From the outside, Allison Wonder’s Beaverton apartment looks ridiculously ordinary. The only clue that it’s something but Common is a sign by the door: “Always have friends who raise a few eyebrows.”
Inside, it’s a magical fairyland. Hundreds of dolls and their accessories line floor-to-ceiling shelves, on tables, and in every nook and cranny. It is a showcase of the incredible art of Allison Wonder.
“What I like most about dolls is that I can do almost anything I want. It’s just miniature,” Allison says. “I like to sew and build things, the sets and the furniture. So I can do all those things and I don’t have to answer to anyone!”
Allison’s main focus is on ball jointed dolls, known as BJD in the doll world. These are not children’s dolls you’d find in a toy store, these are finely crafted resin dolls, strung with elastic, created for collectors to style and personalize. And Allison personalizes in a very specific and recognizable way. Her look is well known in the Oregon doll community.
“I want the dolls to have a bit of character, they don’t have to be all pretty,” Allison says. “I love beautiful dolls and I have some beautiful dolls. And then I also have ones that have kind of buck teeth and big ears. They also have a bit of sadness. So there’s that kind of ‘rescue me’ feeling.”
He is particularly drawn to dolls which he describes as “creepy/cute”. And so he is very careful about whom he invites to visit. “I make sure they are not afraid of the dolls because this is not the place for them. Lots of eyes watching and observing everything.”
Growing up in rural Michigan, Allison was not allowed to have dolls, even though she always loved them. The only doll he managed to acquire as a child, a Ken doll, was lost when he was adopted out of foster care at age nine. Decades later, he remembered his love for dolls and vowed to win him back. “It took me a few decades to find my own footing and balance and really do the things that I enjoy. And I don’t have to hold back. I don’t have to apologize for anything. I can only do it. And I feel very lucky to be able to do that.”
In the world of dolls, Allison is revered for her meticulously crafted shoes and boots: tiny leather creations crafted with painstaking detail. “Lots of stitching, stacked leather heels, and an actual metal shank inside the boot,” Allison says. Fellow doll artist Jay Searle describes Allison’s boots as “little works of art. You can always feel the love in Allison’s creations.”
Allison’s most recent work is an elaborate space scene that includes a spaceship and a lunar surface. The star of the scene is a vampire astronaut named Vladamir. Vlad’s space suit took several days to sew, and the space helmet took over a week. But Vlad himself received modifications a while ago, replacing his original teeth with fangs. “I’ve always wanted a cute vampire. They don’t all have to look bad,” she says.
While working with her dolls, sewing their clothes, modifying their appearance, doing their makeup, Allison forms a bond. Her favorite part of her process is when a doll reveals her name. “They’re not whispering in my ear,” she says, “but my imagination kicks in. And suddenly this doll has a name. And then you have this whole story that’s coming up.”
And the dolls don’t just live in Allison’s apartment. He goes on regular field trips, setting up ornate pictures in woods and beaches, with accessories like small tire swings, beach chairs, and croquet sets. “I like to imagine that they are always happy to go on an adventure. And sometimes that can be a little difficult because I can’t handle everyone, so sometimes there are some sad faces. I’m like, ‘oh, they couldn’t go!’ But I try to get everyone out and as often as I can.”
As Allison sits at her sewing machine, surrounded on all sides by dolls, she reminisces about her childhood in Michigan. “I never would have thought this would be my life. It just happened. And it happened because I allowed it to happen. I don’t even know if my younger self would have been able to comprehend this, you know, you have a whole apartment full of dolls. And it’s like, ‘what? That’s crazy. But here we are!”