By Patty Huston-Holm
One of the more unusual visions on Ocracoke Island is not on the main drag of restaurants and shops, along the beach or in the water.
It’s on Jackson Circle within a resident’s trees that have up to 100 dolls and doll parts – clothed and bare – hanging from nearly invisible fishing line.
While not wishing to be inundated by passersby, the property owner is unabashedly delighted if her loosely artistic display can turn up the corners of a mouth.
“If I can make people smile, so much the better,” said Susan Dodd, an Ocracoke resident since 1989 and the dolls-in-trees artist for 20 years in two island locations.
Thieves are not welcome, but photographers are.
If she’s not busy with artwork she creates inside her home, she may emerge outside with her own smile, laughter and two spaniels.
On a recent spring day, she pointed to a favorite Barbie-like, purple mermaid. Most of the dolls come from thrift stores where she also buys many of her clothes.
Dolls and other creations inside her house tend to reflect her social justice sentiments that include America’s 2003 to 2011 Iraq war involvement.
Some figurines appear trapped behind wires and nails. Except for an occasional charity event, these are not for sale.
Dodd is more than a doll lady. She has written seven books, was once married to former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and is a former lecturer at five universities, including Harvard.
As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, she unsuccessfully challenged Bill Clinton for sophomore class president.
“I don’t identify as any of those things today,” Dodd said. “I came to Ocracoke because it seemed like a good place to write. But I got tired of publishing and started to see writing as too isolating.”
Dodd also doesn’t identify as a doll expert. She doesn’t expound about the earliest documented dolls that go back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome.
Nor does she talk about doll manufacturing that has its roots in 15th century Germany.
Dodd suggested that her doll fascination might be connected to the fact that she had few dolls when growing up in the 1950s.
She pointed to her 1999 novel, The Mourners’ Bench, as perhaps the biggest inspiration, followed in 2001 by The Silent Woman.
The “bench” book – loosely referencing a church pew once designated for people grieving or seeking salvation –uses dolls as a metaphor for a theme of broken people.
In The Silent Woman, based on Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka’s love obsession with Alma Mahler, widow of a composer, a life-sized replica of Alma emerges alongside the end of the relationship in 1918.
Now in her 70s, with macular degeneration and two newly replaced hips, Dodd sees herself as simply a dabbler in art and a caregiver.
Looking after others became her untrained but willing and natural role after 9/11 when she moved in with an ex-sister-in-law, who then was a single mother fighting cancer in Kansas City, Mo.
Following the lost battle, the daughter, now age 35, became the child that Dodd never had. Likewise, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, Dodd assumed the role of caseworker on a disaster relief team for Ocracoke victims of the storm.
As Dodd talked, a mismatch of bracelets, dangling from her right wrist, helps tell her story. The bangles started with ones made by orphan girls she met during a mission trip to Honduras in 2018.
A black one signifies her two-decades-long desire to abolish the death penalty, including for around 100 Missouri, North Carolina and Texas inmates she has met personally.
These men are “not the same person” as when they committed a crime, she said.
Dodd’s experiences and novels divulge human flaws, forgiveness, mental illness and aspects of death and dying – a contrast to the lighthearted laughter of the woman still collecting dolls for her trees while planning an upcoming sacred beach fire burning of “literally hundreds” of “confidential” death row inmate letters.
Dodd believes her writing life is over, but sharing her life is not.
Reflecting on her artistic expression of dolls flying magically through trees, she said their reason might simply be for “my own delight.”
Patty Huston-Holm, an Ohio journalist, spent a month in the spring with the Observer to write a number of stories.