There’s a lot to say about the dolls of Barbed Art: Reconstructed Fashion Dolls & Action Figures, a new show at Artist’s Union Gallery that runs the gamut of women’s issues, the nuances of empowerment and the joy of reveling in who we really are.

But, whatever you do, remember that those dolls are a whole lot more than Barbies.

“There are really a lot of women’s issues that we’re addressing,” says Gayel Childress of Ojai, a longtime artist and member of the Artist’s Union Gallery. Childress, one of eight founding artists who reconstructed dolls for the show, is quick to note that, while the show is made up primarily of reconstructed Barbies, use of the dolls isn’t meant as a direct reflection, or deflection, of Barbie as a cultural icon.

Instead, the show, which appropriately kicks off in March, Women’s History Month, is designed as a forum through which women — and men, too — can recreate dolls that better reflect their own experiences or views of life, identity and women’s political, socio-economic and cultural roles. While a few men did submit pieces for the show, the lion’s share of the more than 70-piece show was created by women.

Perfect imperfections

As everyone, regardless of artistic expertise, age, sex and gallery affiliation was encouraged to submit pieces, the works represent dolls with many different stories to tell. As a result, the show includes at least one multigenerational piece created by a mother and daughter, as well as a piece submitted by two very young girls.

These dolls have gained and lost weight, endured menopause and premenstrual syndrome, survived breast cancer, lost limbs, gotten pregnant and been tattooed. In short, these “Barbies” are more than the sum of their once-perfect parts.

The show, which opened March 10, included a live auction of eight dolls that were restructured by the eight women from various walks of life who came together to organize the show. Each woman started out with a doll of her own, which she changed to her liking and then passed on to the next woman, in round-robin fashion. Each woman added her own touch to the doll, which went on her journey through the circle of women with a journal in which each woman could add a chapter to the doll’s story. Proceeds from the live auction will benefit the Coalition to End Family Violence.

“Our goal was to get rid of that cultural icon that no one can live up to,” says Patty Van Dyke, an art therapist and one of the eight round-robin artists. “There is a taboo about messing with Barbie because she is such a cultural icon.”

Real women reflected in art

Sylvia Raz, a longtime Ojai feminist artist and one of the round-robin artists, had collected Barbie dolls for years and dreamed of doing a show like Barbed Art. It wasn’t until she joined forces with the other women, however, that her fantasy found an outlet. Raz restructured one of her dolls as a Muslim woman in a burka, on her way to market.

“American women are allowed to bare themselves, while these women in other cultures must cover themselves and look all the same — but both cultures are having trouble,” says Raz, who imbued her doll restructurings with heavy doses of reality.

Raz says the round-robin process was therapeutic for the eight women, who had to trust one another enough to pass their creations on for alteration. Many of the women were strangers before the process began.

Van Dyke recreated her doll as a mermaid, a doll that, because of Raz’s addition, comes into contact with a shark and, ultimately, returns home pregnant. “As women, at least with this kind of presentation, we can do this for women,” Raz says. “We can unite behind Barbie and do things for women that are important.”

Another element of the Barbed Art show will be Bodies Unbound, a one-woman theater piece written and performed by Cynthia Waring Matthews. The show details the life of a woman who leaves a convent and “learns the power of ordinary experience and the wisdom of the flesh by becoming a massage therapist.” Fifty percent of proceeds from Waring Matthews’ performance will benefit the Coalition to End Family Violence.

It takes but a quick glance at Barbed Art to see that the thrust of the show is the celebration of self and the ability to embrace reality, with all of its seeming imperfections.

One of the show’s pieces, by Colleen McDougal, is a re-imagining of a scene from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in which Aurora dances with a trio of animals in the forest — not long before she meets her prince. Titled “Even After 50 Years, Queen Charming Recalls Her Forest Fantasy,” what we see is Aurora as a smiling, lusty, middle-aged woman who is still sexual and fun after all these years.

She may not be flat of tummy, but she’s definitely full of life.