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On the wings of Fantasy
By:TARA TOBIAS, Community Editor, The Star Democrat, Easton, MD

October 7, 2001

Photos by CHRIS POLK


EASTON - In a modest-sized garage turned studio revealing bare studs and a poured cement floor, a world of fantasy exists as hundreds of little fairy tale creatures come to life each day.
These unique hand-made and sculpted marionettes, fairytale dolls, and Renaissance costumes are the apples of Eric and Debra Hathaway Heath's eyes. The Renaissance artisans own Dragon Wings in Easton, a studio specializing in the unusual, off-the-beaten-path art form that in addition to the dolls and marionettes include feather boas, hats, fans, masks, bridal wear, beaded hairsticks and even angel wings.

But Debra Hathaway's brainchild didn't begin without its share of winding roads and uphill climbs as her delicate creations didn't receive a face, literally, up until about 10 years ago.

Believing she was born with "gypsy blood" running through her veins, Hathaway's desire to travel outside her home state of Massachusetts and to explore other areas around the country seemed inevitable. After graduating from high school, she landed in Denver, Colo., looking for a job in her late teens. Little did she know that the gritty line of work unexpectedly exposed her creative side.

"Colorado was the first state to hire women on a construction site," she said. "I got a job working with a crew and then later became part of the drywall crew. It was at this time that I realized I was good at doing detail, meticulous work," Hathaway said.

Bound for the sunny skies of California, Hathaway later moved to the West Coast and opened her own drywall business in her early 20s, doing custom drywall work for wealthy customers in their high-dollar homes, she said.

"I found that things like that ultimately come together and relate," said Hathaway who worked in the drywall business until turning 30.

It was during this time Hathaway first sampled the Renaissance revelry as she served as a wench for the Southern California Pleasure Faire - considered to be the "grandmother" of all renaissance faires being about 35 years old. Following the "Drywall Debbie" experience, as she was affectionately referred to by fellow colleagues, Hathaway moved from sunny California to the tropics of Hawaii, destined to find her niche.

Influenced by the simplicity of life and Asian influence in designs and art there, Hathaway began making jewelry using the themes she found, and later helped create the Renaissance Faire in Oahu, Hawaii.

Specifically, the colorful pins and barrettes were a collage of tassels, tapestry, fans and chopsticks, with brocade trims, and semi-precious stones.

"The jewelry was really successful as it was sold throughout the nation in boutiques and department stores including Macy's and Nordstrom's."

During this time, Hathaway was wed and continued to design her line of jewelry. After giving birth to her daughter, Olivia Maria Eva Lani (meaning "gift from heaven" in Hawaiian) Hathaway (now 15 years old), the three lived on the island several more years. Eventually, the couple divorced and she and Olivia moved to New England so Hathaway could expand Dragon Wings.

"My business then exploded," Hathaway said.

While there, she mostly employed single parents, mainly women.

"The economy where we were staying was very poor and it was difficult to find a good livelihood especially if you weren't skilled in a particular field," she said. "I just felt it was a good way to help people around me."

Still eager to travel and realizing her deep desire to create beauty, Hathaway tried her hand at being juried into renaissance faires with her pieces. Hathaway's work paralleled her interest in faires as it progressed from being highly influenced by the Asian culture, to Chinese Victorian and then finally Renaissance. She was juried into the Maryland Renaissance Festival, which runs from late August until late October in Crownsville.

"I then had a wonderful idea to make a character doll," said Hathaway, who as a child delighted in making "wonderful little creatures" out of the many unusual fabrics her mother kept in bins and used for making quilts.

"I truly believe it was inside me to do this," she said.

And Puss N' Boots was born, a fairytale doll to illustrate the popular children's story. She soon taught herself how to make the dolls into marionettes, and watched her new artistic medium take shape.

Sporting brown velvet pants and a textured beige top, the porcelain cat is adorned with a hat and leather belt. Down to his tail, the puss was made more life-like with its light brown fur on its head, and paws. Hathaway was thrilled with her thriving marionette, doll and costume accessories shop.

Over time, her designs developed as the dolls are now made of resin (a polyurethane material resembling wood when completed) and then carved.

