When she was only 13, Viola Meyer was sent by her mother to see an aunt in Queens, N.Y., but it was more than a social call. She was on a mission to learn from the 80-year-old woman the skills needed to craft handmade dolls. Her aunt, Viola recalls, was not won over until she saw what her niece could create with her own two hands. Thus began a hobby, sometimes a moneymaker, that has stayed with Viola Meyer Diedrichs for 70 years.
Cataracts slowed her for a while, but after surgery and ocular lens implants, Diedrichs is busy once more searching out bits of fabric and itsy-bitsy throwaways from which she fashions not just dolls but doll houses and their miniature furnishings.
Her only limitation now is finding enough space to display her creations.
In the living room of the home where the widowed New York transplant took up local residence 17 years ago, a glass-fronted antique breakfront boasts families of dolls that would daunt Santa Claus.
But Diedrichs' handiworks aren't for child's play. They are collectibles, she explained.
She has sold some over the years and donated others to charities that have raffled them off for hundreds of dollars for good causes in Hernando County and elsewhere.
Some of the dolls — "character dolls," she calls them — are of stuffed fabric bodies, dressed in clothing cut from castoffs when she couldn't afford to buy new textiles.
With what might be labeled artisan dolls, Diedrichs crafted heads and hands using a special artist's clay. The sculpting "takes a lot of time," she said, and she hardens the clay not in a kiln but in a toaster oven. Then she paints them.
With a nod to the holiday season, Diedrichs has a 24-inch tall St. Nicholas doll center stage on her living room table. He wears a red velvet robe stitched with gold thread and edged in faux fur, and of course is coiffed and bearded with snowy white hair.
He is one of her most sought after mannequins, Diedrichs noted.
When her dolls began crowding out the living space, Diedrichs started making miniatures. Ushering a guest into another room, she said proudly, "This is my museum."
It features a three-story, eight-room yellow frame Southern mansion with open views front and back, built on a scale of a half-inch per 1 foot. "Ninety percent I made myself," she declared.
The masterpiece contains a music room that includes a replica of a piano played by her late husband, Ralph, who was a music teacher. There is also a reproduction 1700s harpsichord built of toothpicks, wires and thread. "It was four months in the making," Diedrichs said.
And, amazingly, there is a tiny wind-up Victrola, with a black vinyl record seemingly ready for playing.
A double-canopy bed occupies the master bedroom. Diedrichs said she always wanted one; for their wedding gift, Ralph's mother gave the couple twin beds.
On a tiny chair in the bedroom sits a doll no taller than an inch, wearing a lace dress. How can Diedrichs make something so small and so detailed? "Very carefully," she said.
She pointed out a bookcase complete with miniature books, their pages cut from real books.
Diedrichs' creativity and imagination appear boundless. "It's just from my head," she maintains. "You make from what you can find. It's fun."
For instance, she wove a pair of tiny sandals from bits of leather she found in her husband's music shop. From a scrap of foam rubber she cut a pair of women's flip-flops that rest on a little footstool. In the mansion's kitchen, she fashioned faucets from earring hooks and pots from buttons.
Diedrichs insisted a children's room needed game tables. Her husband found her one day on the floor measuring a regulation pool table. When asked what on earth she was doing, she told him, "You wouldn't understand." The children's room includes a pool table complete with miniature balls and hand-carved pool cues.
Her other main doll house replicates a home where the Diedrichses lived for a time in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. Working with metal pieces, she recreated a winding staircase. At one level hangs a crystal chandelier that lights up.
Diedrichs has exhibited her creations at county and local fairs. A scrapbook of her accomplishments contains 28 prize ribbons.
A granddaughter, Tracy Raleigh of Long Island, stands to inherit Diedrichs' work some day.
Meanwhile, she keeps busy making more miniature marvels.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]