Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Halloween art is serious business for collectors from throughout the United States who will be seeking out their favorite artists at the Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween show on September 30 at the Calhoun County Fairgrounds in Marshall.
Close to 2,000 collectors and other buyers from states including California, Florida and Washington will be selecting from art mediums including pottery, dolls, sculpture, wearable art, folk art, Illustration, paintings, spun cotton, metal, and soft sculpture, says Jennie Hepler-Takens, who creates Halloween art dolls and is the owner of the show and its curator.
For the majority of these collectors, the show which runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., is their only opportunity to purchase art from their favorite Halloween artists who come from 17 different states to exhibit and sell.
“The artists bring their clientele with them to the show,” Hepler-Takens says.
This year, Hepler-Takens says the show will feature 50 artists whom she has invited to participate after carefully studying their work.
The Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween art show will take place on Sept. 30 at Calhoun County Fairgraounds.
“This show is highly curated. I look at the artist’s entire body of work, what type of social media presence they have, and how I’m going to best promote their work,” she says. “I don’t include anybody who uses AI (Artificial Intelligence) or ‘borrows’ from other people in this artists’ community.”
While not encouraging the theft of the work of these artists, says Hepler-Takens who lives in Battle Creek, “There are other Halloween-themed shows and there are artists who take my work and put it into AI software and sell my prints and claim these as their own. They will elongate the arms or neck and it will look like my work and they haven’t created anything.”
As a way to protect their work, many of these artists are now copywriting their designs, among them is Stacey Walsh, who lives in Schenectady, N.Y. She has been participating in the Bewitching Peddlers
show since 2017 when Hepler-Takens bought it from the original owner who called it “Ghoultide.” Walsh makes art dolls, sold under the Goode Wife’s Tea
banner, and expects to sell each of the 30 dolls she’s made for this year’s show. She also owns the Raven’s Haven, a Folk Art pattern business that sells patterns she makes including dolls, Santas, pumpkins, and turkeys.
Walsh says she continues to be surprised by a loyal client base that comes from as far as Utah to purchase her dolls and her patterns. Her larger, full-body dolls start at $330.
One of the many artists who display work at the Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween Show.
“I am always so amazed,” Walsh says of her customer base. “I could pinch myself just being in the show. People have watched me and followed me and it still amazes me.”
Hepler-Takens says she is not at all surprised about the popularity of artwork which has spawned numerous websites for serious collectors and casual buyers
. The website features an interview with Mark Ledenbach
who describes himself as an “enthusiastic Halloween collector and curator.” He literally wrote the book on this — “Vintage Halloween Collectibles” — now in its third edition.
Although Halloween art is a growing specialty niche market, Hepler-Takens says she did not know this when she was an emerging dollmaker who was invited in 2012 to participate in the former Ghoultide show, owned by Scott Smith in Kalamazoo.
Witches, jack-o-lanterns, circus sideshow acts, Edgar Allen Poe, and Frankenstein, are among the inspirations she has used to create her art dolls which start at $50 and go up to $1,200. She sold all of her dolls in the show last year and she expects to do the same this year.
The art of the doll
The paths Hepler-Takens and Walsh took to become the makers of highly sought-after Halloween art dolls were different, but it was their shared love of the day and its meaning
that eventually brought them together.
Dolls created by Jennie Hepler-Takens, owner of Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween.
“I’ve always loved Halloween,” Hepler-Takens says. “In my twenties, a group of friends and I were going somewhere and we stopped at a mutual friend’s home and his mother is an antique Halloween collector. She had display cases with German antique jack-o-lanterns from the 30s and 40s made out of papier mache and I thought, wow, and she turned me on to that.”
After marrying and having two children, she continued to think about Halloween art and wanted to get into working with clay and finding a medium that spoke to her.
“I knew I could sew and source antiques to incorporate in and sculpt so I could engineer the pieces,” she says.
Her creative process begins with building a skeleton out of wire or wood and fleshing it out using fabric or stuffing to build a body. When this step is completed, she can start thinking about what or who it’s going to be and use clay to sculpt the face. One doll can take four weeks to complete and she is typically working on other pieces at the same time. She will have 35 pieces in this year’s show.
Witches created by Stacey Walsh of Goode Wife's Tea, who will be displaying at Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween.
What sets her work apart, she says, are the stories she writes to go along with each doll. These dolls and their stories are on her website
. She also has been featured in numerous podcasts and in Dolls
“I consider myself a narrative sculpture artist because I create a story with each piece like who they are and their backstory. I’m very prolific on social media and I post almost every day about what I’m creating and what my hands are working on,” Hepler-Takens says.
