MARTINEZ -- Jan Depuy gently strokes the matted flaxen hair of a bedraggled porcelain doll. She examines Maryindiana's chipped paint and reassures a potential client that she can bring the doll -- that once belonged to the client's mother -- back to her pristine self.

"I don't manhandle the dolls," says Depuy, a Martinez resident, who for nearly three decades has meticulously restored dolls dating back to the 1880s -- and is among a diminishing group of artisans with these skills.

"People find doll people. You don't have to find them," she says, noting the receipt of shipments of dolls needing repairs from overseas.

On this particular day, a quick look on the back of the doll's neck reveals its manufacturer, and that the doll was made in the early 1930s.

The client's own eyes well up when Depuy says she can adjust the doll's lids to open and shut again and replace its crier. The restoration feels like a deep honoring of her mother, long deceased.

Depuy is accustomed to treating a client and a damaged doll with a kind heart and kid gloves.

"(The doll) might signify their happy place. So many things are emotionally connected with them, with a life that can kick them in the gut, and when they (leave the store), the doll looks like she looked when they were a child," she says. "I don't want to take a doll apart in front of someone. It does something to their psyche."


Advertisement

Depuy lovingly tends to Lucy Anne, an 1800s-era China Head with a torso of goat skin that was a customer's great-grandmother's doll. She has baked sawdust she collected from local woodshops in a 200-degree oven overnight to "kill off any parasites," before stuffing the doll's interior. Delicate cotton knitting she found in Washington state will be used to mend tears in her dress.

Currently, roughly 200 dolls in various states of disrepair are lying in wait for Depuy's gentle touch. She will spend hours on each one, sanding, airbrushing, custom-mixing from more than 200 paints to create an exact match, and repacking the doll torsos so their bodies will have integrity and no longer slump.

A 31-inch Kestner doll that was "smoke damaged to no end" in a fire on Brown Street in Martinez is among those in need of her care. Depuy is working to revive the treasured figure that the client's grandfather -- who operated a doll hospital in San Francisco -- gave to her, making her wig from locks from his granddaughter's hair.

Depuy will contact a chemist she knows in Maine, who will mix a compound to clean up the oily soot.

Meanwhile, Depuy tells Maryindiana's owner that she also will replace the doll's missing arm with a matching one retrieved from her "morgue," a room in the back of the Martinez store that houses dismantled bodies, countless appendages, wigs, eyes of all sizes, neck buttons and rows of porcelain heads.

She frequents doll shows, antique shops and secondhand stores to find such doll parts.

"I buy antique boots wherever I go," she adds, also noting trips she takes to the California Millinery to find vintage hats, or papier-mache or gilded flowers.

The Alhambra Avenue storefront of Nature's Way -- signifying "from the earth" -- brims with sizable samples of the 1,000 dolls Depuy has collected and more than 700 she has made. They herald from 40 countries and historic periods from the Civil War era, the boudoir dolls of the 1920s, the rare celluloid "flirt" dolls -- with their eyes moving alluringly back and forth -- to the more recent models.

"It has to do with an eye (for detail). I have to like it to add it to my collection. My dolls have to talk to me," she says.

She describes the trips to the Los Angeles garment district where she procures silks, satins and wools to dress the dolls in their historically accurate attire.

"I wear myself out till I can't even walk," she says.

Other more spontaneous trips through the countryside have turned up bags of shorn wool from sheep she admired on a hillside; the sun just hitting it to highlight auburn undertones that were the ideal shade for a doll wig to be used in an upcoming doll making class.

She discovered a taxidermist in Arizona who agreed to raise white pigeons for the wings of the 24-inch animated angels for a doll-making workshop that attracted students from across the country.

"I have just a thimble full of Jan's knowledge," says Lori Hanson, an Isleton resident who used to repair porcelain dolls and now attends Depuy's weekly class.

"Ask her anything about a doll, anything, and she'll tell you," adds Hanson.

Her students are drawn to Depuy's encouraging teaching style and an expertise she has honed, being largely self-taught and constantly researching, including poring over a library of an estimated 2,000 books in her collection.

"I told my husband to just bury me with a doll book," Depuy says with a lilting giggle that is a favorite trait for her students.

Antioch resident Jeannie Mullen has been studying with Depuy for 13 years.

"It's her laughter, just the atmosphere she brings to this room. It's pure joy," Mullen says.

Nature's Way Doll Centre is located at 1616 Alhambra Ave. in Martinez. Call 925-228-5263.

Online extra
Scan this code with a smartphone to view a slideshow about the doll hospital or look online at http://photos.mercurynews.com/2012/11/18/jan-depuy-makes-life-like-dolls-in-martinez/