Hanging at Kt Ferris’ Brooklyn, New York, studio wasn’t my first time staring down a decapitated doll head. There was that time when I accidentally stumbled upon a baby doll's head in a fishbowl, and now there's the time at Kt’s studio, when I had a doll face-off yet again. This time, though, I was grossly outnumbered by their gouged plastic heads.
Kt Ferris repurposes doll eyes as handmade jewelry, which she describes as “a shield of protection encased in bursts of life.” I first encountered her work at a Princess Diaries viewing party, as one does. Someone was wearing one of her pieces, and our eyes caught from across the room. It was love at first sight. I felt truly seen for the first time. (Okay, that's enough of those puns for now.)
Recently, I got together with Kt at her studio to talk about her work, future, and fears, and that one time the wrong piece almost ended up in Denmark in the blink of an eye. Read our convo and peep some eye-catching jewelry, below.
Kt, Katie, or Katherine?
Kt. And that started because I am dyslexic and couldn’t spell my name. I couldn’t spell Katherine. I just couldn’t spell it, so I’d put K-T. Kt. Katie. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school and I had to start applying to college, and I had to make a sophisticated-sounding email address, that I had to learn how to spell Katherine.
What prompted you to work with eyes?
I don’t know, it’s always been eyeballs. I was a painter before I was a jeweler and it was always about the eye. I would paint the whole painting, and I would save the eye for the last, and I would kinda do the eye, and it was always about what I was feeling at the time. It’s always been about protection for me.
It’s totally weird to see the eye out of the doll head. It makes sense that it would have to operate like this, but I was picturing it being just a free-floating eyeball.
Right? Same, that’s what I thought it would be back there. But I didn’t know! And I was like, screw it, let me cut these out, and it was when I was still in school. I went to trade school, Studio Jewelers, right on [Manhattan's] 31st Street, and I brought the dolls to school. It was when I was doing the stone setting portion of the course—because I thought I was going to work for Tiffany's setting stones—and I was like, "Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I can’t do this." So I brought the dolls to school and my teachers were these very strict women, and they were like, “What the fuck is she doing?”
It’s so interesting that you were interested in working for Tiffany’s. This is the furthest thing from Tiffany’s.
I know. This is so, so opposite. Yeah, because I was like, I want to get a job. I didn’t go to college. I went to a community college, and I was like, “I’m dyslexic. I’m not doing this. I can’t take tests.” I wasn’t failing, but I was not getting very good grades, and I was like “Let’s go to trade school. That sounds way more up my alley. No tests? Perfect. Just working with your hands? Perfect.”
Do you use any other parts of the doll in your art?
For my shrine, I definitely use the doll heads. And then I’ve been collecting the bodies and the arms and everything, and eventually, I want to make weird sculptures with them. I’ve just been collecting for a long time now. At my apartment, my closet’s full of doll parts.
Does that ever freak people out?
Oh yeah. I have these three really big dolls in my apartment, and one of my roommates is a life coach, and so she’ll have to hide the dolls when she has clients over, and I’m like “Oh, where’s Madison? Where’s Toby? Where’s Gretchen? Are they in the closet?” It freaks people out. They’re like, “Why is there a huge doll in the corner?”
Do you get them antique, or do you buy new?
I got an eyeball guy for all my designs. But for the couture pieces, I take them from the actual dolls, so they’re all weird colors. And to get them, I’ll go to a big flea market and buy as many dolls as I can find. I’ll do that once or twice a year. I’ve gotten some pretty expensive dolls in the past. I’ve spent $75 on a doll in the past because I know what’s in its head. I know what’s back there and I need it.
I’ve had people really get apeshit over it though. Like I’ll go to buy dolls and be like, “This is what I’m doing,” and they will freak out and be like, “You can’t buy these; you’re destroying dolls!” But I still respect the dolls. I love them, with or without eyes.
What’s your design process like? Where do you start?
