By Jillian Risberg
Artistry is in their genes, but Ecuadorian sisters, 12-year-old Emilia Odenwelder and 10-year-old Juliana Odenwelder have a flair all their own, taking donated dolls in varying states of use and giving them remarkable makeovers.
The fixer-upper idea was the brainchild of one of the volunteers at Denville’s own Book Barn who often comes across wild-haired dolls that could qualify as trash to some, but felt the well-worn toys deserved a second chance and definitely new homes.
Emilia and Juliana agreed, so for them to make a conscious decision to fix the dolls up instead of throwing them in the garbage pile is everything.
“The girls just see them in a different light,” Schussler says, of the barbies. “This is the time they start tossing the dolls and instead they’re like, ‘No, no.’”
Barbies are always a fun toy if you’re of a certain age — when girls are about six or seven-years-old.
“By the time we get them, they’ve been loved a lot,” Schussler says. “From doing their hair and changing them to just playing the game of dress-up and parties and everything that barbies do. Then the kids grow older and what do you do — you donate them.”
Using their imaginative touch and skill, this has become a real artistic outlet for the sisters, who look forward to each Barbie that comes across their path as another chance for a doll overhaul.
“I feel very happy about it because you get to be creative and I know that someone will love those dolls someday and I feel good doing it for them,” Emilia says.
The Barbie (and other) dolls are for resale, with all proceeds going to charity. And the sisters have been giving new life to these ragged figures – doing all they can to untangle their hair and make it sleek again, as well as outfit the girls in trendy new threads constructed from bits of cloth.
We are each our own person, and thanks to Emilia and Juliana’s inspired ideas when it comes to the Barbies, Bratz and ceramic figures, the dolls personalities shine through. We then get to witness fantastic transformations— from the dolls’ updated locks to their sweet looks.
The sisters are happily taking us along on their journey of self discovery in their new country, as they nurture and showcase their unique craftsmanship.
And they definitely have fans drawn to the dolls, so why is the community so taken with these plastic toys, as well as Emilia and Juliana’s work?
Well, everyone loves a good makeover story and no-one does it better than Barbie. For three generations the iconic brand has been a good friend to girls worldwide.
So it seemed aptly fitting that she wished for more inclusivity on her 60th birthday by offering a wider range of body types, skin tones, hairdos, lifestyles and physical capabilities.
According to the girl’s mother, Jobita Anguisaca, it was never her intention for Emilia and Juliana to be artists like her, though she’s led by example the importance of a clean lifestyle and caring about the world around them.
And refurbishing barbies is definitely in line with Mattel’s promise to ‘create the experiences that capture kids’ hearts, open their minds and unlock their potential through play — as well as their purpose to ‘inspire wonder in the next generation to shape a brighter tomorrow.’
“Always my intention was to show them creativity and don’t waste — I put it in front of them; we had conversations,” says Anguisaca, herself a multimedia artist who paints with acrylic and now uses recyclable plastic ‘because I am worried about environmental problems.’
Thrift Barns of Morris County appreciates that the girls are starting young to take such responsibility and Anguisaca is raising environmentally and socially conscious young women.
“We’re putting a little story that these were done by Emilia and Juliana just to say that they didn’t come this way,” says volunteer Annie Schussler, who manages the Barn’s Facebook page.
“I like styling them, their hair and clothing,” says Juliana, who says she and her sister sometimes turn to YouTube for inspiration on how to restore old dolls.
Harford has sold a few Barbies since putting them up in baskets on two shelves en route to the puzzle room at the Book Barn.
“I recognized the buyers but do not know their names,” Harford says. “When I am in the room with prospective buyers I always tell the story of our young doll doctor redecorators.”
The girls do the Barbie’s hair, in often elaborate styles, and make little outfits for the dolls as well,” Schussler says.
According to Anguisaca, they put so much into these refurbished creations.
“They were happy to do it — so they start fixing everything with a lot of patience (and) a lot of passion,” says the mom of two.
She says moving to the United States was a good way for the girls to soak up a different way of life, grow up more, with their brains observing more and their emotions — especially getting to work on the dolls.
There’s a ballerina Barbie with an enviable bob wearing a dark pink shirt made of an old t-shirt. Other outfits are fashioned out of socks.
“It was matched so well, I didn’t notice it was handmade for the longest time,” Schussler says. “ It is beautiful work by a 10 and 12-year-old.”
The Barbies are donated to Book Barn and do not belong to the Odenwelders personally.
“They’ve refurbished dozens of them and are now expanding beyond Barbies to other types of dolls (Bratz),” Schussler says. “Maz told me they just finished another batch, so now they have more dolls to sell. I can’t wait to see them.”
According to Emilia, now they’re also working on collectibles — the dolls with the large ceramic faces.
“I actually prefer the ceramic dolls because their head is bigger and some of them have long hair,” she says. “Barbies are sometimes tough to work on because their heads are so little.”
The level of creativity on such a small scale exhibited by the girls truly amazes Schussler.
“Who cares for dolls like that,” she says. “First I noticed the hair. They put rubber bands and styled it all different ways, in some cases they would give it a haircut. There was one where the hair was shorn so much that they fashioned a little hat for her. It’s darling; every single one of them.”
When the girls complete the makeover, Schussler says they put the doll in a little plastic bag and wrap it with a ribbon.
“From start to finish, you just don’t see this in 10 and 12-year-old girls,” she says. “They want to take this tossed doll and make them beautiful and turn it into something that somebody else will love.”
Anguisaca echoes that sentiment, saying this was more than just putting out some dolls to sell, she wanted her daughters to recognize what it means to create something of value.
Not only are the sisters super talented but Schussler says they have a fantastic perspective on life.
“They are the nicest girls and many times with a volunteer, especially as you get older it’s like, ‘Well, I need this for my college exam’ or whatever. But this is really coming from themselves,” she says. “They truly enjoy it and are really committed to it.”
For Emilia, the most exciting part is refurbishing a doll that is dirty with ripped clothes.
“We get to fix it back and make new clothes for them,” the 12-year-old says. “I think that’s really fun and then also their hair, you get to do all kinds of different hairstyles and that’s the part I think I love the most.”
They really take the time to make them their own and Schussler says now the dolls are just about as good as when you see it in the store.
“So I think it turns it from like somebody’s naked old Barbie to something that is beautiful again. I don’t want to call them magical but they really are — there’s always something just warm and wonderful about Barbies,” says Schussler, a former Barbie owner herself.
The iconic doll has followed us to this day and the Book Barn volunteer says sometimes she can even recognize a Barbie face.
“Cause each one is apparently a little different and I’ll go, ‘Oh, I know that one, that is the Loving You Barbie or Golden Glamour’ and there’s a little flutter in your heart,” Schussler says. “So it’s wonderful to see that these dolls go from being in bad shape to being restored.”