Tucked away in a James Island home is the workshop of Larry Fertick, better known as Dr. Wren. Past the front door, up the stairs, and to the left, there's a short hallway. Staring across at a wall lined with crucifixes from floor to ceiling is a hand-painted portrait of a woman with deep, piercing eyes. The subtle thump of dance music invites you into the room where Fertick's fetish dolls hang along the wall in various states of completion. Some a simple outline of a human shape, others dressed in elaborate headwraps and lace, the dolls that are far enough along to have earned their features look back with button eyes and crooked smiles meant to comfort and drive away evil spirits and negativity.
"I like for everything to be a little off. I want them to look like some crazy old person in a cabin in the woods made them," says Fertick. "I like them to look as if they were vintage, as if they were locked away in an attic and someone discovered them."
The sound of a low growl and chanting rises over the speakers as the bass line snakes around the dance beat.
"That's an actual recording of an exorcism," Fertick points out.
Growing up with ghosts
- Jonathan Boncek
Fertick began making fetish dolls four years ago, but the concept had been in the back of his mind for decades. He grew up in the community of Dixiana, S.C. Bearing all the hallmarks of smalltown America, there was a cattle ranch, a dairy farm, a general store. The town was separated by the train tracks that divided the black and white residents.
Fertick remembers living close to the tracks. An older black man who lived in a converted school bus would come to his home and handle yard work for his family. Fertick would bring him a cold Coke and crackers during his break. With each interaction, the various traditions and folklore from each community would bleed over into the other.
Leaving the greatest impression on Fertick was an eccentric woman from the other side of the tracks, Sallie Carrie. She would babysit the kids next door to Fertick's childhood home. She dressed in layers, wearing a dress over long, men's pants. One day Fertick found her wallet lying on the ground. When he rushed to return it to her, Sallie leaned down to thank him. Fertick says Sallie spoke as if she were blessing him. A strong individual with a unique sense of style and character in the small town, Sallie would serve as an inspiration for Fertick to follow his dream to create his dolls.
As a child, Fertick wanted to do everything for himself. He asked his mother to show him how to darn his socks. His father taught him carpentry.
Born into a superstitious family, Fertick remembers his father treating him to stories of boohags and haints — supernatural spirits in the Gullah tradition that filtered in from the neighboring black community. Fertick's father claimed to have seen the ghost of his own father one morning. Stories of visions and predictions about the future would circulate through Fertick's family, fueling his imagination.
"I didn't have a lot of children around me growing up. In the family, I was kind of separated by my age, and I was a weird kid. My mom and dad, God bless them, they let me do whatever I wanted to do. I always had stuffed animals and dolls and crazy stuff. I was always making things out of, like, electrical wire. I was always doing something, and I was never discouraged," says Fertick. "It was never like, 'You need to go outside and play football.' I would go fishing and do things like that with my dad. My dad and I were very close."
Dreaming of joining the circus, Fertick would spend his childhood years climbing trees. As he climbed, Fertick would pretend there were invisible creatures hidden among the branches. Visible only to him, and only through his imagination, these fictional creatures would inspire a family of pale dolls Fertick would go on to create later in life.
"Climbing tress and all of that, I always had a really active and inventive imagination. I always made things something other than what they are," says Fertick.
During harvest season, Fertick and his brothers would get the day off school to go gather sweet potatoes at his aunt's farm. During those days, he'd pretend to be a combat soldier crawling through the trenches. The potatoes would become live grenades as he rushed to throw them in the baskets.
"I always played with what I was doing and made it something else. I developed an imagination because I spent a lot of time alone. And it wasn't a sad time. I had a great childhood. I don't want it to sound like that," says Fertick. "I did have friends, but they would usually get in a car and visit for the day. We were always in trouble. They liked really creepy things, too. We were always looking for abandoned houses to break into. They would tell me scary stories, and I would tell them scary stories."
- Jonathan Boncek
After leaving Dixiana, Fertick would go on to study at the Atlanta College of Art. For 30 years, Fertick worked as a visual merchandising manager for Macy's. His career required lots of travel, moving from store to store. His responsibilities would ultimately lead him to New Orleans, where Fertick's desire to create his dolls was kindled.
"My plan for the dolls started earlier than I wanted it to. I knew I would do this. I knew it since the 1980s. We opened two stores in New Orleans. That was my region at the time. We put a New Orleans shop in the downtown store. We did wrought iron and a tile floor. It really was a great looking shop," he says. "We sold New Orleans products — hot sauces, kitchen rubs, and voodoo dolls. And I was fascinated by them, always had been. As a child, I always liked creepy, scary things. My mom and dad would be like 'Don't watch that because we're not staying up with you tonight.' But I loved the scary shows, and I was fascinated by witches and warlocks, vampires, and all of that."
During his time at Macy's, Fertick began to hone his sewing skills. Tasked with making things fit, he would head down to the alterations department and use the sewing machines there to reshape and tailor table clothes and various pieces of fabric to fit his needs. After he left Macy's, Fertick settled in Charleston, where he worked for Belk. After 13 years with the company, he retired last June. By that point, he had already arrived at the designs for his dolls — although beginning to craft dolls steeped in the hoodoo tradition required that Fertick first reconcile it with his faith and his career at the time.
