Robin Hickman-Winfield has worn many hats during her five-plus decades woven into the tapestry of St. Paul.
Educator. Activist. Documentary producer. Mentor. Shepherd of the legacy of her late great-uncle, filmmaker and Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks.
Did you know she's also an artist, creating dolls?
As a child, Hickman-Winfield used her dolls to escape the stresses of having "social justice warriors" for parents. Later, she incorporated them in teaching hundreds of Twin Cities girls to love the skin they're in. Now, she creates new dolls and dioramas as art — all to inspire children and adults with visions of the possible.
Her work has been featured on HGTV, Twin Cities Public Television and in the Star Tribune. Her dolls are currently highlighted by the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation. And her exhibit of dolls honoring ancestors and elders of the local Black community can be seen at the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery.
In a recent interview with Eye On St. Paul, Hickman-Winfield talked about how she grew from a girl playing with dolls to an adult using dolls to inspire a community.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: When did you start using dolls to tell these stories?
A: I've been doing it for more than 30 years, but in the last six months I have used a grant from the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation to create customized soulful dolls, to honor the elders. I have dolls of my parents. Of Gordon Parks. I have a [local civil rights pioneer] Katie McWatt doll, [local activist] Josie Johnson. I have elders in my life who were invincible.
It all started with the importance that Black girls have dolls that look like them.
Q: Why is that important?
A: There was a famous experiment with dolls in the '50s. [the Doll Test, showing a majority of Black children preferred dolls with white skin] In fact, the photograph for that experiment was taken by my uncle Gordon Parks.
It's a very serious issue that still plays out today. I've done that experiment with my [students] and unfortunately it continues.
Q: Did you play with dolls as a child?
A: When I was really little, my sister and I had dolls. My parents were agents of change. Social justice work back then was tough. I played with dolls to sometimes escape from my reality, so I created this little world of dolls. I didn't just play. I started writing narratives. Stories.
Q: What color were your dolls?
A: It was very important to my mother that we had Black dolls. We grew up basking in the power of our culture. It was the '60s. My mom would go to Black conferences, part of a network of early child development teachers, and she would bring them back. Mattel came out with Christie, a Black doll. And there was Diahann Carroll and the "Julia" doll.
She had to look harder, but she found them.
Q: You have used dolls to teach your class "Lovin' the Skin I'm In" to hundreds of girls. Now, you use them as art. When did that start?
A: I started getting back into dolls after losing a job. I had a deep depression and had spent time in California with my cousin and her young daughter. Oh my God, we played with dolls every day ... It reignited a love from my childhood. I started making furniture. Designing clothes. I found there were doll clubs in the area, creating dolls of Black women in history.
I'd made a doll of my uncle [Parks] and handed it to him in New York. He said, "Baby, is that me?" He'd been feeling down and this cheered him up. He loved my dolls. He said, "What are you going to do with those? You need to do something."
Q: People all over the world have seen pictures of your dolls. What you're doing now is a long way from a little girl playing with dolls, isn't it?
A: My dolls can help people envision new possibilities, in the ways that I create new worlds.