Chi-Lives: Jo-Jo's all dolled up | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi-Lives: Jo-Jo's all dolled up 

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Jo-Jo, who does hair at the Lakeview salon Milio's, has worked as a professional club kid for much of the decade, entertaining patrons at Karma, Red Dog, and Shelter. He has an amazing talent for transforming himself with costumes, wigs, and makeup, so perhaps it's no surprise that he's still playing with dolls. It's something he's been doing since childhood, when he used to disassemble and rebuild his Barbies to make their movements more natural, he says. He had G.I. Joes too, but he liked to melt them together to make Siamese twins. His mother had taught him to sew, so he could make costumes for his toys. "She never wanted me to depend on a woman," he says with a wry laugh.

About ten years ago, when he started hanging out in clubs, Jo-Jo met artist Greer Lankton at the now-closed drag bar Cheeks. "I told her about my puppets, and she said, 'I make puppets and dolls. You should come over sometime.'" Lankton did window displays at the Alley, and she and Jo-Jo started meeting after work to make dolls together. He learned that Lankton had recently returned to Chicago from New York in an attempt to leave her troubles behind. She told him stories about regulars of Andy Warhol's world like Candy Darling and Edie Sedgwick. "I'd be like, this woman is cracked," Jo-Jo says. "She's having delusions of grandeur." But Lankton really had been a fixture in the East Village art scene--a transsexual who was a favorite subject of photographer Nan Goldin and an accomplished doll maker whose poignant autobiographical works, such as Raggedy Anns with anorexia, were shown at the 1995 Whitney Biennial and 1995 Venice Biennale. "They seemed like they were alive," says Jo-Jo of her dolls. In 1996, not long after Lankton's final show, a re-creation of her Chicago apartment, she died of a drug overdose.

While "my stuff is a little happier than hers," Jo-Jo says, his style clearly echoes Lankton's. The dolls are emaciated and long limbed with ghostly pale skin and haunting eyes. They're not the kind of dolls to leave in the nursery.

In his overflowing Ukrainian Village apartment, his doll collection competes for space with feather boas, platform shoes, and other club paraphernalia. There are naked Sonny and Cher dolls, vintage Kewpie dolls, a chorus line of rubber baby dolls bordering his bathtub, and fussy-looking toddler-size dolls he impulsively ordered from the Home Shopping Network. The dining room, which doubles as his studio, is strewn with dolls in various stages of "surgery," from a row of toothy heads to a skeletal doll body hanging from an easel. It's a bit unnerving to be stared at by so many little eyes. He says one of the dolls looked so eerily animated that friends staying the night routinely turned it toward the wall before they went to sleep.

Some of Jo-Jo's creations take the form of fantastic creatures such as fairies, angels, centaurs, Pan, and Medusa, while others represent people in his life. They're often anatomically correct, as an angel hanging from a wall with a penis attests. A doll named Pansy, a purple-haired goth with piercings, a fishnet shirt, and motorcycle boots, pays homage to the punk kids who hang around Clark and Belmont. "I want to start making chubbier ones," Jo-Jo says, "because it's OK to be a little chubby. I have dreams of making dolls that are in fat suits, and you can unzip them and they come out and they're in skinny bodies."

Parts are scavenged from other dolls or other sources: a sleeve from a beaded gown was remade into a dress for a doll of silent-screen star Theda Bara; wiring from a remodeling job in a Sears Tower office that a friend grabbed for him became the innards of another doll. Jo-Jo finds that porcelain teeth and eyes really bring a doll to life, and he recently splurged on a set of World War I-era prosthetic eyeballs at an antiques shop.

He tries to animate his dolls from the inside too. Some are stuffed with human hair. He draws a heart on their chests with the imperative "Love Me" and embeds crystals into the bodies. "I just think they give the dolls a little bit more energy," he says. The last thing he does is give each doll a belly button to signal its birth. "I think doll makers are all magical," he says. "The other day I was thinking while I was sewing, 'Each stitch is a breath.'"

After Lankton's death Jo-Jo began working on a life-size doll of his mentor, complete with flowing blond hair, lush red lips, and a thin, fragile body. He dressed it in a white wedding dress made out of bits of fabric and buttons from Lankton's own wedding dress and wrapped it in strands of costume jewelry. He put a big jade heart inside its chest. "Sometimes I'll just go up to the doll and give it a hug," he says.

Jo-Jo's dolls, including his memorial to Lankton, are on display as part of the "Howl" exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 S. Hyde Park Boulevard, through December 18. For information call 773-324-5520. Several more of his dolls are included in "A Queer Little Show," works by members of the Radical Faeries. It runs through December 23 at ARC Gallery, 1040 W. Huron (312-733-2787). Admission to both shows is free. --Todd Savage

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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