Doll of the Desert

Desert Guardian

Doll of the Desert © 2013 Bo Mackison

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for living. ~ Simone de Beauvoir

Laying the Groundwork

I am exploring a variety of arts in the solitude of the desert — art that offers me a connection with my inner space, with my spirituality, with the roots of authentic living. I am searching. I am listening. I am creating.

During a conversation with a wise woman guide, we talked about the many ways of using the creative arts to explore the journey of living a full life. We discussed journal writing, art journaling, dream journaling, book-making, collage, weaving — all of which I’ve experienced, some more than others. As we were discussing a dream I’d had involving a doll house and a collection of dolls and accessories, she questioned if I might be interested in making a doll. Or several. I wasn’t sure, I replied. Sewing has never been a favorite activity of mine.

When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Appears

Serendipity intervened. A day later I was researching visiting hours for a regional arboretum and their site had a photograph of a small figure created from the natural materials of the desert. My curiosity was piqued. After contacting Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, I learned about a just-scheduled workshop – Figures from Natural Materials. I registered on the spot. (Sherpa was visiting and I claimed a second space in the workshop for him. More on his experience in the next post — it’s an another amazing story, and too good to keep to myself!)

The workshop was taught by Ruth Ipsan-Brown. What a creative and kind dynamo! Ruth spends half her days scrounging arroyos, open desert, parking lot perimeters, and back lots of arboretums (with permission) for sticks, twigs, seed pods, cactus skeletons, rocks and minerals, dried flowers and other such stuff. When not out in nature, she keeps a look out in thrift stores (grape-vine wreaths for dismantling), gem shows (tiny crystals and beads to augment her collection) and other such places.

Ruth then creates small figures from her collection of natural and found materials. The arboretum saw her marvelous constructions, asked if she would teach a workshop, and so it happened.

We arrived early at Boyce Thompson, allowing us time to stroll the almost deserted gardens. It had rained and everything was freshly bathed, the smell was heavenly. We arrived at the workshop studio at noon and met Ruth. She gave us a few instructions – some advice on using glue guns and drilling holes with Dremls, a quick lesson on painting tiny faces on flat rocks or bone. Then the fun began.

I looked over Ruth’s collection of desert finds, picking a few things that seemed to call to me. I’d bring a handful of nature bits to my workspace, add a piece to my figure, return the unused items. Repeat. Eventually, this tiny doll sculpture emerged. I created her without a lot of planning or thought.

A Doll of Metaphors

It was not until later that evening, when I was studying my creation, that I realized the desert doll was quite metaphorical. I identified some of the plants that made up the doll figure and looked up some of their symbolic meanings..

She has a piece of the Ironwood’s trunk for the base. According to a forest lore site, Grotto Radio, this tree “will teach that you can resurrect from tragedy”. The site also says the Ironwood tree spirit is “slow and grounded. One that sees its own feet walking the path rather than looking up to see the sun. It is not about speed or result but the effort put in the moment.”

My doll-figure’s spine is a spine from a cholla cactus, a relic from the desert that could be nearly 2oo years old. It is a symbol of endurance, survival in hardship, and to the  Tohono O’odham people, “the plant is a sacred being, capable of sustaining life.” What better choice for the spine of my desert doll?

Behind the saguaro spine is a bit of feathery skeleton from the prickly pear. Merely touching this dried skeleton can cause damage. Is that a cautionary sign to “handle gently” – that everything has its fragile part?

The cactus flower is often called a symbol of maternal love, a symbol of the unconditional love of Mother Earth, even under the most difficult of conditions. Every one would do well to have a symbol of unconditional love nearby.

And one final symbol – the turquoise “hat”. The turquoise gemstone is a symbol of protection and strength.

So, it seems as if my little figure is imbued with much mythological and symbolic meaning. It was a fun exercise – both its creation and the consideration of its symbolism. I think I’ll continue to explore this type of creation.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC. Sometimes she takes time away from photography to explore other creative outlets, and in doing so she discovers a depth to her world she once only imagined.

About Bo Mackison

I'm a photographer, book-artist, traveler, naturalist, and creator of the Contemplative Creatives Journey, An Online Workshop and Community and Desert Wisdom Cards and Workshops. Though often not well known, I find the desert a welcoming place - a healing space. Its mysteries and gifts transformed me several years ago. Since that first encounter, I return again and again to fill my well in what most people think of as a desolate region. I'd love to share my desert discoveries and wisdom with you. Please subscribe to receive my five part mini email course The Gifts of the Desert. It's my gift to you.


  1. That sounds like quite a fun trip. Can’t wait to read about Sherpa’s experience. I love that you found the meanings behind the different elements, it makes it even more special!

    • Bo Mackison says:

      Making these little figures was great fun. But now I’m having great fun having gentle conversations with her.

  2. Looks pretty spectacular. I’m not into that type of activity, but I find your linkage to attributes of the doll components to be rather synchronistic. I don’t believe it was accidental or random.

  3. That is clearly a doll of the desert! The ancient ones would be pleased.

  4. Utterly amazing. That you discovered deep meanings within your creation hours afterward speaks to the divine. Wow. I love how you are branching out, reaching out for new experiences!

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