Her year’s worth of work is focused on creating dolls for the Bewitching Peddlers show, the only one she participates in, although she does make and sell other pieces throughout the year. This is similar to Walsh’s emphasis.
Depending on the process of layering the clay, she says it could take the better part of one week to complete one doll. She leans more towards an anthropomorphic view when bringing her pumpkin ladies to life and while these will be among the dolls in the show, she also will have mourning Nantucket whales.
A Halloween doll creaA doll created by Stacey Walsh of Goode Wife's Tea, who will be displaying at Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween.Jennie Hepler-Takens, owner of Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween.
“My dolls hit between mourning and my love of the history of the Salem witches. I’ve always been drawn to how people of that time would basically kill the people helping them with illness, like the midwives and healers,” Walsh says. “I have those two draws. I love to take some of the elements of Victorian mourning and put them into my pumpkin ladies and animals. So you’ll often see an animal that has a witch or mourning twist to it. I’m always looking back to past history or my past.”
Her fascination with dolls began at an early age when her father, who was in the military, would bring her a doll from whatever country he had been to.
“I had a lovely doll collection,” Walsh says.
She went on to earn an Associate's degree in Fine Arts but was unable to find her niche. While working for the now-defunct Ames stores, a co-worker who was an artist asked her to draw something for her.
“I went over to her house and saw these primitive dolls she had made and I was hooked. These are dolls that you would find very much in the American culture. They’re puppet-style dolls that have scraps of fabric made into dresses and they can look very dirty and grungy and you can merge that with more whimsy. They’re not pretty dolls. I’ve had people walk by my booth and say they’re ugly.”
Several years ago she added a new line of dolls called Twilights which are made up of a wide birdcage underneath with an upper body made of paper clay covered in a dress made of paper that has graveyard scenes among others painted on it and ruffles. After the piece is aged and sealed, a battery-operated votive can be placed underneath it, hence the name Twilight.
Over 2,000 Halloween art collectors from around the United States head to Marshall for the Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween show.
Walsh says Halloween wasn’t the big draw in the late 90s when she began her dollmaking venture.
“When you have to make a living and pay your bills, there’s only so many shows you could do in late summer and early fall that would carry that,” she says.
Like Hepler-Takens, she works on pieces throughout the year to sell with Bewitching Peddlers being her only show.
Creating a spell for success
Word-of-mouth among collectors is one of many ways that people hear about the show which also was featured in an article in Enchanted Living magazine’s Autumn Witch Issue
Hepler-Takens says she’s very intentional about ensuring the quality and craftsmanship of the art in the show as well as avoiding work that is duplicative.
“This hand-curated group is a gathering of people who believe in Halloween art,” she says in a press release. “They feel passionate about the work and it makes no difference whether the spell is cast by paintbrush or a needle and thread, down deep the magic comes from the heart.”
That magic helped her manage her grief after her husband, Joe, passed away from lung cancer in 2019.
Hepler-Takens says he was her biggest supporter when she wanted to buy the show from Smith and his partner who wanted to retire.
“I told Joe that I don’t want it to end and I’m feeling like I found my people,” she says.
The first show under their leadership was in Chelsea where it had always been while Smith was operating it. Hepler-Taken says she and her husband decided to move it to the fairgrounds because there were a lot of moving parts to manage.
“It was a huge undertaking because we knew at that point that it was the premier Halloween art show in the country and collectors would fly in from all over the country for it,” she says.
A doll created by Stacey Walsh of Goode Wife's Tea, who will be displaying at Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween.Jennie Hepler-Takens, owner of Bewitching Peddlers of Halloween.
The serious collectors, some of whom take the whole week off for the show, line up before the 8 a.m. start time because they want to make sure they get the piece they want to add to their collection.
While Hepler-Takens says it’s like a pilgrimage for collectors, she says it’s more like a reunion of community for the artists.
“I find myself in this situation where now I’m supporting my kids with artwork and it’s really important for me to have a means to do that,” she says. “My fellow artists who have become like family to me work all year creating a collection to bring to the show. Bewitching Peddlers is a means to put food on the table for families. The community of collectors is what really nourishes us.”
Walsh says sometimes she’ll be sitting in her kitchen working away and she’ll post something on social media and will be reminded of the connection her art is making.
“I don’t think it ever really hit me how many people see it and connect. This is a lot of people I’m touching,” Walsh says. “Not only do I get to create from my heart but I make heartful connections with people who live in faraway states or even in a different country.”