10 questions with Sonia Singh, the artist behind the Tree Change Dolls


Kate Lyons

Meet the Tree Change Dolls (photo: treechangedolls.tumblr.com)

Meet the Tree Change Dolls (photo: treechangedolls.tumblr.com)

Eleven days ago, Tasmanian artist Sonia Singh, 34, posted pictures of an art project to her Tumblr. The project, Tree Change Dolls, showed Bratz dolls she had "rescued" from op-shops after they had been given "make-unders". Within two days, her dolls had gone viral and were featured on news sites across the globe. As the dust settles after what Sonia calls a "really funny week", she chatted to Daily Life about her project and the astounding reaction to it.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up with my four sisters in Tasmania playing outdoors a lot and most of our toys were second-hand. I'm an illustrator and a science communicator. I was made redundant from CSIRO in September last year, so that's when my doll project - which is what I was calling it - started.

2. Where did the idea come from?


Now that I have my own daughter [who is almost two], I'm collecting toys I find in op-shops with her in mind. I see a lot of these dolls discarded in the op-shops and I buy them [for between 50 cents and $2] and see what I can do with them. Part of the satisfaction for me is taking something discarded and making it into something useful again. I did one recently that had been drawn on by a kid; it had biro all over the face. I've actually tried to work with that and so it has lots of freckles.

3. How many dolls have you made-under?

When I first posted the pictures, which was 11 days ago, I'd just done 12. I've had all these offers to buy them, but there are only 12 dolls! I've only just yesterday started painting some more dolls, because I've been flooded with emails and… I only have limited child-free time, so I'm trying to stock up to open my Etsy store. I'm not going to be able to fulfill all the demand out there, but part of what this project is about is inspiring others to see what you can do with second-hand toys and to get creative with your old toys as well.

4. Tell us about the name 'Tree Change Dolls'.

I wanted to think of a nice name to call them that reflected my childhood. It's appropriate because I had a bit of a tree change myself. I grew up here in Tassie, but I moved to Canberra and Melbourne for work, but then I met my partner and we wanted to start a family and we decided to relocate to Tasmania for that reason.

5. How long does each make-under take?

I'm getting pretty good at the process of painting the faces. I'll do a few dolls' faces at a time and that takes me a few hours. So, for example, yesterday I finished three dolls' faces and started another three. The face is the major change, but more time goes into making the clothes and doing the hair. Also, a lot of the dolls I'm using have snap on-and-off feet and a lot of the ones I buy from the tip shops, the feet have been lost. I've been experimenting with different ways of moulding new feet for these dolls.

6. Bratz dolls are pretty controversial. What are your feelings on them?

I can only speak from my experience as a child playing with dolls and Bratz were not around then, but I played with a variety of different, mostly second-hand dolls, and there was a place for more made-up dolls. I think there's a place for a variety of different dolls, but it does seem that I've highlighted that maybe there is this gap in the market.

7. Tell me about the reaction to your Tumblr.

When I started my doll project, I was a bit ashamed to be playing with dolls as a 34-year-old. But I told my partner about my idea and he really encouraged me and convinced me to make a Tumblr. I only started the Tumblr on January 15. Two days later, I realised 'Okay, this has gone viral', and I was getting media requests from all over the world – Germany, France, Finland, Canada, the US, UK and Australia, of course.

8. What has your reaction been?

It's been really weird. But I've had immediate things, like a toddler that I needed to focus on. So I've mostly just been going about my normal life and then when she goes to bed, my partner and I go through emails and requests. It's been a really funny week; I think it's only just sinking in now.

9. Why do you think the project has resonated with people?

It's really brought up a lot of different issues. I've been contacted by a lot of mothers from all over the world who want to find dolls that they are happy to give their children. I got a really sweet email from a mother in one of the Latin American countries saying she has a son and she would like him to grow up in a world where these kinds of dolls are valuable to girls and she talked about the perception of women in her country. I think it's something that concerns all parents. I'm really happy that my work has not just inspired people in terms of dolls and toys, but opened some discussions about issues to do with women in society.

I've had a few really nice emails from children. I had a really nice email from two little girls in Vienna who said I had inspired them to have a go themselves to create their own dolls. I think that's lovely.

10. When can we expect the Etsy store?

The plan is in the next couple of weeks I'll put a batch [of dolls] on Etsy, and after that I plan to put up batches at regular intervals. They'll come with a before and after picture and a set of clothes and the price will vary depending on the doll, because some of them take more work than others.

[all images via treechangedolls.tumblr.com]