Desert Matryoshka 

By Joan McGann 

For the last few years I have contributed a set of Desert Matryoshka to the Silent Auction. Libby Kyer told me how happy she was to get one this October at the Chicago meeting. It may seem an odd idea but it is a simple story. 

A few years back a friend went to Russia and I asked if she might find a matryoshka for me. She brought back the traditional Christmas set of nesting dolls: Santa, the Mrs., snowman, elf, and tiny evergreen tree. It comes out every Christmas and I always thank my friend for the additional gift of a blank set that she found. She thought I might want to make an “original.” 

The blanks sat on a shelf in my drawing room for quite some time before I thought to incorporate them with my botanical art endeavors. The form lent itself to the shape of several cacti species, so I set about trying to adapt them to the wooden object. I was pleasantly surprised how nicely colored pencil worked on the surface of the linden wood. I found a few suppliers of the blanks, some more nicely crafted than others. Some sets need to be sanded smoother, while others need to have the shine taken off before the pencil will adhere well. I finish them with several coats of spray lacquer and identify the species on the bottom. When they are nesting inside each other it is always fun to open them up and find the next smaller one. When they are displayed in a grouping it is reminiscent of a cactus garden. 

Matryoshka dolls came to Russia from Japan around 1899. All of the blanks are hand turned on lathes, the outside finished first before they are hollowed out. They are considered to be toys and continue the long history of Russian toy making. The successful combination of traditional art and folk culture with the long tradition of master craftsmanship inwoodworking in many Russian villages led to their popularity and to becoming a standard for Russian folk art. 

I have been surprised and pleased at how my Desert Matryoshka have been received. They have been exhibited and sold at the Tohono Chul Park Gallery, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and private fundraisers in Tucson, AZ. Susan Fisher, past-president of ASBA and former director of ASDM Nature Illustration Certificate Program, and Ronda Ballard have purchased one of cacti and one depicting owls of the desert southwest. The Desert Museum has one in their art collection and the Colored Pencil Society of America exhibited a set in an Explore This show in California. I have completed around 20 sets and have kept the very first one and a larger one for myself. I have had great pleasure in creating them.  

  • Desert Matryoshka 9 Colored pencil on linden forms ©Joan McGann 2012