"I had always done what I needed to do career-wise. I had always looked a certain way. I had always made myself appear very conservative. I wore suits and ties every day to work for years, and I just sort of downplayed my personality because I felt that professionally it would work better if people didn't think I was some creepy guy with voodoo dolls," says Fertick. "I knew in the '80s I wanted to make the voodoo dolls, but I thought that was a conflict with my religious beliefs. But I thought I could still make them and I know they're not real. At the time, I didn't do anything about it. Then four years ago, I was sitting on the porch thinking, 'I wish I could paint. I wish I could do something to relax.' I wasn't going to drag my paints and my easel and everything downstairs, so I came up with the idea that I would finally make the voodoo dolls."
- Jonathan Boncek
With no certain idea how to get started, he bought a book on crafting rag dolls from a thrift store for $3. After seven or eight failed attempts, Fertick finally arrived at the design for his fetish dolls — with "fetish" denoting an item with magical power. Each doll comes with a gris-gris bag worn around the neck, which Fertick says is the true source of the doll's power. Each bag contains a mix of items, always in odd numbers. Sitting on a tray in Fertick's workshop you'll find jars of dirt from Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Ga. along with other items that may find their way into the gris-gris bags — including asafoetida, a powder once worn around the neck to ward off sickness. Also known as devil's dung, asafoetida smells vaguely of soured garlic.
According to an article in the journal Pharmacognosy Review, "When used with discretion, it adds character to curries, stews, gravies, etc. Skillful manipulation has made asafoetida a useful ingredient in fine perfumes. It is still regarded a valuable medicinal in Europe, [and] Near and Far East. As a condiment, it is recommended only to the hearty and the brave. In magic and mythology, asafoetida is used to gain insight and to banish all negative energy, evil spirits, and demons."
Citing his spouse, Tom, as a skilled promoter, Fertick's dolls began to gain attention following an article from a writer with the Atlanta Journal Constitution. From there, his work caught the eye of TV host Ellen Degeneres, but it was Fertick's appearance on Charleston reality TV series Southern Charm that has garnered his dolls the most attention. Appearing in season four of the series, regular cast member Cameran Eubanks purchased two of Fertick's dolls, which were prominently displayed on several episodes. Fertick credits Eubanks' support for the recent success of his business.
Spending seven to 10 days to complete each doll, Fertick's creations now sell for $425 a piece. He categorizes his dolls into three families: the specters and spirits inspired by the imaginary tree creatures from his youth, boohags and haints from the Gullah tradition, and conjurers bearing colorful Tignon headwraps. Customers are given several options as to how they wish to customize their doll. Buyers can even include a lock of hair with the doll if they wish. Following his television appearance, Fertick says he was inundated with requests. He currently has orders booked into 2021. Unfortunately, due to the nature of his work, Fertick faces the occasional request from someone hoping for a miracle.
"I would love to be able to grant wishes. I would love to be able to help people have a family, but it's not that way. It's not for that. All the dolls, there are three families, and they all do the same thing, which is protect and comfort. I tell people, 'Think of them as teddy bears for adults.' They are your security and they are your comfort," he says. "It was a little overwhelming at first to think that I can't do that. A lot of people, I explained to them, and they thanked me. I don't ignore those people. I try not to. I hopefully haven't. I explain to them that I can't do that. That's not the purpose of the doll. It's for comfort."
A Long Tradition
- Jonathan Boncek
Fertick is quick to point out the separation between hoodoo traditions and the practice of voodoo. While voodoo is a more formal, organized belief system, Fertick describes hoodoo as a set of traditions and lore passed down from generation to generation.
"Hoodoo really isn't a written way of life. It is more family tradition, and I have found when talking with people that a lot of people have the same stories or customs, but they are slightly different because that's the way their families were," says Fertick. "For instance, my grandmother, when we went to the cemetery, you couldn't close the gate. You had to leave it open until you left. If you closed the gate in the cemetery, then your spirit was trapped. That's what she believed. I was talking to someone from here who grew up with Gullah traditions who said that for her family, it wasn't just that. You also had to call the children by name outside of the cemetery."
It is this separation of hoodoo traditions and the practice of voodoo that has allowed Fertick to reconcile the dolls he makes and his fascination with hoodoo with his own personal religious beliefs.
"Hoodoo is more of an oral history than voodoo. Voodoo has saints. Voodoo has spirit possession. Voodoo has a lot of things that hoodoo doesn't. You can be a Christian and practice hoodoo, in the mind of someone who practices hoodoo," he says. "It's perfectly OK because it's not an organized religion. Some people may differ, but everything that I've found says that. It's a way of life and a practice of traditions and it's based on Gullah, but they don't say you can't believe in God or you can't believe in Jesus."
Ultimately, Fertick says his main motivation for creating the dolls is to give him a reason and opportunity to talk about the hoodoo traditions and folklore that he encountered in his youth. These traditions move through generation to generation and are reshaped along the way. They pick up and shed characteristics as they morph from family to family, but these traditions remain a fascination for Fertick. And while he continues to study these traditions and their countless variations across the Lowcountry, Fertick continues to work on his dolls — providing comfort for those in search of it and continuing an age-old tradition all its own.
"Since the beginning of time, people have made effigies of themselves — always, whether it was out of sticks or clay or scratches on a wall on a cave," he says. "Regardless of your social status, people have always been comforted by having something that looks like them."
To purchase Fertick's dolls and learn more, visit doctorwrenfetishdolls.com.