The thread of emotion: Barb Kobe’s healing dolls transfer feelings from the inside to the outside

Barb Kobe (Courtesy Photo)

When her children were young, Barb Kobe began making hand puppets with a purpose. From her studies of development life stages, she learned that a child’s task from ages 3 to 5 is to learn about emotions and feelings. 

With her background and interest in psychology, Kobe was asked by a mental health association to create a program for young children about self-esteem. “Anger-illa” – a puppet who could help kids talk about their angry feelings – was created 25 years ago, along with other characters (“Cry-noceros,” “Tri-fear-atops” and “Happy-potomus “) to help initiate conversations about a variety of emotions. 

Kobe was invited to bring her puppets into Minneapolis public schools to talk with children about their feelings and emotions. 

At that time, Kobe listened carefully to people’s conversations about feelings and heard messages to children such as: “Don’t feel,” “Don’t be sad,” “Don’t be scared,” “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” 

“I just thought, ‘What do we do if we have those feelings and we don’t get to talk about them?'” Kobe said. 

“The insights were humongous,” Kobe said about working with puppets. “The biggest was that I could take something that really lives in your body” – an emotion or a feeling – “and make a figure out of it. When you hold that figure in your lap, people talk to it, totally ignoring the person who is holding the puppet. I was onto something.” 

From puppets to healing dolls

Then a shift happened for Kobe. After making and selling about 400 sets of the puppets that expressed emotions such as rage, fear, stress, shame, grief, joy, peace or power, she was feeling burned out. 

The puppets helped finance her return to school. She studied psychology with an emphasis on art therapy, receiving her bachelor’s degree from Metropolitan State University in 1999 when she was 50. In her final class, she researched and wrote about dollmaking and healing – and that research set her on a new path. 

For her first doll, Kobe went out to her garden, pulled out a strawberry root, washed it off, put a face on it, wrapped it with some fiber, added a bell and hung it on her wall. “I loved it,” Kobe said. 

As with the puppets, she noticed that the dolls she created could transfer feelings from the inside to the outside of herself and she could have a dialog with it. 

Her dolls tell stories – yet for an individual viewer, it may not be the story that Kobe thought about when she was making it. “The story [a person] sees isn’t the same as mine. The doll mirrors something back to them about themselves,” she said. “If I make a doll about anger or sadness or grief, it will resonate with someone at an energetic, emotional level. The thread of emotion that I put into the dolls when I’m making them shows up for them and honors the emotion within them.”

Of archetypes and talismen

To create a healing doll, Kobe poses a series of 10 questions to help determine what “healing” is needed by the person. For example, what are your favorite colors, animals or symbols? What inspires you? What’s your favorite fairy tale? 

She works with archetypes and concepts such as guardians, scapegoats, loving kindness, talismen and inner healers. She uses a process called visual journaling – first creating flat images with watercolors or collage to depict an emotion or a story, and then creating a three-dimensional doll or figure. 

“I believe that making a figure – that you can hold in your hand – will mirror some aspects of yourself. It is really more powerful and transformative than making a flat drawing,” she said. 

Now Kobe has been teaching healing dollmaking workshops and online classes for more than 15 years. She is working on her first book, about healing dolls, to be published this year by Beaver’s Pond Press. 

From nature

The doll featured on this month’s cover is called “Compassionate Mother Earth.” “I am an environmentalist. How we’re destroying Mother Earth really upsets me,” Kobe said. She describes this doll as leaning in and nurturing, as having a parental stance. “Her arms are open, she’s willing to be there and embrace you,” she said. 

Many of the dolls that Kobe creates are basic structures with sticks found in nature. She shapes a body and wraps it with natural fabrics such as silk or cotton. She often adds more color and symbols to the fabrics with paints. Faces are made of paper clay; hair is often made from yarn or roots. 

Kobe is prolific. She has made as many dolls, “if not more,” as she had made puppets. Said Kobe: “They move through me, they pour out of me.”