Anima ex Manus (Doll Artist)

Anima ex Manus: An Interview with Ioanna Tsouka


Ioanna Tsouka is probably one of the most grounded artists I know. For those of you who know her personally, I’m certain at some point you have been inspired by Ioanna’s driven and informed outlook on life’s challenges. Her passion to understand the world in her quest to exact much-needed change is akin to a candle casting light in the darkness. Anger, resentment, and hatred, after all, tend to disappear when one makes a serious attempt to understand the unfathomable. Much in the same way she conveys her understanding of the ways of the world, Ioanna has a way of portraying dark elements within her dolls wrapped with a veil of optimism...of hope - a light that stirs even the darkest of souls. When I observe her dolls’ expressive and pleading eyes with their intricately beautiful and delicate Victorian ensembles, I cannot help but associate them with their maker’s emboldened presence. It’s impossible to look at them without seeing Ioanna in each and every one of them.

Ioanna doesn’t identify herself as an artist, instead thinking of herself as more of a means for her dolls to come to life. The combined stories she and her collectors tell about each doll - a collective sharing of realities - further breathes life into them.

I had the opportunity to ask Ioanna some questions about her art and her life as a (non)artist.

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What is the most challenging part about creating your artwork?

I would say time, definitely. Late nights, tight deadlines and little sleep, having to juggle between my demanding morning job, making dolls and the inevitable practicalities of life. I also tend to work on multiple dolls/projects at a time (otherwise I get really bored just waiting for layers of clay to dry without doing something else on the side) which slows things down even more, so, my doll room is always chaotic – strangely enough, though, I love entering this mess.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

People I work with in the morning are usually surprised to find out I make dolls, and, respectively, people that connect with me via my dolls are surprised to learn that I’m working in a school during the day. Apart from being a maker of dolls, I’m also a teacher for children with disability, as well as a researcher. My research interests include models of disability, human rights, equality, inclusive education and critical pedagogy. I’m very concerned about disablement, the ways and reasons why society disables people. Disability is something imposed, a social construction that covers up society’s inability to provide and shifts the responsibility on the disabled person, leading to people being unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. I also used to sing and play the guitar, professionally, for about 6 years, but right now I really don’t have the time to perform – although I do that at home from time to time, whenever I really need to vent! I love all of these occupations equally, and while it can be very stressful at times, they’re crucial to my sanity.

Can you tell me a bit more about the artistic process you follow when creating your artwork?

I’m quite intuitive when it comes to making my dolls. I‘ll rarely sketch out my ideas, maybe I’ll write a word or two on a post-it note, on my operating table, and that’s that. I prefer to jump right into the actual making (building the armature, sculpting, sanding, painting, sewing the clothes, etc.), letting the dolls’ stories emerge as I work. I also accompany my dolls with a story, which I always leave last, when the doll has finally come together as a whole piece. Often, my dolls turn out differently than I had originally imagined, but letting the doll guide me is one of the aspects that I find fascinating in doll-making.

Any particular artists you admire or inspires you?

There are so many influential and inspirational artists out there that I admire! I’ll mention the dreamy work of Sam Crow, the gorgeous dolls of Yovanka Black, the intensity of Klaudia Gaugier’s dolls, Scott Radke’s magical creatures, Amber Leilani Middleton’s swamp witches, Kelly Chehardy’s (Majestic Thorns) detailed characters, Myriam Powell’s colourful dolls, Lulu Lancaster’s emotional wrecks…I could go on and on, I admire so many diverse works of art, anything that captures my eye and heart, anything emotion-evoking and thought-provoking.

I love the connection that my work creates between me and the world, the people that provide loving homes for my dolls and everyone that supports and encourages my endeavours.
What's the best piece of advice you've been given?

That there is no “best piece of advice” or “recipes”! You just have to immerse yourself into whatever it is you’re creating, listen to your heart and stay authentic, true to who you really are.

Most challenging part about being an artist?

I wouldn’t know. I never use this title to refer to myself; it bears certain burden and expectations. My dolls work as a perfect means of expression and communication for me and I just wish I can continue to be creative and share what I make with people.

Why do you think there is a growing interest in macabre art?

I think there has always been a place for it; it was always where I’d personally find myself getting lost in. Morbid curiosity has been a research subject for many biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists: the basic claim is that the more disturbing, gore or even “disgusting” what we see is, we become most attentive and are able to remember the content better. There’s a quite accurate explanation by M. Stevens, using a mnemonic strategy that goes like this: “We like disturbing things because we like to SCREAM. They give us Strength, Catharsis, Reality, Exploration And Meaning.” I think this attraction to macabre art is a subconscious desire to experience someone else’s suffering, but remaining physically safe. There’s reportedly an inherent attraction to darkness, and when we encounter it, we simply can’t look away.

Any future plans you intend to pursue with your artwork?

As my dolls are usually characters (rather than just decorative objects), I’m planning on making a stop-motion animated film. I’d love to see them animated, coming to life, combining stories and music as well. It’s a very demanding and time-consuming project, but it’s something that has been in my mind for quite a long time now, and I feel ready to take the next step.

This is sort of just a fun question for readers to get to know you better :) What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of vampires?

The first thing that comes to my mind is a new doll! I love the classics, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Max Schreck, and now I’m already thinking about what my doll’s face would be like, the colours palette I would use, the fabrics I would choose…Oh, thanks so much for the inspiration! (Now, where did I put that post-it note to write it down…)

What would you do differently if you knew that no one was judging or watching you?

Nothing. I value authenticity and honesty, so, in the process of creating my dolls, I just stay true to myself. I love the connection that my work creates between me and the world, the people that provide loving homes for my dolls and everyone that supports and encourages my endeavours. I’m truly grateful. I like to think that it’s a magic thing: when my work resonates with people on a deeply emotional, almost subconscious level, leaving space for interpretation through the metaphors and symbolisms that I integrate in my dolls and stories, it feels as if we're all weaving our most well-hidden secrets into the fabric of this world, each one telling their own tales and narratives, and altogether telling a bigger story. Listening to my heart and being true throughout the whole process definitely guides me towards where I aim to go. 

What terrifies you the most?

Looking back on my life and regretting not doing something. Broken dreams and lost wishes. I want to have memories and not regrets about dreams I didn’t follow.

Has there ever been a time when you felt uninspired or felt like quitting? If so, how did you overcome this set-back?

Reflecting upon the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of my work with dolls, I constantly doubt myself and sometimes I feel discouraged, that’s for sure. For example, I’ve had quite a few dolls that I changed their outfits 7 or 8 times, and being glued on, it wasn’t exactly easy at all! I was so frustrated and disappointed; it didn’t feel like they were them. But I started over, everything from scratch. I can’t complain; inspiration finds me, thankfully – so many ideas, but so little time! I’m grateful to be living in a beautiful city (Copenhagen, Denmark), in a loving house full of music, with my partner and my cat. Both of them fuel my creativity, even though they might not know it! Other things that also help is getting some sleep, taking an inspirational walk, among my favorite corners in the city, going to a concert, writing down and embracing all the ideas and, why not, meeting up with friends. You never know what will unleash your imagination!

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