From the outside, Allison Wonder’s Beaverton apartment appears ridiculously ordinary. The only clue that it’s anything but ordinary is a sign by the door: “Always have friends that raise a few eyebrows.”
Inside, it’s a magical fairyland. Hundreds of dolls and their accessories line floor-to-ceiling shelves, tables and every nook and cranny. It’s a showcase for the incredible artistry of Allison Wonder.
“The thing that I like most about dolls is that I can do pretty much anything I want. It’s just in miniature,” Allison says. “I like sewing and building things and the sets and the furniture. So I get to do all of those things and I don’t have to answer to anybody!”
Allison’s main focus is on ball-jointed dolls, known as BJDs in the doll world. These aren’t children’s dolls you’ll find in a toy store, they are finely crafted resin dolls, strung with elastic, created for collectors to style and customize. And Allison customizes in a very specific, recognizable fashion. His look is well-known in the Oregon doll community.
“I want dolls to have a little bit of character — they don’t have to be all beautiful,” 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 little bit of a sadness to them. So there’s that kind of like, ‘rescue me’ feeling.”
He’s particularly drawn to dolls he describes as “creepy/cute.” And so he’s very careful about who he invites over to visit. “I do make sure that they’re not scared of dolls because this is not the place for them. Lots of eyes looking and watching everything.”
Growing up in rural Michigan, Allison wasn’t allowed to have dolls, although he always loved them. The one doll he managed to acquire as a child, a Ken doll, was lost when he was adopted out of the foster care system at age nine. Decades later, he remembered his love of dolls and vowed to reclaim it. “It’s taken 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 just get to do it. And I feel really lucky to be able to do that.”
In the doll world, Allison is revered for his meticulously crafted shoes and boots – tiny leather creations made with painstaking detail. “Lots of top stitching, stack leather heels, and a real 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 including a rocket ship and lunar surface. The star of the scene is a vampire astronaut named Vladamir. Vlad’s spacesuit took several days to sew and the space helmet took more than a week. But Vlad himself received modifications a while back, replacing his original teeth with fangs. “I’ve just always wanted a cute vampire. They don’t all have to look mean,” he says.
As he works with his dolls, sewing their clothes, modifying their appearance, putting on their makeup, Allison forms a bond. His favorite part of the process is when a doll reveals its name. “They’re not whispering in my ear,” he says, “but my imagination gets going. And all of a sudden, this doll has a name. And then they’ve got like this whole story that’s coming up.”
And the dolls don’t just live in Allison’s apartment. He makes regular field trips, setting up ornate tableaus in forests and beaches, complete with props like tiny tire swings, beach chairs and croquet sets. “I like to imagine that they’re always happy to go out on adventures. And sometimes that can get a little difficult because I can’t take them all so sometimes there’s some sad faces. I’m like, ‘oh, they didn’t get to go!’ But I try to get everybody out and as often as I can.”
As Allison sits at his sewing machine, surrounded by dolls on all sides, he thinks back to his childhood in Michigan. “I would’ve never thought that this would be my life. It just kind of happened. And it happened because I allowed it to happen. I don’t even know if my younger self would have been able to understand this, you know, you have a whole apartment full of dolls. And it’s like, ‘what? That’s crazy.’ But, here we are!”