By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Dollmaker Adwoa Cooper, left, is taking center stage at the State Fair, continuing her winning ways. Deborah Godfrey presents Cooper with a first-place ribbon at a weekend awards presentation. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER
Dollmaker Adwoa Cooper, left, is taking center stage at the State Fair, continuing her winning ways. Deborah Godfrey presents Cooper with a first-place ribbon at a weekend awards presentation. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER

While a new movie has come out celebrating the iconic Barbie and everything pink, a Bay Area dollmaker is happy to see some color added to the mix.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Adwoa Cooper didn’t see many dolls that shared her brown skin tone. She’d often leave the department store in tears.

“My mother is the inspiration behind me getting into doll making,” said Cooper, who has won two top prizes in the California State Fair’s craft competition. “We’d go to the store and I’d leave empty-handed because my father did not allow me to play with dolls other than brown-skinned dolls with textured hair.

“I’d be empty-handed because they’d have to order my dolls. There was no Amazon back then,” Cooper recalled. “My mother would always dry my tears and tell me ‘You know what, one day you’re going to go to the store and you’re going to be able to buy whatever you want.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, mama, it’s never going to happen.’

“I wish she’d lived to see this,” she said of today’s diverse selections.

Representation matters, even on the toy aisle. Cooper frequently visits Target just to marvel at the choices available to shoppers nowadays. “I have no intention of buying a doll, but I always walk through the doll department just to see what they have. It almost brings tears to my eyes because we didn’t have that,” said the Fairfield-based crafter.

Today, Cooper creates dolls in all kinds of shades using a Japanese technique called amigurumi.

“It’s a Japanese word that just means little knit or crocheted stuffed animal,” she explained. “But we take it to the next level and make people and different things with it.”

When most folks think of crocheting, they think of little old ladies in rocking chairs. Cooper defies that misconception. Her work is currently on display at the fair at Cal Expo.

She took home two top awards for a crocheted tribute to rap music. Her “Happy 50th Hip Hop” won Best of Division and first place in the amigurumi category.

Cooper’s ode to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary is featured in the fair’s California craft exhibition. Makers from throughout the state competed. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER
Cooper’s ode to hip-hop’s 50th anniversary is featured in the fair’s California craft exhibition. Makers from throughout the state competed. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER

Cooper comes from a family of creatives. “My mother, she was a knitter,” she said. “I learned that my grandmothers and my great-grandparents were basket weavers, and sewers and stitchers. So it’s kind of in our DNA.”

She dived in while working as a nurse in Napa.

“There was a group of rehab therapists on their lunch break stitching,” Cooper said. “I was just amazed walking in the room. The energy was good. They’re eating, they’re stitching, they’re talking about what they’re making and I thought, ‘I have to learn how to do that.’”

Cooper switched from knitting to crochet because it’s less time consuming.

“I do both, but crochet stuck with me,” she said.

“I drove my family crazy. Every Christmas, everybody got a hat and a scarf. Finally, they just said, ‘Can you please start selling this stuff? I have enough hats. I have enough scarves. We love you, but, please, no more.’”

Then, her oldest son asked her to make a Yoda doll from “Star Wars.”

“I looked online and I found a pattern. It was the most hideous thing,” she admitted. He took it from me and he said, ‘Mommy, thank you, but you can do better’ and he walked away.”

Another son asked her to make a character from the popular Angry Birds video game. This time the pattern was easier.

“I nailed it and I put it in my Etsy shop. My shop was closed in an hour.”

So good, the video game’s creators took notice.

“Their legal team emailed me and said, ‘This is your cease and desist. Our customers can’t tell your product from ours.’ That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, my goodness, what have I done?’ It gave me the confidence to keep going.”

Cooper’s continuing ode to hip-hop has also gained her exposure. “I grew up listening to hip-hop,” she said. “So I like to honor hip-hop artists with their own dolls.”

She created dolls in the likenesses of DJ Jazzy Jeff and DJ Scratch, and presented them to the musicians when they came to Sacramento. She also got a request from rapper Knucklehead Worst to make a doll that he used on an album cover.

“I still can’t believe that happened, so I figured with it being hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, I’ll go ahead and make some figures that resemble some of the popular artists and have like a little DJ booth. So that’s what I made.”

For the fair contest, Cooper made dolls that resemble Bay Area rappers Too Short, E-40 and Tupac Shakur, as well as Snoop Dogg and others. Competition coordinator Delgreta Brown called the dolls a “culturally relevant” “celebration of African American musical contribution.”

The Bay Area artist used a Japanese crochet technique to create dolls in the likeness of rappers like Tupac Shakur, Too Short and E-40. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER
The Bay Area artist used a Japanese crochet technique to create dolls in the likeness of rappers like Tupac Shakur, Too Short and E-40. Robert Maryland, OBSERVER

Although she won, Cooper, a self-described “slow stitcher,” sees where she could have gone further and added some ladies of hip-hop. 

“The ladies take a lot more time to make because there’s so many more details. I’m just making the guys because they’re easier, but I loved it and it turned out so good and sure enough the judges loved it. I am just floored.”

Cooper also entered a doll in the likeness of comic and TV host Steve Harvey and another titled, “The Sea Snake,” based on the character Lord Coryls from the popular HBO series, “House of the Dragon.”

“I was almost in tears watching {the show] because I was so proud that they had this powerful Black man with dreads and they were just so unapologetic about his appearance. The minute the camera panned on him I said, ‘I have to make this.’”

She also sent a doll to Christopher Cooper (no relation), the Black Central Park birdwatcher who had the police called on him by a racist white woman named Amy Cooper (also no relation) in 2020.

“I made a doll of him with some little birds,” Cooper said. “I appreciate what he stands for.”

The Bay Area artist often gets requests from people to make dolls that look like their children and pets. 

“It just touches my heart,” she said. I wish I could do it for free, but no, I do it as a real business. But I love this.”

Cooper is looking forward to retiring in five years and opening a shop in downtown Fairfield where she can teach other people, particularly youth, to make dolls.

“We don’t really have that in the community or the schools anymore,” she said.

Cooper also won a State Fair prize in 2018 with her “Wakanda Forever” dolls that depicted characters from the original “Black Panther” film.

“Every year I just want to participate,” she said. “I just want to have something shown, but I keep winning. This is more than I could have imagined. Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be crocheting, but it’s just such a joy and the reaction I get from others, it’s just addictive.”