Filipino artist Noel Cruz still plays with dolls, but instead of derision, his life-long passion has earned him big bucks, personal satisfaction and recognition, including a mention in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not “Unusual Art and Fashion” list.
On Jan. 13 this year, the Ripley’s website (www.ripleys.com) cited Cruz’s work: “What sets Noel apart from other artists is how incredibly realistic his dolls look. He truly captures the essence and uniqueness of the celebrity he is painting.”
From sketching portraits, the former accounting drop-out transitioned into a different art form after stumbling upon photos of intricately painted dolls online. Unlike factory-assembled dolls, these repainted figures are more personalized, their facial features taken from the famous visage of celebrities or moneyed clients who commission the dolls as gifts for family or friends. The dolls fetch a handsome price from collectors as well who buy them on eBay or from auctions.
Cruz may have become the most celebrated artist in the repaint doll community, but the going was tough.
The third in a brood of six, he remembered lean times in Sta. Ana, Manila and later, in Muntinlupa where he grew up. His parents, father Leonardo Cruz, an ordinary employee in a trading firm, and mother Carmen Antonio, an insurance agent, could hardly make ends meet.
In fact, he didn’t get to watch TV until he was 12, when his parents sent him to live with his aunt. There, peeking through a neighbor’s window, he managed to watch the Miss Universe pageant’s live telecast and saw beautiful faces of different ethnicities taking the stage.
Discovering television changed his life. Getting fixated on “The Bionic Woman’s” Jaime Sommers, portrayed by Hollywood star Lindsay Wagner, he began sketching her face, working from his memories of scenes from the TV show.
He started spending hours drawing just about anything, a passion that he said, “allowed (him) to learn and grow as a portrait artist.”
Recalled Cruz: “My mom was very supportive of my drawing and even helped me get my first customers when I was a teenager. My dad meanwhile gave me tons of papers and pencils.”
But pragmatism tempered his parents’ support. On their suggestion that he take up a course that would “pay the bills,” Cruz took up accounting at the University of the East, but managed to stay in school only up to third year.
He continued polishing his art and worked full time as an artist.
Later, through his wife, Emma who was petitioned by her family, Cruz had the chance to migrate in the United States where he finished college and got a degree in Communications from the California State University.
“Job opportunities were much more available,” Cruz said of his early years as a transplanted artist in the US, although he had to start with odd jobs: as a janitor earning $5 an hour, as parking attendant and later, as parking manager. “But none of these jobs ever brought me real satisfaction,” he said.
The age of the Internet brought him that chance encounter with repainted dolls online, and sped him on his way to a lifelong dream.
Cruz’s fascination with miniature things helped him in his art. As dolls are miniature replicas of people, it was easier for him to turn them into his canvas.
Repainting dolls involves an intensive process that starts with trying to find a pre-existing doll of the celebrity, or at least one with similar features. Removing the doll’s original paint comes next, after which the artist draws the client’s face on the doll. The meticulous styling of the hair and adding distinguishing features like a tattoo or beauty mark are the final steps.
The process can take from several days to a couple of weeks, as “the biggest challenge in repainting a celebrity doll is to make it convincingly lifelike and looking exactly like the client.”
Once the repainting is done, the doll is now ready to be dressed authentically, often using pre-manufactured costumes readily available for purchase.
Cruz considers himself self-trained and self-taught: “I learned from doing and from my mistakes,” he said.
Graphic designer and photographer Steve McKinnis, described the artist as someone who strives for perfection.
McKinnis’ article titled “You’ll Never Make a Living With Art: The Art and Passion of Noel Cruz,” a testimonial published in Cruz’s website, describes the artist as having “an exacting method to his ‘madness,’” one who “does not settle or compromise his pursuit as an artist in any way, shape or form…”
Write-ups about him and being cited in the Ripley’s website are recognition enough, said Cruz, who said he has never participated in any competition “because what I do is a niche form of art. Some of the greatest rewards I’ve received lie in the satisfaction of having shared my art with the world, being validated as an artist, and gaining the respect of the community.”
His biggest online art gallery is on deviantART (noeling.deviantart.com), he added.
A recent recognition is a nomination to the Third Annual DollObservers.com Fashion Doll Awards 2014 in the category “Best OOAK Fashion Doll Artist.” OOAK stands for “one-of-a-kind.” Winners of the competition will be announced on March 9.
Sales on eBay provide him another more tangible reward, with commissioned dolls fetching upwards of $1,000 (check out www.ncruz.com on how to order).
“My commission fee is not cheap, but what you see is what you get,” he explained. “I take pride in my work and the level of artistry and detail that go into every piece. Each doll is unique and can take as long as two weeks to create.”
Just as rewarding are speculations that A-listers in Hollywood have become secret clients.
In July 2008, talk was rife that actress Angelina Jolie had bought a repainted doll in one of Cruz’s auctions. The anonymous buyer was from France, at the same time that the actress was about to give birth to her twins there. “I would like to believe it’s true, but who knows?” Cruz shrugged.
In 2011, singer-songwriter Carole Bayer Sager commissioned a doll for herself, and so did 1995 Miss USA Lu Parker, in 2012.
Among collectors, Cruz’s Jolie replica is very popular, and so are those that are repainted to look like characters from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Twilight.” Just recently, he finished repaint dolls of Jennifer Lopez and Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games.”
“My clients are serious and hard-core adult collectors who want the best looking celebrity dolls that one can find. They seek highly realistic and life-like dolls and expect nothing less in their collections,” Cruz said.
On rare occasions, some would purchase figures for themselves or for a family member or friends. Some of Cruz’s dolls have been used on the mini-furniture shop Regent Miniatures’ website.
Aside from Cruz, repaint artists Cyrus Lee and Lulemee also showcase their works online, Lee on flickr.com/cyguy83, and Lulemee on www.lulemee.com.
Creating art can be very daunting, said this Filipino artist who has a 27-year-old son. But “art is about creating and inspiring a thought and feeling in others. If we can accomplish that with art, then we have succeeded in making a real human connection.” •