Flynn Bickley’s Soulfully Silly, Deadly Serious Dolls

With little hands and feet molded out of Sculpey and features rendered in cartoonish proportions, Flynn Bickley’s dolls hark back to marionette puppets of Eastern Europe or vintage children’s toys—but with a twist. Whether produced as a series telling a story or as inspired one-offs, Bickley’s dolls are very much about adult things: Drunken mermaids, animal-human hybrids, dolls literally holding their dicks in their hands. Each figure unfolds its miniature tableaux addressing gender identity, genitalia and food in ways soulfully silly, messy and deadly serious.

Bickley moved into his South Park home five years ago. Out back, he’s built out a small studio that overlooks a chicken coop, a thriving vegetable patch and an old metal tub overflowing with dappled pitcher plants and Sarracenia stretching slender, tubular necks towards unwitting flies. Not far away there’s the steady rush of cars on 99, rolling like unrelenting waves against the shore. Bickley currently splits his time between his studio here and his job at Second Use, a company dedicated to salvaging and reclaiming building materials for reuse in the Puget Sound area.

Born in the Bay Area, Bickley’s family moved to the Northwest when he was eleven, settling in Ellensburg. After studying sculpture and Spanish at Central Washington University, he moved to Olympia and later to Seattle, where he’s lived for the past ten years.

The home is filled with work by friends and colleagues: A Justin Gibbens painting. A print made by his father, who was a painter and technical illustrator. One of his newest acquisitions is a roly-poly punk doll by Sonja Peterson, who covers vintage baby dolls with nylon and stuffing to populate her uncanny world. Shelves are populated with books about his other passion: chickens. Chicken Tractor? “You want to keep your chickens in a coop,” Bickley says. “Ours run free range, but if you need to transport them, it’s a way to move chickens easily.”

 “Look out for chicken poop!” he advises as we step out of the kitchen and into the backyard and make our way to the studio.

“The sewing machine was my mom’s,” Bickley says as he takes us over the threshold. “It’s probably older than me. She gifted it to me because she wasn’t using it much. She taught me to do some things on it, but I’m not a seamstress or seamster at all. I just sort of figure it out as I go.”

“This one is going to be a rug, a Bare Skin Rug,” Bickley says, laughing. He has been making dolls since he was at CWU in the late ’90s.

“I remember specifically: Over one winter break I was housesitting for a couple in Ellensburrg. It was kind of rural, remote, an elk sanctuary. I was enjoying the solitude and wanting to make some Christmas presents. I decided to make dolls for my family—that was my first doll. For a few years I continued to make them casually for friends and family as gifts. Then in the past five years or so I realized how much I enjoy it. It’s intimate, it’s fun and I don’t need a lot of space to do it. Addressing themes of being a transgender person is something I really like. I tend to think of my dolls as transgender dolls. They don’t really necessarily have to be male or female. It’s something that really resonates with my personal and creative life.”

“I’m experimenting with a series that are based on trophies. The thought behind it is rewarding bad behavior—not a trophy for best runner or kicker, but, say, a chicken bingo trophy. Sort of crass. I have a base sense of humor sometimes.”

The dolls’ heads, hands and feet are hand-formed out of Sculpey, an oven-bake polymer clay, then painted with acrylic. The bodies are fabric filled with beans and tiny dowels for limbs.

“That’s how I did it until recently,” Bickley says. “I went to a convention for the National Institute of American Doll Artists where I took a doll body making workshop and learned how to make articulated limbs better. My technique is evolving. Between the sewing, painting and sculpting it probably takes about twenty-four hours per doll. At this point I keep pretty busy with commissions.”

A few surreal, life-size impressions of chests are hanging around the studio, tucked into corners. Painted shades of fleshy pink, their areolae melt into half-open, downturned lips.

“Those are my breasts and mouth rendered in clay,” Bickley says. “I was diagnosed with an eating disorder. It was me exploring my relationship to my body in my early 20s, and this was from a series I made in school examining that.”

Bickley unwraps a doll stowed on a shelf in a box labeled “Legendary Drunk.” Inside is a scallop-clad mermaid perched on a rock, surrounded by a bevy of empty booze bottles. Her tail is a meticulous ombre armor of sequins dissolving from emerald to deepest sea-blue. Materials are sourced from all over: fabrics from thrift stores, old t-shirts or leather swatches from the fabric store.

“Sequins of course I buy online because those don’t exactly turn up as much,” he says. “But for the rest of it, I’ll even dumpster dive. Wherever the opportunity is. I get a lot of material from Second Use too—a lot of weird stuff.”

“My sketchbooks are filled with the usual suspects: chickens and unicorns, the fetishy or symbolic things in everybody’s lives. I don’t sketch nearly as much as I used to.”

As for Bickley’s most recent fascination—his chickens—he’s been raising those for about two years now.

“They have lots of room to roam here with the added benefit for me of a continual supply of eggs!” he says. “They’re interesting creatures, meditative to watch. I did have to kill some of them earlier this year.” Not to worry: Bickley turned the experience into art. “I made a doll about role reversal,” he says, grinning mischievously. “In this scenario, it was the chicken who was killing the person!”