I kind of just go for it. It starts with a brick of wax; I use Ferris wax. I kind of just whittle. Sometimes if I get a little stuck with a design, I’ll draw it out, but for the most part, I just go at it. And I’ll just add spikes, take away, add until it’s kind of even. I usually have some sort of an idea in mind of what kind of shape I want it to be, and then I just go for it. It’s a long process though. Some pieces take me a really long time. And I can’t break up my day. If I’m going to design, it has to only be designing. If I’m really into something, I will do that until it’s done. I’ll stay up until three in the morning, sleep a couple hours, until it’s done. And then I’ll fill my orders, do what I need to do.
I feel like when I first started, they were little like little kids, little babies. As I grew as a jeweler, as a designer, they started getting a little bit wiser and understanding themselves a little more. Now the spikes are getting curvier and fancier, the eyeball’s starting to get covered. As your mind grows, your work follows, automatically. I’ve always felt like that with my artwork. It’s constantly growing. We’re always constantly growing, we’re learning new things. We’re figuring ourselves out more, and I think it’s really fun. I love how that happens.
Some of your stuff is kind of scary, especially the ones with all the holes for people who are trypophobic. Do you have any fears?
I don’t know what my biggest fear is. I guess being sad, and being depressed. It plays into my work. My work keeps me going, keeps me happy, keeps me inspired. That would be my biggest fear. To be so down that I couldn’t make art. And reading in front of people, because I’m dyslexic.
So what’s next?
I’m starting a collaboration with my friends, Zoa Chimerum Jewelry, who make these crazy-ass rings. It’s all rubber. So we’re going to start making little creatures. It’s just so funny because I ran into them at New York Now, which is a big trade show at the Javits Center, when I first started off. And I was walking the show. I found them, and I thought they were the cat's meow. I thought they were so cool, and it’s just so funny that they were coming to me for advice. They’re really rad. I want to see them succeed.
People have no idea what goes into this. I sold at Artists and Fleas this past weekend, and I really remembered why I quit doing it. And for whatever reason, people pay more online. It’s so weird to me. You’d think seeing it in person they’d pay more, but they spend more online. And with my couture pieces, they’re blinking the eyes and playing with it, and like, “How much is this?” And I’m like “It’s $3,000… so can you be gentle, please? Those eyeballs are from the '40s...”
Do you ever ask them how much you think they’re worth?
I have. I had a girl work my booth, no idea what she’s doing. I had a similar piece to the couture one that was a smaller version. It looked the same except it was $200 because I could mass-produce it. I come back to the booth at the end of the day to pay her, and she had texted me and was like “I sold the $200 one!” And I was like, “Awesome, cool!” I knew I had three on the table, and I see all three and I’m looking at all the mannequins. And I’m like… “Where’s the big one?” And she was like “I sold it!” And I was like, “That one’s not for sale, and it’s three grand.” I want it to get worn by someone cool or something before I sell it. She almost started crying. It blew my mind that she thought it was $200. I obviously got it back.
How’d you even get it back?
Thank god, they paid with a credit card. So I got his name off the credit card, and I put his name into Google. His Facebook and his Instagram popped up. I was like going around to everyone, all the other booth people, running all over like, “Is this the guy? Is this the guy?” He bought it for his girlfriend. They were from Denmark. I was in a big panic. I messaged on Instagram and on Facebook. They must have gotten back to the hotel and gotten Wi-Fi. He messaged me back like three hours later. Those three hours were so long. At the time, that was my baby. It was pretty new, and I was so proud of it.
He messaged me back, and he was so nice about it. He was like, “Oh my god, I feel so bad.” I was like, “I will refund your money, and give you the actual piece that’s $200, and you will have 20 percent off for life. You just email me whenever you want to buy something. I will meet you.” And they asked to meet on the corner of Park Avenue and 31st Street, which is the corner as the school that I went to was on. Out of all the corners in this city! And as soon as I got out of the car, I saw them across the street. I got out of the car and it started downpouring. Like, magic! The whole thing was seriously magic.
Have they bought anything else from you since?
No, but I follow them on Facebook and they send me messages every once in awhile. It’s really sweet. They’re good eggs. They’re really sweet, awesome people. They really understood, and they were like, “Dude we’re artists too. We get it.” They could have just taken it, you know? They totally could have. [laughs] But they’re good egg balls. Thank god.