“In 1976 I was called to soft sculpture in art school. The idea that fabric could be creatively transformed
into Fine Art spoke to me. In 1978, I created my first doll, “Ydala.” Ydala means “A lady” (spelled in
reverse) inspired by artist, Benny Andrews. Ydala was my response to a gallery’s request to me for a
Black Doll in their holiday show.
A year later my first child, Jamila, was born. My mother, Ann Stewart Dickerson, immediately decided
we must make her a Black doll. Remembering the 40+ hours it took to create Ydala I declined. But Annie
persisted! Many children later, this small project grew into a family of Dolls and Dudes known as “Brown
Spices.” Still, as an Artist, the commercial industry was much too competitive and the work was entirely
too overwhelming for my creative vocation.
In contrast, Annie, Aka “F.L.” (“Fearless Leader”), pushed forward into an adventure in dollmaking.
First, she enlisted the help of her dear friend, Rose (Roz) Watkins for sewing. Roz sewed with the zest of
a sweatshop but all the charm of a village industry. They promised me that all I had to do was embroider
faces. Ha ha!
We, the artists, must also sign each doll. Thus, “Annie and Julee”, was next embroidered or (later)
painted on the bottom (sometimes stomachs) of each doll—by me! I broke into hairstyles enjoying the
natural hair of the day. Big braids, cornrows, dreadlocks, and even afros and mohawks were sported.
African and Carribean influences followed from my proud Bahamian husband, Enoch. Soon, he out-
voted me, collaborating with F.L. to build a Brown Spices Ginga’bread House for our legendary Brown
Spices’ Family Reunions. These were such fun they lit up the Washington Post with beautiful pictures. TV
shows tried to reenact the magic. Annie didn’t stop there! She added Brown Spice Nuggets, clothes
bags, cameos, pillows and more.
Then, Roland Freeman came along with his Communion of the Spirits. In this African-American quilt
project he commissioned us to do doll quilts with great Southern legends such as Annie Dennis. This
began yet another voyage and an amazing partnership. Our Fearless Leader was gassed up and ready.
As we continued, our journey sought to explore the diverse personalities of our growing family of the
African Diaspora. That Diaspora was celebrated in our cut-outs and later ABC’s coloring book. In the
book we added special attention to the names we were giving each creation. The mere existence of
dolls with African American names, Caribbean names, and African names had never been combined in
this way. Documenting the meanings and origins of the names we researched was an important
moment marking the 1980s. We affirmed these colorful names where mainstream ridiculed them.
Parents unapologetically and sometimes naively were combining new and old stories to crown their
children. We passed these names proudly on to our dolls and dudes, along with a certificate of
registration, and a registry into the Brown Spices family album. Children with special names found long
When we were urged to do doll making classes in 1985, the Brown Spices Elves’ Workshops were born.
These workshops expanded and the family grew into a village.
By 1991 the Young Masters, Inc., was thriving with innovative grass roots programming. We allowed
(trained) children as young as 6 years old to teach and it was a hit! Our mission continues to this day to
nurture and empower 21 st Century Artists--everyone from the womb through the afterlife can be
drafted! The Young Masters celebrate the beauty of our African American modern experience from our
authentic voices. Over our 36 year existence we have provided art exhibits, shows, Rites of Passage
programs, internships, diverse workshops, recreation vs re-creation art w/sports, publications media
productions and much more. The YM continues to grow past its simple doll and dude making roots, to
serve and celebrate the past, present, and future through Art. My own 5 children, their spouses and our
expanded family continue to give glory to this humble collaborative.
GABA (Golden Age of Black Art—1980s &1990s) saw doll makers taken more seriously everywhere. With
our unique roots, Brown Spices began selling publicly at Sun Gallery—an Arts hub in Washington DC’s
“Chocolate City.” Our “Visions” grew from a Holiday Expo Showcase to many extensions including the
Belmont Arts Center. Inside of all of this we began to witness a plethora of beautiful, diverse, and
exciting new dolls created by many diverse and passionate Black Artists. Black Doll shows presented by
Jeannette Carson and Barbara Whiteman spurred the expansion and outreach of this movement.
Museums were also featuring dolls. In Washington Brown Spices celebrated the resurrection of the
historic Charles Sumner School and held their Family Reunion there. Joyce and Elizabeth Scott joined
Annie and me along with Kimberly Camp and Francine Haskins at the Banneker Douglas Museum for a
sacred return to the spirit of dolls in a show curated by the legendary Gladys Frye.
In the spirit of this adventure, there was the heart of my own doll experience. I had always loved dolls. I
knew as a child the value of preserving them. My sister and I were adorned with exquisite Japanese
dolls that we couldn’t play with, but certainly treasured. I knew the magic of a doll’s personality and
believed they could not only listen to my heart but speak to my needs. In this process of making dolls, I
was allowed the ultimate victory. The magical midnight hour brought me the reality of this knowledge.
The dolls came to life. We had conversations. They brought comfort. They added truth. Like the
puppets that enchanted us all, they told stories. They gave a history that cannot be denied.
In 2014, we lost our Fearless Leader, Annie. Brown Spices had slowed as the Young Masters grew. The
interesting thing is The Brown Spices Elves’ Workshops that started the Young Masters programs
continued. We enjoyed Annie’s old studio with her spiritual presence blessing the classes. Here, in the
new technological/digital age, we found the grandchildren of quilt makers with the eagerness to create.
Our young artisans plunged into the work with talents, skills, insights, and merriment. My
granddaughter, Asha, snatched the tail end of these classes and created her first doll at the age of 3.
Now, at age 9, she sits beside me, directing the quilt designs while her little sister, Ahri, (age 4) helps
with the actual stitching. When my grandson Elijah was having trouble speaking he discovered all the
dolls (and dudes!) and had great conversations. When he thought I’d forgotten them—he rescued them
from shelves and gave them new life.
As modern trends continue, handcrafted heirlooms become more precious. New generations evolve in
our children and many new dollmakers are created. Each generation carries these ancient arts to a
Mother’s Day 2022 brought me the ultimate gift. I found myself at the eleventh hour needing to finish a
quilt. My daughter came to the rescue bringing my two granddaughters. When I looked up, sweating
profusely as we chatted away, I realized I had the greatest Mother’s Day gift ever—three generations of
family working on a baby quilt on Mother’s Day. Actually four generations--if you count “F.L.” looking
down on us--- were all passionately working together towards the goal!
It is our responsibility not just to pass the torch, but to make sure that the intergenerational fire is
From The Transformative Power of Doll and Puppet Making by Camila Bryce-Laporte.
-Julee Dickerson-Thompson, Doll and Fiber Artist, Educator, and Entrepreneur