"The porcelain stays the same after being fired, but the resin carves like ivory and is better suited for making different facial features. This way, no two dolls are exactly the same," Hathaway said.

Her creatures are all jointed, hand-painted, and dressed from head to toe with handmade outfits, all with different "personalities," she noted. Because of their joints, they move as if they were real life and can all be strung as marionettes if desired. The tiny little joints are pegged, incorporating waxed linen for durability, which creates more flawless movement, Hathaway said.

The smaller dolls are made of solid resin, while the larger ones - 18 inches or more - have only resin appendages. These have muslin stuffed bodies filled with tiny weighted beads, for a more life-like feel, she said.

"I still make Puss N' Boots today and am always adding onto the collection. Sometimes I sit with a piece of clay and a face comes out of it ... it's not always planned. I realized what fun it is and how wonderful it is to be an artist."

After her first faire, Hathaway became involved in several others throughout the country. For one to sell their wares at a faire, participants must buy one of the available buildings on the fairgrounds to sell out of, with the culmination of huts creating a cozy, period-style village.

"I met my husband, Eric Heath, at the Maryland Renaissance Festival," she said. "He was the pretzel man and sang in a wonderful opera voice. When he came into my life I was based out of New Hampshire and he said he would help me and make the designs work better ... we didn't give up."

The two were married in 1997, and he also became part of Dragon Wings. The two started venturing from faire to faire in Arizona, Texas, and Colorado, still participating today, selling the whimsical dolls and other items. The couple then moved from New England to Easton a year ago with Hathaway's daughter.

"It's wonderful being an artist, but then to be at a faire, with all the acting taking place and everyone speaking old English, it is a dream. The marionettes are a wonderful tool to engage in conversation with people. Also people love coming into the shop and put hats on or wrap a boa around them ... it's almost like they transform and allows them to experiment for a moment," she said.

The couple demonstrate how to string marionettes during faire times.

"I think I was definitely born to be creative and very much encouraged by my mother who is a powerhouse of creativity," said Hathaway who handles the designs, sculpting and painting the dolls at her studio.

Eric helps with the artistic end of things such as carving, the engineering of marionettes as well and he assists his wife when she has "artistic blocks." Heath also has been an entertainer and technical expert including computer engineer, piano lounge entertainer and even a singing waiter on a cruise ship prior meeting Debra. In addition, he is a graduate of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

Dragon Wings employee John Jacobo helps to cast the figures and perform the initial carving and painting to the doll prior to Hathaway's final touches of detail carving, painting facial features and dressing each figure.

"It's an overall effort of design, sculpt, paint, cast, carve and sew to create the fantasy creatures," Hathaway said.

Among her dolls of frog princes, knights, pigs and winged cows, gargoyles, foxes, children, Persian cats, fairies, and pirates, Hathaway also creates likenesses of people with photographs given to her. All the creations are dressed in their finest, decorated with brocades, lace, feathers, velvet, and buttons right down to the smallest of details such as a liftable helmet visor for the medieval knight to a wooden leg and leather eye patch for the pirate cat doll.

A basic, nine string marionette will cost about $75, with a knight running about $130 because of its 13 strings. Prices increase depending on the number of strings and design of outfit.

"The more strings there are mean more moving parts which take more time to make," said Hathaway.

Perhaps the most expensive marionette is a regal-dressed cat, but not because of the number of strings, however. It's her actual crystals adorning her crown and ornate attire that fetch the $250 price tag.

The feather angel wings range from about $27 for children's cherub wings to $300 for 5 foot-long wings having multiple rows of feathers on both sides of a fabric base, creating a more natural, three-dimensional look, Hathaway said. Many purchase the wings for costumes, for the use of flower girls in weddings, and proms.

Thousands of fairytale dolls and marionettes later, Hathaway desires to make her figures for large theater productions in the near future.

"It's a dream to be able to do what my true calling is ... to be an artist and have it as a life's vocation. This is who I am and I feel like what I'm supposed to be doing."

To see Hathaway's designs, visit her website at www.dragonwings.net.

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Debra Hathaway and Eric Heath
Dragon Wings LLC
PO Box 801
Easton, MD 21601
USA

Copyright 1997-2016 by Eric Heath and Debra Hathaway