Lovi Mays-Joson sits in her tranquil, candle-lit condominium. Her walls are adorned with African artifacts. Sweeping fabrics, self-made wall sculptures in colorful patterns line her living room.
For 20 years, Mays-Joson has been making fabric sculptures, she said. But her unique hobby of designing dolls made of colorful cloth began from practical reasons. “When I had my children, I started sewing,” she said. She also makes her own clothes.
Born in Philadelphia in a traditional Christian family, she described her early childhood as living in a box that stifled her imagination. She was curious about her ethnic background. As an African-American, she said she had no records of her family’s history. Her family didn’t encourage her quest to learn where she came from either. “In my era I didn’t have that,” she said.
So today, Mays-Joson makes fabric sculptures in the likeness of human beings – some of them life-size – that in many ways represent the different cultures she says can be found in her background.
She calls them “Bigginz” dolls that seem to grow as her grandchildren age, she said.
Mays-Joson moved from Philadelphia to Dover. Since 1976, she worked as an Air Force employee as a Department of Defense civilian. In 1999, she retired in Sussex County.
“That was a diverse culture in itself, being in the military,” she said.
While on base, Mays-Joson said she became acquainted with people from all over the world. Her new friends soon began bringing her artifacts from overseas. Today, family and friends return from Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe with colorful tribal fabrics that she twists and wraps to make her life-size dolls.
Friends also scour yard sales and thrift stores coming up with necklaces and trinkets that adorn her Bigginz.
Many Bigginz have no eyes, mouth or expressions, she said, so viewers can create in their own imagination the identity of the dolls.
“I’ve been unable to trace my own genealogy to the roots, unlike some folks,” she said. The Bigginz become her family in a way, she said.
The dolls have no arms, also on purpose. “That’s another expression. They can fly without wings,” she said.
She also uses the dolls to talk to children about African and other native cultures, as a way to educate young people about their past and other societies.
As her grandchildren aged, she said, she began building the dolls bigger. “I could show them growing up as my grandchildren grew up,” she said. “My dolls grow too.”
She said fabric sculptures could be found everywhere and in all countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Africa.
In the Cape Region, however, Mays-Joson has cornered the market.
“I can explore any avenue. There’s no boundaries,” she said.