Isobel – an ‘art doll’ by Johanna Flanagan


It was by pure chance that I discovered Johanna Flanagan’s Instagram account, ‘The Pale Rook’, a few weeks ago and immediately started ‘following’ her.  I was intrigued by her work. The next day she posted an image of Isobel – an ‘art doll’ – the central character in an exhibition entitled ‘The Book of Secrets’ at The Tighnabruaich Gallery in Argyll, Scotland.

I was captivated by the image of Isobel – so much so that I telephoned the gallery to enquire about her.   I was unable to get to this experiential exhibition which sounded unusual and appealed to my interest in folklore, magic and storytelling.  So I did something I rarely do and bought Isobel without physically seeing her.  From the photographs that the gallery sent I could tell she was quite unique.

Isobel is exquisitely handmade and hand-stitched from cloth, linen and silk fabrics, with a fitted patchwork of softly patterned autumnal shades covering her body.  She has long soft, supple limbs, slightly large feet, beautiful hands, twisted strands of silken pale hair sewn in circlets to her scalp and the most hauntingly expressive face.

To describe her simply as a ‘doll’ is an injustice and does her and her maker a disservice.  She is an absolute work of art.  Hours of love and emotion have clearly gone into her making and consequently she has a powerful presence.  Otherworldly, thoughtful, a little sad, yet possessing an air of calm acceptance, she meets your eye with a soulful expression that is quite enchanting and fixes you with her intense gaze.  She is definitely trying to communicate something. When I am near her I feel I am in the presence of a ‘faery child’ or ‘changeling’. I awake each morning half expecting her to be gone.

As makers and artists we all put something of ourselves into all our work and I believe that, in our best pieces, we reveal more than we might intend so that they stand almost as self-portraits. I do not know Johanna but I believe she must be a person of great depth to be capable of creating such a work.  Perhaps she has known sadness and struggled with self-doubt, as many of us do at different stages of our lives.  Is it this that I see reflected in Isobel’s face?

I wonder if it is by drawing from this emotional ‘well’ that Johanna has found the wherewithal to ‘conjure’ these otherworldly ‘dolls’ – part human, part sprite, part animal, part creature of the night – and that is why they are so special: Because each one reflects a facet of their maker and each therefore has a story to tell.  They are infused with the power of self-discovery, caught at a point of transformation and thus capture and embody the ability we all possess to use our creativity to find ourselves, to move forward and help ourselves heal.   This is where the real magic lies.