NEWTON — A wooden doll with delicate hand-painted features opens up to reveal another, and another, and another, cradling at its core a figurine the size of a grain of rice. For Pamela Kruskal, each layer is a metaphor: representing her life as a poet, a wife, a mother, a South African expat, and a woman resisting lupus, the autoimmune disease that has afflicted her since 1999.
Sitting on her living room floor with a color-coded spreadsheet, Kruskal, 52, recounted an emotional journey collecting matryoshka, wooden nesting dolls that for her became a source of hope and healing, a form of storytelling to latch onto when words failed. A passion born of a disease and a dream.
Earlier this year, moved to tears by broadcasts of upheaval in Ukraine, she decided it was time to share the dolls she had amassed with a wider audience, donating more than 370 sets to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton.
Sorted by region, boxes of Kruskal’s curated dolls now sit in an upstairs museum storeroom, as registrar Laura Garrity-Arquitt methodically inventories them for an exhibit expected to open in February. There’s an intern working on designing the exhibit, and another cataloging the collection for the museum’s electronic database, inputting measurements and notes for each set.
“I’m glad it’s a quiet place, because I’m often giggling,” Garrity-Arquitt said, scanning boxes of matryoshka she had yet to unpack. “These are little treasures. You never know what’s going to be inside.”
The dolls range in size, color, theme, and origin, from Japan to Argentina. Many are peasant maidens from Russia, Poland, and Ukraine. But the collection extends beyond traditional curvy, blushing, brightly-cloaked ladies. There’s an apple that holds a floral tea set, a patterned egg-shape cottage housing a flock of ducklings, an assortment of fairy tale characters, political figures, variations on Saint Nicholas, and animals galore.
It’s a collection Kruskal began in 2003 and built through hours scouring eBay, with guidance from connoisseurs she met online and an encyclopedic tome: “Collectors Guide to Nesting Dolls: Histories, Identification, Values” by Michele Lyons Lefkovitz. Little boxes arrived day after day, she said, confounding the mailman.
The impetus, she said, was a dream — a vivid memory of a matryoshka on her grandmother’s floor.
Kruskal grew up in Capetown, South Africa, a child of apartheid and the granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants. They were private people, Kruskal said, displaced Jews who “spoke a language of tears.” So this vision of a doll, painted in the Semenov style, Kruskal said, was her sole link to a muted Eastern European past. And she wanted to know more.
From a young age, Kruskal said, she was immersed in a “culture of storytelling,” always devoted to the arts. Her chosen tool has long been poetry, and in the late 2000s, partially as a way of delaying chemotherapy, she published an anthology, “the smallest of things: lupus and hope.” As she struggled with lupus and words were harder to come by, dolls replaced text as Kruskal’s creative outlet. She voraciously absorbed their stories, relearning them over and over in moments of lucidity.
In a three-page letter penned in case she couldn’t speak for an interview with the Globe, Kruskal wrote: “Having the dolls with me was a tangible tool to nurture the most primal need to grasp meaning, my burgeoning need to make my brain function at a new normal for me, but most
importantly . . . i am lost again . . .”
By exhibiting the nesting dolls, Kruskal said, she hopes to spark a curiosity and global awareness in young visitors, ones who are often bored by typical museum fare.
The 20th-century dolls diverge from the museum’s permanent collection — gilded Byzantine icons and reliquary crosses dating as far back as the 10th century — which boasts more than 1,000 Russian icons and artifacts, making it the largest of its kind in North America. But they aren’t the first matryoshka to be displayed there. The museum borrowed a collection of stack dolls in 2013, which Garrity-Arquitt said was “easily one of our most popular exhibits.” And a handful of dolls decorate the museum’s tea room.
With its upcoming exhibit, the museum hopes to be able to display between 100 and 150 sets of dolls, tracing the nesting concept from its supposed origins in China around 1000 AD to the modern day, Garrity-Arquitt said. Though primarily associated with Russia, she said, nesting dolls have a broad reach: “You can see cross-cultural influences just in the trade of children’s toys and tourist trinkets.”
In many ways, it’s this fascination with borders that fed Kruskal’s passion: tales of territories redefined, left behind, but not forgotten.
She and her husband left South Africa for Nashville in 1987, making their way in a new country with nothing but an air mattress and two pieces of art from home. They came to the Boston area two years later, and stayed.
Now her living room is brimming with artwork, old and new: ceramics by her college-age daughter, pieces by her sister and husband (a medley of copper, porcupine quills, conch shells). One depicts a metallic South African township. Another, a statue with a broken leg, she rescued from being discarded at a School of the Museum of Fine Arts annual sale.
“The migration of people for a life that offers something safer, kinder — it’s a story I know personally,” Kruskal said, stroking a map of Eastern Europe at the back of her collectors guide. “It’s my grandparents’ story. It’s the American story. I saw that story in those dolls.”