Science and art converge in Trishana Prater's Torrance garage. Blocks of silicone and containers of resin sit next to goggles, aprons and tiny medical supplies, like disposable measuring cups and a hemostat. Binders filled with formulas and notes indicate the dates and times of various experiments.
On a dusty table against the side of the garage are the results of Prater's meticulous efforts: an elfin young doll with a resin-cast face, glowing an ethereal shade of peach. His lithe frame is offset by sturdy armor and weaponry, which Prater also handcrafted. He is joined by a voluptuous female warrior with a pale, almost translucent, façade.
There are others. Some share the same base design, but their skin tones differ, and each face has been painted to highlight different features. They wear unique hairstyles, various types of clothing. They are dolls with personalities — dolls for adults.
Inside her doll laboratory, Prater breathes life into figures cast from resin. Sold online and at conventions under the name Karlyl's Creations, Prater's specialty is a type of ball-jointed doll, more typically made in Asia. Asian ball-jointed dolls, shortened to ABJDs in the collector world, have a strong niche following in the United States, where the fan community sometimes overlaps with anime conventions and Japanese street-fashion events.
Because of the ball joints, the dolls pose with ease. They're customizable. Collectors can change the hair and eye color. They can even modify faces and figures to give the doll a nonstandard look. They're well-articulated, impeccably dressed and strikingly detailed. “They're action figures,” Prater says. “They're dolls, but I can do all kinds of stuff with them.”
Prater is one of relatively few people in the U.S. fan community who can build this specific type of doll from scratch, and her dolls typically start at more than $300. It's a tricky, labor-intensive process; a couple months go into producing one doll.
But Prater has an advantage over any would-be competitors: science. Now 32, she grew up in the South Bay, home to a good chunk of the Southland's aerospace companies. The daughter of an engineer, she had an inclination toward science and art and started out at Loyola Marymount University, studying biochemistry and animation. By the time she graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills with a degree in chemistry, she was already working full-time in aerospace. Prater spent 13 years in the industry, primarily as a software/hardware integration engineer.
She never gave up art completely: As an engineer, Prater continued to draw and took her illustrations to the artist alleys at anime conventions. Once she discovered doll making, she spent three years building up her business before making Karlyl's Creations her priority in March 2012. She'll still take a freelance gig here and there, but, she says, “My love was with art.”
It's her scientific expertise that allows her to excel at it. Something as simple as humidity — which can definitely be a factor when your workshop is less than 4 miles from the beach — can wreck a day's labor, since moisture can contaminate resin, she explains. She'll use moisture traps and limit work to certain hours of the day. Sometimes, Prater must borrow a friend's studio to achieve drier conditions.
And since resin yellows over time, she has to add something to slow down that inevitable process. “Dealing with resins and plastics and getting the effects I want with my dolls is chemistry,” Prater says. “It's just applying my skill set to something different.”
Her aerospace job also gave her the income to invest in the doll laboratory. Many experts in her field can modify dolls or handle other aspects of the creation process. Few, however, can take on resin casting, for economic reasons. A gallon of resin, which can make a few dolls, costs $100 to $150, and the vacuum chambers and pressure pots necessary to keep the lab safely functioning don't come cheap, either.
The biggest expense, though, is silicone. It can cost a couple hundred dollars to procure enough for a doll's worth of molds. Add to that clays, paints and other odds and ends and you have a big-budget doll. “I spent thousands of dollars learning,” Prater says.
Initially, she had no interest in ball-jointed dolls. To her, they were “creepy murder dolls,” unsettling collectibles that had become popular at the conventions where she showed off her illustrations.
Then, at Anime Expo 2009, she caught a glimpse of a friend's doll. It reminded her of her own fantasy drawings. “It's more than a creepy murder doll,” Prater recalls thinking. “It's an awesome work of art.”
After playing with friends' dolls, Prater bought her own. She was intent on figuring out how the exquisite toys were engineered and how she could do it herself. She began work on her first doll, a boy named Jabari, in 2009. After two years and several rounds of experiments, she cast him in resin.
Now she has four basic dolls to her credit. Three of the dolls, two male and one female, take on human shapes. One is a small gargoyle — she calls him a Teenygoyle — with human-esque features. He's inspired by her love of the 1990s animated TV series Gargoyles.
Prater currently is creating a much larger gargoyle doll and is beginning work on another anthropomorphic character.
She rarely has the chance to meet her customers. Most find her online, where she maintains an Etsy shop and documents the progress of her projects on Tumblr and Twitter. Sometimes Prater gets referrals from an antiques and collectibles club where she once did a seminar. Other people find her through conventions like DesignerCon, which emphasizes art toys, or various doll-collecting events.
While much of her clientele is female, her gargoyle figures are catching the attention of male customers. She's also seen a recent surge in popularity of girl dolls and is finishing up work on a new one to add to her collection.
Everyone has a request. Some people buy the dolls “blank” to customize the figures themselves. Some want a piece complete with makeup and handmade outfits (Prater makes everything in-house except wigs, eyes and shoes). Others want her to cast their designs in resin.
Each project presents a different challenge, but for Prater the long hours are worth it. “You do it,” she says, “because the end product is beautiful.”
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