rabbits, 2019, Image: Debra Broz

I met Debra Broz in 2014 at a business seminar for the arts. We both shared a deep connection with objects and immediately became interested in each other’s work. Trained as a ceramics restorer, Debra makes fantastical creatures – they are really three-dimensional sculptural collages using harvested body parts from the cadavers of her figurine collection as source material. But Debra expertly glues them back together, with the precision of a plastic surgeon sanding them down so they have clean even surfaces as if they had been manufactured in the unusual ways she reassembles them.  I’ve loved watching her work evolve as it has become more complex and refined. After the seminar we stayed in touch and it had always been on the back burner to find a way to show our work together.

I was introduced to Track 16’s director, Sean Meredith, over a decade ago through a puppet artist i became the assistant of at an residency in Florida. Sean approached me a couple of years ago to talk about the possibility of showing at Track 16 after attending my performances and viewing my installations.

Last fall we plotted more concrete plans for showing my work at Track 16. Since the dolls from the (In)/Animate Objects collection had already been seen three times in L.A. at LAMAG, LACE and in the windows of Automata, we wanted to show them in an entirely new way. They had always been shown in a mountain or pile configuration – one on top of another.  But every time I would take the dolls out to organize them, I wished the viewer had more of a chance to consider each one individually like I did. And so that’s where the idea for the wall installation came about where each doll had its own point of focus.

2019, video: Anna Dale / Angeleno Stories

During one of our meetings, Sean mentioned that he had selected Simone Gad for the March 16 – May 11 slot in the main gallery space. Simone is a former child actor and outsider artist who has deep roots in the L.A. art community. I knew her on a personal level – I kept running into her at art openings and we had mutual friends –  but was less familiar with her work. As soon as Sean showed me book pages in which Simone had painted animal portraits on top of vintage pinups, I was immediately hooked.

We talked about the idea of showing something doll-related in the entry spaces, with Simone in the main gallery, but we still needed someone for the back space. So naturally I thought of Debra whose work Sean had been eying. He asked what I thought about the idea of being part of a three person exhibition called, “Stuck Together”.

I had to think about it. Why would Simone, Debra and I be “stuck together”? What if we got a horrible review and some critic or internet troll said we were “slapped together”? I didn’t feel so much stuck as I was thrilled to be together, my head spinning with possibilities. Plus, wouldn’t it sound more empowering if we had each elected to be put together because we liked each other’s work? I guess, but that seems too long for title.

I thought about how all three of us create  handmade responses to mass-produced images and objects: The dolls I made for the exhibition are handmade versions of the Raggedy Ann. Simone uses found images of vintage pinups to paint on. Debra uses mass-produced ceramic collectables that she finds and alters.

We re-contextualize these mass-produced images and objects using some level of repurposing, collage, or assemblage (actually sticking things together).  We also make images and objects with a history, or that show some kind of evidence of use – there’s ceramic scars, doodles and mark making on top of printed material, damage and decaying fabric.  We all use anthropomorphic imagery – animals that are almost cartoon-like, representations of bodies. It also seems like there’s a sense of joy or playfulness in all three and a heightened level of obsessiveness.   

2018, Simone Gad

A friend named Anna Dale from Angeleno Stories interviewed me at the opening and I in turn wanted to interview Debra and Simone. After talking with Simone more, I realized that there’s also the thread of autobiographical elements woven throughout all three of our works.  It turns out in Simone’s case, all of the pinup images she selects are really reflections of stories from her life. Or – the pinups become an avatar for her to project her own story on to.

I work similarly.  I’ll often start with a real person in an extreme situation who catches my attention from a tabloid, or reality show like, My Strange Addiction, or something salacious found in my newsfeed. I think about the material and what I find relatable about it.  But I also find that there’s more truth in fiction and more reality in the artificial so these stories become a proxy for me to weave my own story into. I was initially inspired to explore Object Sexuality for Object of Her Affection when I happened to find a striking clip of a woman making love to an amusement park ride. Debra’s ceramic figurines are related to her origin story and a mythical creatures she imagined in her childhood. When I look over Debra’s artist statement, I keep telling her that she should push a fragility narrative – that the cracks in the ceramics could represent the fragility in her own life… But in reality she’s the opposite –  tough as nails.

What I’m working on now

Model Killer: Giant Crimes & Tiny Cover-Ups, 2019, Photo: Marsian De Lellis

I have embarked on an entirely new body of work, starting with the performance installation, Model Killer: Giant Crimes + Tiny Cover-ups.  The story is centered on a disgruntled dollhouse maker turned investigator who makes models of unsolved murders only for it to be revealed that she is in fact a serial killer, herself.  

In Model Killer, I am creating a universe in which I invite the viewer to reconsider female serial killers, the historically feminine craft of miniatures, and murder as entertainment. In the final form, I will guide viewers through darkened rooms filled with dollhouses, dioramas, performing objects, puppets, and miniature sets which I will activate, so they can be witness to giant crimes and tiny cover-ups.

Formally and conceptually, I am also interested in dismantling the idea of models merely as scaled-down representations of physical space, but sites to examine abstract concepts unencumbered by their epic scope or emotional weight. I want to make models that materialize immaterial ideas like capitalism or ghosting, or apathy – something not so concrete.  I’ve been thinking about how to make these ephemeral ideas become represented in a three dimensional model?

After the opening at Track 16, I began a two week Development + Research Residency for Model Killer at Automata where I continued to write, design and rehearse the content for an initial public viewing.

There are some similarities between Model Killer and the dolls I’m showing at Track 16. Both bodies of work stem from performances with puppets that narrativize obsessional lives. Both are forms of autobiography that celebrate the stories of people from the margins in which I combine autobiographical material with the biographies of unconventional people to make my own personal struggles comprehensible. Both work in formats (dollmaking and miniatures) that are seen through gendered lenses that I am also questioning.

Model Killer
Bisected Dollhouse Research Image, 2017, photo: Marsian De Lellis

I’m looking forward to talking with Simone, Debra, and Marcus about the work we make and what drives us at Track 16 on Thursday, Aprill 11 at 7PM.

Stuck Together: Marsian De Lellis, Simone Gad, Debra Broz runs through May 11th at Track 16. Visiting hours are 12-6PM Wednesday through Saturday and by appointment only.