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ELMORE, Ohio — With a desk lamp in her kitchen trained on a baby-size leg, Jennifer Neal meticulously applies faint blue paint strokes to the leg and later the arms, the head, the tiny eyelids.
“There are hundreds of coats of paints, but you start with blue,” Ms. Neal explained, as she began creating the next addition to her home-based business known as Reborn Nursery.
The blue hues turn into tiny veins. She adds purple, yellow, and reds, baking the tiny vinyl body parts on a cookie sheet in a 265-degree oven after each coat of paint.
“That’s what makes them look real — all of the colors together,” Ms. Neal said. “It isn’t like coloring a picture. It’s a lot different.”
The 34-year-old mother of four estimates she’s created more than 300 of the lifelike baby dolls over the last four years — a business that got its start when her then-4-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, held her newborn cousin.
PHOTO GALLERY: Making baby dolls
“She fell in love,” Ms. Neal recalled. “Her heart melted when she held her.”
She set out to find a doll for her daughter that would be as lifelike as that newborn and discovered amazing online photos of dolls that looked exactly like babies.
“When I saw the prices, I thought, I’m not going to buy her one. I’m going to make her one,” Ms. Neal said.
She did not take lessons but taught herself how to create the skin shades and faint little eyelid veins newborns have, how to root baby goats’ hair with a sharp needle, how to add weight to them in the right places.
Ms. Neal said she took art classes when she was a student at Port Clinton High School, though her degree from Tiffin University is in criminal justice
“I just look at babies, and that’s how I do this,” she said. “I always had a passion for painting and a passion for babies.”
Prices for the dolls she creates at her rural Elmore home start at $250. She typically ships out three dolls per week — each wrapped snugly in a receiving blanket.
Although she fills many custom orders, most of her dolls are sold on eBay to customers all over the world. Her highest sale, she said, was $1,800.
Her most unusual order, she said, came last year from the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office. Frank Spryszak, an assistant prosecutor, wanted her to replicate Avery Glynn Bacon, a 6-months-old boy who died after suffering catastrophic head injuries.
“It was a visual aid, and it gave the jury an opportunity to look at demonstrations … to see how the injuries could not have been inflicted versus the way they could have been,” Mr. Spryszak said.
He sent Ms. Neal several photos of Avery, along with his measurements when he was taken to the hospital shortly before his December, 2012, death: 15 pounds, 7 ounces; 23⅝ inches long.
The doll looked like Avery and felt like a real baby, the assistant prosecutor said.
“It felt lifelike enough to where when I first brought it into the office, people thought that I was holding my daughter,” Mr. Spryszak said. “From a distance that’s what people thought. Then I’d walk up closer, and they’d see it was a doll. And that was the intended purpose.”
Ms. Neal said the prosecutor’s request was a first for her.
“I’ve made babies that have died. I’ve remade babies from pictures, but they’ve never been murdered,” she said. “It was a little weird at first, but then I got into it, thinking I was helping in a weird way.”
Ultimately, the baby’s mother, Amanda Bacon, 26, was convicted of murder and endangering children during a jury trial last month.
Ms. Neal said she has made dolls for parents who have lost a child. She’s made them for Alzheimer’s patients and autistic children, both of whom seem to find comfort holding them. She donates a couple dolls per year.
“I love doing this. This brings joy to people,” she said, adding that it’s therapeutic for her as well. “I think it’s an addiction. It’s peaceful.”
For more information about Ms. Neal’s dolls, go to the jennay80.wix.com/reborn-nursery Web site.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.