Ms. Macabre

Meet an S.F. artist who likes to play with dolls in a most bizarre way

In Monique Motyl's studio (which is really a room painted cotton-candy pink in her Alamo Square apartment), there is a bookshelf filled with plastic storage boxes in which she keeps her art supplies. Among the bins, which are overflowing with pieces of salvaged felt and lace and tiny beads, is one labeled "skulls and dead bits."

On a recent morning, the tall and bookish-looking Motyl carefully extracts the skull box (she also has bins that hold "feet and claws" and "beetles and bugs") from the shelf and lays out the contents on a drafting table.

It is a treasure trove of the grotesque and grim: squirrel tails dyed in rainbow hues; skulls of muskrats, bobcats, and marmots with their dramatically curving teeth; two alligator heads with beady eyes; a bag containing fur from a rabbit's face (ears and eyeholes still intact); a bat with its delicate wings spread open and stored in a ziplock bag.

"When I think I want to do something, I take [the skulls] out and wait to be inspired," says Motyl, a shy thirtysomething artist who is the unlikely mastermind behind a line of dolls dressed in elaborate period costumes -- and who have animal skulls for heads.

A seamstress for Beach Blanket Babylon by day, Motyl says her unusual figurines were a "gradual epiphany." She began making miniature costumes several years ago because she was running out of storage space for the life-sized ones she designed; having made found-object dolls since childhood, she started using skulls because someone gave her one as a gift. The resulting juxtaposition of sartorial elegance (dazzling broaches cling to the dolls' throats and ornate beading decorates dress hems) with the stark, skeletal faces is both beautiful and bizarre.

Take, for example, "Elizabethan Alligator," in which a savage reptile head perches atop a doll body wearing an exquisite blue velvet Elizabethan-era dress with a dainty lace ruff. And there's "The Shriner," a beaver skull doll clad in a tiny fez, a debonair diamond-patterned smoking jacket, and a miniature cravat and "Nutria Antoinette," a large rodent head whose body is swathed in a mint green, 18th century silk dress with sewn ornamentation called "ruching."

"The skulls really just appealed to me, making them into dolls, because they all have their own sort of character to them," says Motyl, who majored in art and sculpture in college. "It's hard to explain, but I have a really strong respect for [the skulls], and it's a little bit of a spiritual thing when I work on them. I like picking up things that are disregarded and making them into something that is a little bit more respected.

"People always assume that because I work with skulls I'd be all super creepy," she adds. "Like 'Aarrgh, kiss the goat!'" She laughs heartily. (It should be noted that another one of Motyl's side projects is a Web site called zombiepinups.com that has been written up in a couple of horror magazines. The site features models dressed like bloody ghouls and posed in classic Hollywood pinup poses.)

Motyl has sold dozens of her skull-doll oddities at Paxton Gate, the Mission District store that exhibits her work. Kirk Hammett of Metallica has purchased a few of Motyl's creations there.

"Her work has a real elegant creepiness to it that also has a sense of humor," says Josh Donald, a store manager. Adds Zenaida Sengo, a Paxton Gate employee: "[When people see them] they're usually like, 'Omigod!'" "Everyone loves them. Soccer moms love them."

Back in her small studio, Motyl is still rifling through her box of expired animal supplies. She happily holds up a flattened, walnut-shaped skull. "This is a turtle," she says. "Isn't it great? I think of him as probably wearing a smoking jacket, like a little guy ... with a book or something. He's got that professor look."

Motyl lifts a Pringles container from the box and removes the lid. "My friend gave me this tarantula shedding," she explains, tilting the tube to reveal eight fuzzy legs attached to a furry clump. "People go, 'Oh, Monique will like this!' And I will."

In fact, a number of the items that end up in Motyl's "dead bits" box come from her loved ones (her boyfriend recently brought her an owl's talon, which he found during a hike in New Jersey). Otherwise, Motyl finds her supplies in specialty shops or online.

Later that day, Motyl, who hopes to begin selling her work at more stores this year, takes her mother, who is visiting from Southern California, to view her pieces at Paxton Gate for the first time. The artist leads her mother past the carnivorous plants, the alligator heads, and the taxidermied mice to the rear of the store. Inside a locked glass case (some of Motyl's work has been stolen from Paxton Gate before) are more than a half-dozen of the skull-doll creatures.

"Oh!" her mother says, peering into the case. "Oh my."

Before wandering off to explore the rest of the shop, Mrs. Motyl examines each doll and comments that she particularly likes "Little Gator Girl," who wears a pink-crepe party dress and a wig of curly auburn hair. "I like them," Mrs. Motyl tells her daughter supportively. "I like them."

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