A visit with: Shalonda Menefee

With her SISTAS network, a Portland artist and entrepreneur crafts a creative world of dolls and design, cloth and community

Shalonda Menefee, creator and talent behind SISTAS Dolled Up, finds herself between events on a recent Saturday afternoon. She’s just come home from hosting a brunch for women in the community and has a couple of weeks (and a whole lot of fabric beckoning to her) before the next extravaganza: a dance, theater, fashion experience and panel discussion on Tuesday, April 10, called “VISIBLY INVISIBLE, Honoring Our Unsung Sheroes.”

Shalonda will produce Tuesday’s event, which aims to explore the complex roles of black women in communities and pay tribute to their journey. “As women of color,” she says, “we carry a lot of weight. We are kind of the backbone of the country and everyone’s kids, but we get the least amount of credit sometimes.” The event, which incorporates many facets of her work and displays her commitment to both art and community, will run 7-9 p.m. at The Old Church Concert Hall downtown. Amid her preparations she has kindly eked out some time to chat with me in her Northeast Portland home while her two tuxedo cats mosey about the house and her teenagers occasionally make an appearance and then disappear again.

Shalonda Menefee, in one of her head wraps: art and community.

A lot of people know Shalonda for her colorful small fabric figures, which she describes as “similar to paper dolls except with cloth and hair,” and which seem comfortably at home with African traditional apparel and the communal tradition of African American quiltmaking. But her interests go far beyond making art for art’s sake. With three bachelor degrees, a certificate in project management, and a host of intense life experiences, she calls herself a “healer in the background,” and she seems to embody the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats. She runs creative workshops for women to make their own “healing dolls,” and creates clothing, jewelry, purses, hats, head wraps, and other fashion accessories.

Born and raised in Northeast Portland, Shalonda is, first and foremost, an active and impressive citizen. She’s served on numerous city and community boards and logged thousands of hours of volunteer work. She’s passionate about helping others reach their full potential. And she doesn’t shy away from the reality that in order to do your best for the world, you have to be your best, most authentic self. She hosts workshops designed to empower women and uses her skills as an artist to help people “heal their hurt to fulfill their purpose.”

A shadow box cloth trio, from the workshop.

Perhaps most telling is that during our nearly three-hour-long visit, the words Shalonda most frequently uses are “community,” “elders,” and “healing.” She possesses a palpable passion for all three, and it’s impossible to not take delight in this as it registers in her body and voice. She laughs easily and with great gusto, and she moves as nimbly as a dancer, her whole body telling the story. (Two words curiously sparse in the lengthy transcript of our visit: “I” and “me.”)

Shalonda graduated from college in 2007 and founded SISTAS Enterprise (Sistas Initiating Strategies To Achieve Success) as a consulting business in 2008. Her goal at the time was to assist minority women, nonprofits and small businesses with development and management, but that’s only a tiny part of the story. Let’s just say a lot has evolved since then.

She describes 2009-2011 as a time when “a lot of my creative juices started flowing.” Caring for her own young children and recognizing a need in the community, she started a youth program called Back2Basics, in which she invited community members to teach children skills she wished she had known. “A lot of single parents in communities of color, we don’t have time to get our kids into camps, and I wanted to do something. Kids don’t have home economics anymore. They don’t know how to cook or sew—learn skills that are creative,” she says of the program. In those two years, Back2Basics served about 240 children.

Every doll …

One summer she also implemented a “soap and smoothie” workshop at the Boys and Girls Club. Apart from the creative aspect, it had a practical impulse: She felt compelled to imbue the kids with skills that could help them think in business terms. “I wanted to expose them to all this. Making soap and jewelry and how to harvest foods—that’s when all the hand-made shops started popping up on Alberta. I wanted them to become their own little entrepreneurs. There’s so much stuff we can do!”

As is often the case, life intervened. Or, as Shalonda might think of it, if there’s a lesson to be learned, you can be sure you will keep circling back to it until you embrace whatever needs to be embraced. In her case, the lessons came tumbling in around 2012, a particularly painful year in her life. “I took care of my daddy, who had cancer. I had a terrible breakup. I was laid off from a job I loved.” She pauses and then, as if saving the best for last, “My truck died! Everything happened! Everything,” she laughs.

Even through the laughter a cautious quality touches Shalonda’s voice, and a hint of reverence, too, the way someone might reflect in the wake of a natural disaster—in awe of its force yet a little stunned by our powerlessness over it. “I had to go through a lot of things to accept being a healer,” she says. “I had fought it for a lot of years, but this was my pruning stage and my shadow work. The universe stripped me of everything I thought I was.”

… is the same size …

Whatever one’s notions about healers may be, no matter how skeptical the critic, there’s something undeniably appealing about a reluctant healer, or even more, a pragmatic healer, and this is how I would describe Shalonda. After a series of difficult events and a two-year period in which she describes herself as being “stuck,” she decided to “pull out the sewing machine, knowing I had to get out of my own head.” She made her very first Healing HeArt Doll. The creative juices began to flow again, and this time she was guided by the insight and wisdom that only despair can gift us.

