Connie Hocker, a Soldotna artist who makes Tundra Muffin dolls, inspects a pair of pants to be used on a future doll. The pants, like all of the items of clothing used for the dolls, were fashioned from used Alaska clothing, in this case a used pair of Helly Hansen work pants.
Photo by John Hult
Soldotna’s Connie Hocker is a woman who knows what things are worth. She has to, really. She’s an appraiser for the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
A keen eye for the worth of things is more than a job description, though. She spends her days assessing the monetary value of houses, boats and aircraft, but she’s equally adept at appraising the aesthetic value of a hunk of driftwood, a used chunk of a sailor’s raincoat or a cracked oyster shell strewn by waves with a hundred others across Arctic sand.
“Anytime I’m around a place where I can beachcomb, that’s my first priority,” Hocker said.
One hobby feeds another for Hocker. The bits and pieces of beachcombed finery she finds become part of her Tundra Muffin dolls, storytelling pieces of Alaska-centric art she makes between hours at the borough and work on the 46 apartment units she and husband, Ray, own and operate.
The dolls, christened “tundra muffins” by Ray for their puffy, muffin-like faces, tell stories of Alaska hunting, fishing and gathering life in various stages. There are maternity dolls, dolls with children, entire families and a wide range of other dolls engaged hunting- and fishing-related activity, often clad in fox, wolf, seal or muskrat fur.
The dolls do more than speak to life in Alaska they are literally fashioned from fragments of Alaska lives.
A "Tundra Muffin" doll hangs on display in Hocker's work room.
Photo by John Hult
“Pretty much everything in them is reused. The little sweater material is from used sweaters, the little Levis are from used Levis and they’re stuffed with used dryer sheets. I actually have commercial fishermen who give me their used pants, so it’s all very authentic,” Hocker said.
Authenticity was the goal from doll one. Hocker made the first muffin as a gift for her sister-in-law.
“I had in my head exactly what I wanted to get her, but I couldn’t find it. I wanted something very Alaskan, not something made somewhere else, something that maybe a lady would like and could put up on the wall. Not being able to find it, I came home and made my first one.”
Since that start in 2000, Hocker has produced 139 Tundra Muffins, most of which skew heavily in the direction of hunting, fishing and gathering. Which is not to say her subject matter is restricted. Hocker will do dolls of entire families on request, as well as couples for marriages and anniversaries, or dolls of children that incorporate baby teeth or a child’s hair.
When Hocker talks about how the dolls “span everything we do in our lives,” she’s not kidding.
“I have one that I’m working on right now where a nurse is pulling on the fly that’s hooked into the head (of a little boy), because that does happen.”
That doll is part of a series on health-care work that will eventually be on display and on sale at Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna.
The themes can be personal, too. One recently completed doll, for example, has wires for braces and has a basket with dental floss, a piece of a hundred dollar bill and a tooth. The tooth is Hocker’s, as the doll commemorates getting braces at age 40.
“They had to pull one of my teeth to do my braces, so I’ve got him in there the weirder the better,” Hocker said.
Brian Erwin said the oddity adds to the appeal. Erwin is the manager of Frames and Things in Soldotna’s Blazy Mall, the only store that displays and sells the dolls presently. Erwin’s store carries the work of many central Kenai Peninsula artists, and he said Hocker’s dolls stand out as storytellers.
“She does such a wide range of things, from the dolls to the driftwood mounts,” he said. “They tell a pretty good story, more of a story than you usually find.”
The stories may soon find a wider audience. The Economic Development District, a business incubation nonprofit based in Kenai, has the Tundra Muffins on the forefront of a campaign to market peninsula artists in the near future. The EDD already operates a Web site selling Alaska art at www.exportalaska.com, and the group now is working with video specialist Morgan Evans of Alaska Productions to gather video of artists two from each peninsula community for a marketing DVD, one destined for display stations in Lower-48 travel agencies and stores purveying Alaska products.
Hocker’s profile was near the top of the list.
“She was the first on exportalaska.com, and she’s always been very positive with us,” said Dee Gaddis, program manager for the EDD.
“Also, her craft is very unique in that a lot of what she uses comes from the beach. It’s that creativity that really stands out.”
The DVD will feature an interview with Hocker, footage of her putting together the dolls, and, of course, shots of her combing the beach for goodies.
Alaskans are lucky, Hocker said, as Alaska beaches are especially well-stocked. She maintains that the beaches best any big name resort sands she’s scoured, citing a trip to Cancun, Mexico, for comparison.
“I walked for what felt like three or four hours and found three little shells,” she said. “We’re very fortunate here for what we’ve got.”
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