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“Smile! Smile, honey!” Debra Klopp Kersey says as she playfully pokes her husband, Mike Kersey, while I’m taking his photo for this story. Living just a few miles from Cumberland Falls State Resort Park in Corbin, the couple has been married 10 years and together for 15. They are in sync and extremely supportive of each other’s artwork, and yet their artistic accomplishments are indicative of their different and complementary personalities.
Hers is the bubbly and effervescent type, yet she possesses an unusual outlook on life, resulting in the creation of hundreds of creepy, colorful and eccentric dolls. She lovingly calls them her “Klopp Kids.” His persona is reserved and introspective, and lends itself perfectly to his simplistic, rugged pieces of art crafted primarily from driftwood.
It’s hard to imagine that a person so sweet and vivacious can come up with such unusual and scary dolls, but Deb does, and she has a large following.
“I’m inspired by everyone,” says Deb, who works professionally as a nurse-turned-insurance-utilization-review-specialist. “I’m a people watcher. I started out painting in 2005. It just kind of turned from painting into making dolls. We came up with a whole family of characters one night sitting in a bar just watching people come in. You can get all kinds of creative gestures, facial expressions, and you can take that home and create anything you want to.”
Deb says she has many sketches of facial expressions that she uses to make her handmade, one-of-a-kind dolls and is inspired all the time in everyday life, even though she may not admit to a particular person that he or she inspired her to make a creepy “kid.”
“If you sit and watch somebody for any amount of time, they’re going to do something pretty silly,” she says with a laugh.
Deb admits her dolls are creepy and chuckles at the wide range of reactions she gets to them.
“We just did the Berea Art Festival, and there’s some people who won’t even come in my booth,” she says. “They just give me that look … People sometimes get really freaked out by it.
“When people see my dolls, they want to stand over in the corner and whisper. They want to whisper and say, ‘What was it that you were thinking about?’ Like there’s some kind of secret that goes on. There’s no secret to it.”
One time, a customer bought a doll and then returned it a week later because it was creeping her out, and she didn’t want it in her house.
Of her husband’s beautiful and minimalistic wooden creations, Deb says, “I’ve got pictures of people just grinning like there’s no tomorrow … People squeal when they see his work.”
Mike, a full-time loan officer for the Small Business Administration, crafts wooden birds, flowers, stick figures and other rustic wooden items.
“It’s really rough,” he says. “It’s supposed to be rough.”
Mike loves the outdoors and nature, and the majority of the material used in his pieces is driftwood gathered from places like Cumberland Falls, Laurel Lake and Lake Cumberland.
“I play with wood; it’s driftwood, mostly,” he says. “When I look at it, I see something to start with, so there’s a basic idea already there. And I’ll just scoop it up and run with it.”
He says each piece of wood he finds already has its own natural tendency to be something special.
Mike, who has two kids and two grandkids, says a place like Cumberland Falls is ideal for gathering driftwood because “it’s really shallow, and the rocks and water beat [the wood] to death.”
There’s no way to know where the wood has come from, and usually he can’t even tell what type of wood it is. The feel, smell and mystery of driftwood inspire him to make stunning pieces of art.
“A lot of it—who knows where it comes from?” he says. “But some of it is really, really old, because you’ll find old dresser drawers and knobs and things like that that have been rusted to death and are really old.”
These finds make for unique pieces of art, each one with a story. Many of them are shaped like little people. Deb says a woman once told the story of how one of Mike’s wooden “people” helped her son learn how to potty train.
Both began dabbling in art a decade ago. Deb’s painting evolved into dolls, which she crafts primarily from paper, polymer clays, fabric, wood, wire, buttons and other raw, rustic materials that lend themselves to creepy characters that go along with the stories she imagines about her pieces. These stories inspire her artwork.
For example, Deb created a series of paintings and prints called the Blackheart Family and one she dubbed Herschel’s Adventures. Peculiar, of course, both series are colorful and relate detailed stories. Herschel, “an old dope smoker who was trying to impress his date,” according to Deb, hangs Cupid, sees dying hearts after having his heart broken, meets the heart of his dreams only to discover it is cheating on him, begs God for his heart back, and is willing to repent, among his many other escapades.
Deb and Mike hope to be full-time artists when they retire and already have an extraordinary art studio behind their country home.
“It’s hard to balance work and playtime, and I consider that playtime,” Deb says of making her art. “It’s hard to balance it and have enough product. It sells quickly online.”
The demand for both artists’ work is there.
“I won’t make any money out of it, because I mostly just do it for myself,” Mike says, but jokes that they would have to “keep building on” to their house to hold all of his wife’s art pieces.
“All my kids need new homes,” Deb quips. “There’s only so many you can keep in the house. Mine need new homes. Mike has hardly any inventory right now, but that’s a good problem to have. It would be nice to have more time, where we could keep our inventory up, and we could satisfy everyone.”
She says most of her dolls are boxed up and travel with the couple when they participate in arts and crafts shows and festivals. They were scheduled to venture to Napa Valley for a show in September.
Deb says that as far as she knows, there is no one else making dolls like hers. She says her customers, like her dolls, vary a lot.
“I’ve never met anyone else who does this, so I hope that means I have my own unique style,” she says. “I sort of have the cute and fun ones and then creepy voodoo dolls. There are certain kinds of customers that buy those. They want to know what the inspiration was, what the secret is.”
Deb and Mike are Kentucky natives and have no plans to leave their home state. They own chickens, are avid gardeners and love to cook. They travel all over the state and enjoy spending time with family and finding new restaurants. There will be plenty more time for chats at the bar that will lead to more character storyboards, more paintings, more dolls.
Deb’s real-life inspirations, though? Those she will keep to herself.
“People might be offended if they knew they were the inspiration behind one of the dolls,” she says with a smirk, adding that she has a creative good friend who “gets” her artwork, understands that it’s not coming from a dark place, and tells Deb, “That doll kind of looks like me.”
All of Deb’s pieces are hand-sculpted, hand-painted, sewn, nailed and screwed. Each doll takes about a half-day to make and retails for an average of $80. She says many of the people who buy them are Halloween collectors or collect unique dolls in general. What you won’t find, she says, are many people buying the dolls for their children.