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Renaissance Man Finds Respite in Making Dolls

April 26, 2012

Louis Nunnery is somewhat of a Renaissance man with a thirst for knowledge. He savors life with an eyes-wide-open intensity.

Nunnery served in the Navy, which took him to many ports all over the world.

Nunnery is an artist — his paintings range from the surrealism of Dali to the Baroque style of the 17th century.

His love for the classics in literature, art, architecture, music and dance is intense.
The 92-year-old is also a businessman and runs a successful dance studio in downtown Hickory.

Louis Nunnery School of Classical Ballet, is known by many. In fact, Nunnery teaches third-generation students. He’s taught ballet in Hickory for 62 years.

And, he’s quick to quip, “I teach 10 classes a week — same as I always have.”

Nunnery grew up in Great Falls, S.C. After graduating high school, he left for Chicago to study art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He clearly had talent as an artist.

“Ballet students came to the school to pose for us,” Nunnery said. “One day one of the students invited me to come see the ballet. It was ‘Tour Jete.’ I was 20 years old, and I was immediately hooked. Immediately.”

Nunnery knew his draft number was coming up, so he returned to Great Falls to teach school. Halfway through the first year of teaching, his draft number was called.

Two months later, Nunnery was in the Navy – in the hospital corps.

“I was free at 1600 hours – that’s 4 p.m.,” he said with a grin. “I hitchhiked into Chicago to take ballet lessons. I had two years of lessons, and then I was put on an attack transport.”

Nunnery continued his ballet lessons – in every port his ship docked.
After three years, he was discharged and returned home.

“Two weeks later I was in New York City,” he said. “I took my father’s old paper suitcase and three books: the Bible mama gave me, “House of the Seven Gables” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and “Samuel Pepys Diary.”

“I lived on starvation and dancing in New York,” he said. “But, what are you going to do?”

Nunnery returned once again to Great Falls and began teaching ballet.
“I drove from town to town and taught in Shelby, Southern Pines, Rock Hill, Davidson and Charlotte,” he said. “I eventually settled in Hickory and opened my school.”

In addition to dance, art and literature, Nunnery is a doll maker.
“Here’s the doll story,” he said.

Nunnery’s studio was in the back of a downtown Hickory building. An antique shop was in front of Nunnery’s studio.

“I collected dolls,” he said. “My collection of dolls was in the store’s window. The owner of the building moved to Florida and stored everything in the basement.

“He came back and took all the dolls,” Nunnery said. “They were valued at $25,000.”

Nunnery said he couldn’t look at a doll for five years.

“I couldn’t bear it,” he said. “Then, five years later, I began to think about dolls.”

Nunnery enrolled in a doll- making class in Charlotte, and then he found master doll maker Sandi Walker of Dolls and Designs in Morganton.

“I told Sandi I just wanted to watch,” he said. “Well, I was hooked.”

Every Wednesday, though, for the past 23 years, Nunnery goes to Walker’s studio, now in Valdese, where he finds respite in the art of making porcelain dolls.

“I start with liquid clay and molds, which are kiln-fired four times,” he said. “After I paint the eyelids, eyebrows and lips, the doll is fired again. This turns the clay into porcelain.”

Nunnery has made more than 100 dolls, and his creations are included in the collections of entertainers Carol Burnett, Carol Channing and Polly Holliday, who was best known for her portrayal of waitress Flo in “Alice,” the hit 1970s sitcom.

Nunnery sews all the costumes, which are re-created from the period of 1890 to 1898.

“I use silk – silk velvet, satin, moiré,” he said of the intricate clothing. “And, I use only human hair wigs.”

For Nunnery, doll making is therapeutic.

“I don’t think about anything else in the world while I’m doing that,” he said. “When I finish a doll, I feel as if my mind is renewed.”

Nunnery, with a gleam in his blue eyes, said he plans to live a long time.

“Mama lived to be 100. She was 13 of 24 children,” he said. “You know, I don’t have a doctor. I go to the VA hospital in Asheville once a year for a physical.

“I’m somewhat of a curiosity to the doctors up there,” he said. “My doctor said I will live to 105. I say ‘older!’ I have plans.”

Nunnery plans to teach ballet “for as long as I want to.”

And, of course, paint, read, listen to music and make dolls.

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