Where Safety Lives

By Holly Harrison | December 17, 2020

When we first began sheltering in place, I stocked up on essentials. I focused on helping family members manage (especially my then 15-year-old daughter and my elderly mom). And then I figured I’d settle into a routine in my studio. Many of my friends were switching into overdrive, devoting uninterrupted hours to making art, and I was sure I’d be doing the same. But instead, I struggled. In the reflective space of the studio, sadness and worry overwhelmed me, and I found myself avoiding my work.

While my daughter’s school was figuring out how to go online, she and I decided we could use a project to focus on. The year before, we had picked up a vintage dollhouse on Craigslist to renovate together, but we had been too busy with other things to get started, and it had sat neglected in a corner of the studio.


The dollhouse (28”H  x 23”W x 12”D) pre-renovation


The house was a great distraction for us, and we worked on it every day, cleaning it, removing broken trim, and painting it inside and out. We painted the interior walls white and chose a rich gray for the exterior with a black roof. This gave us a blank canvas as our starting point.

Because we were sheltering in place, we decided to use only what we had on hand for renovating and furnishing the house. And while I did have a box full of vintage doll furniture, it wasn’t close to complete and a lot of pieces were broken, so we had to improvise. Packing material and wood and fabric scraps became a chair; layers of paint transformed thick paper into floor tiles; and a bottle cap and a broken earring found new life as a sparkly chandelier. I made all of the curtains and curtain rods, little tables out of chopsticks and scrap wood, and, of course, miniature paintings for on the walls.


A living room accent chair (3”H) made from assorted scraps


Once my daughter started online school, she was busy with her own work, so with her as my design consultant, I kept working on the house. All the while, I felt a bit guilty that I wasn’t making paintings for my galleries. But there was something about working on the dollhouse project that just felt right. The work was meditative, and the kind of problem solving it required as I tried to make mini versions of real-world things was oddly satisfying.

In the end, I broke our rule a couple of times—I bought wood edge banding to make hardwood floors and a couple of things off of Etsy—but mostly I stuck with it. As I worked on this unexpected project, I began to make objects to represent everyday pandemic experiences: a mask-sewing station (and tiny masks), Clorox wipes (for wiping down groceries and surfaces), a bag of flour (for at-home baking), toilet paper rolls (for hoarding!), jigsaw puzzles (a surprising pandemic trend), and desk with a laptop (for working from home).

From left: A sewing station and a stash of homemade masks, Clorox wipes, baking flour, and other essentials (all one-inch scale)


Even though working on the dollhouse in my studio had become my safe place, I couldn’t ignore what was happening in the world. Along with the growing devastation of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement had exploded after the death of George Floyd. I made reading materials to reference these events: in the living room, Trump’s COVID denial on the cover of The New Yorker, Time magazine’s Black Lives Matter issue, and the New York Times listing the COVID dead by name, and in the bedroom, a copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist on the nightstand (with tiny reading glasses, of course).


Magazines, newspapers and books referencing the pandemic, Trump’s denial, and the exploding Black Lives Matter movement (all one-inch scale)


A friend encouraged me to post photos of the dollhouse on Instagram, and I was amazed at the enthusiastic response. The project really struck a chord with people, and they noticed and delighted in all of the details. As the dollhouse evolved, friends dropped off stuff they thought I could use, artists mailed me tiny artworks, and a friend’s poet dad gave me the project title. Reflecting on how for many of us our homes had become places of refuge in scary and turbulent times, he offered up the words “where safety lives.”


The completed dollhouse (interior) on a table in my studio


The completed dollhouse (exterior) with Amazon and FedEx packages on the porch



Copyright © 2020 Holly Harrison
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  1. Hedi Charde on December 18, 2020 at 11:20 am

    Fabulous, Holly! What exquisite work and care you & Mira took on the dollhouse. I hope to see it in person one day! And then maybe you can make me one too:-)

    • Holly on February 25, 2021 at 5:31 pm

      Thanks, Hedi. I’d love to show you the house anytime. You know if you show up at my door with an abandoned wreck of a house, I won’t be able to resist fixing it up for you… : )

  2. Peter Hewitt on December 19, 2020 at 8:47 pm

    Love it! Love the flexibility of what creative is, how work and creativity should bend with our real world experiences. How sometimes the best work isn’t work. This dollhouse world is real in the same way poetry and short stories are: I want to see more and know more.

    • Holly on February 25, 2021 at 5:29 pm

      Thanks, Peter. What you say about creativity and work is so true. It’s so wonderful to be absorbed in the creative flow that’s for sure. I count myself lucky when that happens!

  3. Lydia Gralla on February 25, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    I felt a very personal connection to your situation. I am also an artist and thought I would be fine in lockdown because I am usually in my studio at home but I went into a stage of revisiting my art and became very absorbed in that. I had always wanted a doll house as a kid so when my daughter was about 6 I bought a bare bones empty dollhouse and we had a wonderful time decorating it. Big decisions like the exterior color, hard wood floors or carpet, etc. I bravely took on the challenge of wiring the house so it would have lights that could turn on and off. It’s been carefully packed away in our basement for now but I can’t wait for the time when it will be passed on to another (grandchild?). It was just wonderful to be able to see what you and your daughter were able to do, making your own furniture, etc. I will re-visit again soon. Thank you so much for sharing images of your house, I love it!

    • Holly on February 25, 2021 at 5:19 pm

      Thanks so much for your nice comment, Lydia! Your dollhouse project with your daughter sounds like it was a special experience for both of you. I had a dollhouse growing up but my daughter was really never that interested in it, I think because it was all kind of done already. This project, which needed so much work, was definitely more engaging. I’ve never been quite brave enough to take on electric lighting but who knows, I suspect I’ll do another renovation at some point. There is something so irresistible about recreating the world in miniature. Thanks for reaching out.

  4. Jane Sherrill on March 15, 2021 at 10:15 pm

    Holly, I love your house! What a beautiful job you’ve done with this! There’s a chair I’d actually love to have a full-size version of! What a lovely post. I also appreciate your having veered off into making this dollhouse instead of continuing with your usual work. I had that too. I couldn’t continue with my painting—I had to do something different and I didn’t know what that was at first! To my mind these times have their own resonance that demand a different kind of work from us artists… and there is so much creativity in your house!

  5. Holly on March 17, 2021 at 9:43 am

    Thanks so much, Jane! I wish it were as easy to make a full-size chair out of random scraps as it is to make a tiny one! A number of artists I know have made a shift in how they do things. Some are making more art than ever before but in a daily practice kind of way and others ended up doing something different, totally switching media. I think you are right about these times being unique and that it will influence artistic response. It will be interesting to see what the art world looks like as work made during the pandemic starts to make its way onto gallery walls and artists are able to have open studios again.

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