The man who makes paper dolls

Austen Derrick
The Oxford Eagle

Camp Best, 63, explains his art. He uses his fingers as scissors, cutting through air as if it is clothing — clothing for the paper dolls he made as a kid in the 1950s.

He visited his grandmother when he was “a very little boy, somewhere around 5, 6, 7 years old.” Ruby Adeline Brown Ross fostered his artistic spirit.

It was their secret. His father wouldn’t stand for it.

“This was back in the ’50s, and it wasn’t cool for little boys to be interested in cutting out paper dolls,” Best said, “so my dad didn’t want that to happen. I think he made that known to my grandmother.”

Camp 2Nanny, as he called her, admired Best’s “little artist side.” She hid the paper dolls in a drawer in her living room. When she and Best were alone, they took the paper dolls out and played together.

Best’s family visited each Sunday without fail.

“After Sunday dinner, she’d clear the dining table, and she’d put out a little place of paper and pencils and colors and crayons for each of us four children — and that was public. But nobody else knew about the paper dolls but me and my grandmother.”

Best describes his grandmother as “a country girl,” who grew up about eight miles south of Brandon in a small community north of Johns, Mississippi.

“There was a place along the road on an old state map that designated where my grandmother’s mailbox was, and it was called Brown’s Box, because my grandmother’s father – my great-grandfather, who I also knew – his name was Henry Brown.”

Brown’s Box holds a special place in Best’s heart.

“They had chickens, and they had cats running everywhere, and there were wild turkeys running around, and there were pigs, and we would go out to the hen house and collect eggs,” he said. “It was just a remarkable experience.”

Best drew on Sundays. He traced his hand in red, filled it in, and colored the rest of the paper blue. He drew 1950s-style cars on beaches next to red sailboats, wind turbines on rolling hills with colorful trees, and flowers, and so on.

As time passed, Best continued to visit. He had his first son when he was in his 30s, in time for his grandmother to meet her great-grandson. Best still dreams about Brown’s Box.

Brown's Box 1Brown's Box 2“It’s one of the saddest things in my life, the loss of that house,” he said.

In October, Best got a call from his sister. She hadn’t been to the house in a number of years and couldn’t find where it was. Best sent her its location via Google Maps.

“The camera zoomed right in on the old gate that leads up to where the old homesite was,” he said. “There’s nothing there anymore. The house was torn down. So I just sat there and stared at it, and thought to myself—man, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to build another house back, like the old house that was there before, and have a place to take my grandchildren?”

Brown’s Box fell in to disrepair after Best’s grandparents died.

“It was out in the country, and my parents live in Jackson, so no one was going to take care of it,” he said. “When Katrina roared through, what—10 years ago? There were some huge oak trees and pecan trees around the house, and a couple of them fell on what was left of the house.”

After that, Best’s family felt the house had become a danger, mainly to people stumbling upon it and rummaging in it.

“Like I say, I dream about it all the time,” he said. “I dream about going back there. I think maybe that’s an impetus to me to get back there—at some point.”

FlowerBoats and CarsMaypoleRed and Yellow Trees

Nowadays, Best calls his paper dolls “snippetry.” He took a break for over 50 years, living life and raising two children. His artwork can now be found at Oxford Treehouse Gallery.

Vivian Neill, the owner, said Best’s work is eye-catching.

“We have quite a few of his pieces,” she said. “His mixed-media, kind of collage-like pieces, are really appealing, and we’ve already had sales.”

Best’s childhood hobby has come full circle.

“A big part of what was going on was the simplicity of cutting, and pasting, and piecing things together,” he said. “It wasn’t so much that it was paper dolls. It was the act of doing it. It was the act of cutting. And that’s what I found again 50 years later – the joy I found in actually cutting things out.”

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