She credits much of her growth to digging in and doing her own spiritual study. She practices energy work called access consciousness, and has been influenced heavily by the book Sacred Woman: A Guide to Healing the Feminine Body, Mind and Spirit by Queen Afua. In a particularly endearing moment, she recalls giving a doll to the book’s author after meeting her and completing the 12-week Rites of Passage Program designed to vest women with tools for well-being rooted in ancient African cultural teachings. She ascended from the program last July and has more fully embraced her mission to “empower women to be okay with who they are and what they are going through at any time.” Her workshops are central to this, and that connection between art and healing coalesces to bring something unique to the community.

Having hosted a few successful cloth doll activities in the past, thanks initially to Portland poet, artist, writer, and “creative revolutionist” S. Renee Mitchell (Shalonda is ever mindful of the people who have helped her along the way, and mentions them frequently), Shalonda’s three-dimensional Healing HeArt dolls seemed like the next logical step in the evolution of this creative expression. Making the doll “was so therapeutic,” she says.

… yet unique.

The dolls are utterly charming. They are eighteen inches tall, no two are alike, and she puts her heart and soul into every creation. She tells a story of being at an event in Seattle where she had brought along ten dolls. When they began to sell quickly, she worried that she hadn’t spent enough time with each one, joking that she wanted to tell the people who purchased them to leave them with her for awhile longer so she could “love them up just a little more.”

She acknowledges her elder, Mama Shafia, for inspiring her to begin head wrapping “with her own twist,” and in 2016 she began making clothing, thanks to Sister Iesha, “who wanted a skirt to match a head wrap.” (All three women — Ms. Renee Mitchell, Mama Shafia and Sister Iesha — are to be honored, along with nine other remarkable women, at the VISIBLY INVISIBLE event for their contributions to the community.) Shalonda posted her first skirt on Facebook in February 2016, to much enthusiasm. She is drawn to African prints and bright colors that connect her to her heritage and honor her elders and ancestors, and the creations are original and versatile, with one piece often adaptable into multiple accessories. She does not work from a pattern but instead gets an idea of what she wants to make, or just follows the flow of the fabric. She can create to specific measurements or emulate the fit of other clothing if someone hopes to replicate the way something fits in one of her designs.

SISTAS Dolled Up has blossomed into a full-fledged movement responsible for helping to lift others out of bleak and difficult times. The entrepreneurial enterprise can be thought of as a hand with several fingers branching off: Healing HeArt Dolls, SISTAS Doll Making Workshops, Urban head wrapping workshops, SISTAS Dolled Up head wraps, clothing and accessories, Back2Basics Youth Program, and SISTAS Healing Retreats. Drawing heavily from what she learned in the child and family studies program, her workshops take aim at the pervasive negative self-talk that many women seem to internalize in a culture that often focuses on outer appearance rather than inner life. She views the Doll Making workshops as a way to connect people to their child selves—and the doll itself almost as a spirit doll, a reminder to carry forward that “you are not what you have been through.”

Shalonda Menefee at a Back2Basics gathering with her daughter Angelic Davis, her niece Jatasia Winston, and Aaliyah Wilson.

If that doesn’t sound ambitious enough, Shalonda also maintains a full-time day job. When I ask her about the future, what the ideal version looks like to her, she jokes, “I want to be Oprah!” The joke turns quickly to introspection, and one thing becomes quite clear: she is serious about helping people. “I would like to travel with my workshops and design full time,” she says. “I would like everyone in the world to have a cloth doll, and I am definitely hoping to get into hospitals to do head wraps for oncology patients.”

As we head downstairs into her workspace, her movements turn slow and more considered. The ebullience was for upstairs. Downstairs is a different kind of space. She gathers cloth dolls that sit in their shadow boxes, regal and majestic. She arranges them on stands. Yards of fabric lay folded on shelves behind her, and against the wall, a makeshift altar with photos of her ancestors, one of whom, her great-grandmother, had also been a master seamstress. It’s difficult for me to contain my enthusiasm for her work. All collected in one space, it seems even more vital and original. I recognize that Shalonda, too, sees a fuller picture as she prepares for the show. “I used to wonder how all this fit together,” she says, “but the show is showcasing dolls coming to life to become queens! From crown to clothes to dolls.” It’s true, too—a shadow box with a cloth doll sits right beside a rack where an exact human-sized replica of the outfit hangs waiting for a model to bring it to life.

Leaving Shalonda’s house after our lively visit, with all of Portland abloom in spring, I think of a final thing she said: “I want people to leave my presence feeling better than they did before.” I do feel significantly better than I did before meeting her, and I have the strongest hankering to do something I haven’t done in ages: go to a craft store. I have no idea what I’ll look for, exactly—maybe a sewing machine or a soldering iron, but I just want to make something with my hands. I can’t help but believe that Shalonda Menefee inspires that sort of industriousness in every person she meets.

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Where it begins: fabrics, waiting for the next step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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