by Nancy Duffy, photography by Phil Grout
WHO: Hailing from the small western Pennsylvania town of Mt. Washington, Barb Geesey brought her creative spirit to Hanover in the early 60s. Soon after, in 1968, she helped organize the Hanover Area Arts Guild, which provided a place for artists to share the creative process with other artists and the community. “I am the only living founding member,” shares Barb from the living room of her Hanover home. “We started in the Y.W.C.A building,” she explains and, after a few changes in location and need for bigger and better space, settled into the current venue at 32 Carlisle Street in 1988 with its “two great display windows and excellent light.” Barb has raised five children all the while honing her skills as a painter, sculptor, and interior designer, retiring in 1997 as owner of Interior Design in Hanover.
WHAT: Upstairs in her home studio, Barb Geesey is surrounded by bins of Styrofoam balls of varying sizes, partitioned containers of beads used for making earrings, and piles of fabrics ranging in a spectrum of colors and patterns. “I love fabrics; I do,” she confesses. The materials are used to bring her famous Gullah Dolls, which originated in the Carolina Low Country, to life. Adorned with richly patterned dresses and head wraps, the faceless dolls express a deep spiritual and emotional quality of African American influence. “If I had to put a face [on her],” explains Barb, “it wouldn’t work.” Although without a face, the dolls are not without a name. Each doll’s identity is an authentic African name that is uplifting and positive, and Barb includes both the African name and the meaning on the tag. “I try to match the names with how they make me feel,” she explains.
Barb was drawn to making the dolls during her 16 ½ years of living in the South. She would make them and just give them away as gifts because they “made people happy.” She put a few in a gallery and they started to sell. One day, a photographer wrote to her and offered to make a poster of her dolls for as a display. “He was a collector of my dolls,” smiles Barb. Every time he would pass through town, he would purchase a doll, and he used his own collection for the poster.
Each Gullah doll is handmade by Barb and takes hours. They come in varying sizes, small to large, and are draped in complementary colors and patterns. A nameless doll stands next to the sewing machine. Barb lifts her off the table and places her at the edge of her knees. She is talking about her family, and her husband of 20+ years, Gene, all the while taking a freshly-ironed piece of fabric and wrapping it around the doll’s head, poofing the hair out of the wrap, and tweaking the fabric a bit so it is just right. The base of the dolls are made from beer bottles, large and small wine bottles, and, for the first time, an empty shampoo bottle, rinsed and cut in half to serve as a tree topper. “This is a new thing for me,” says Barb, and she gets right back to her work.
WOW: Being welcomed into Barb Geesey’s home is like walking into an art gallery but with a warmth that comes from her personality. Not only does her own artwork hang on the walls, but also the work of her friends. There was a time when she thought of moving back to her hometown of Mt. Washington, but her friends reminded her that Hanover was home. When not in her studio painting and creating her “joyful” dolls, Barb enjoys 18 holes of golf at Hanover Country Club, playing bridge, and traveling. Next summer, she, along with some friends from the South, will tour the National Parks, which has been a dream of hers for a long time.
Every now and then Barb thinks that she “can’t do this anymore,” but then the phone will ring with an order request for more dolls, so happily back to the sewing table she goes. “If it makes someone happy-” she pauses for a moment, “That’s why I do it.”