Spanish flu children’s rhyme inspires COVID art dolls

By Carmen Ponto

Artist creates COVID-19 bird dolls based on children’s chant from Spanish Flu

Charlotte Sigurdson has always turned to history to make sense of the present.

“There’s a human instinct to look back at how things have been handled in the past,” she said.

While living through the current pandemic, the Winnipeg artist started learning about a past one: the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

And inspiration struck.

While listening to a history podcast, she heard a children’s chant from that period. It featured a bird named Enza who brought sickness wherever he went. 

I had a little bird
His name was Enza
I opened the door
And in-flu-enza!

Winnipegger Charlotte Sigurdson was a lawyer before shifting to a life as an artist. (Tyler Funk and Carmen Ponto)

During the Spanish Flu, children chanted the verse as many of the young adults around them — their parents, teachers and neighbours — became the primary victims of influenza and often died.

A mother herself, Sigurdson was deeply moved by what she learned and began to create.

The result? Intricate and detailed art dolls, carefully crafted from clay and textiles, featuring Enza the bird.

“The idea of the flu, and contagious diseases in general, in my mind started to take the shape of this bird,” she said.

“They could be anywhere. This innocuous thing … bringing this great sorrow. It just felt really right.” 

Sigurdson’s story is also the focus of a new short film by Winnipeg filmmakers Tyler Funk and Carmen Ponto for CBC Manitoba’s Creator Network.

A handmade doll, inspired by a Spanish flu children’s song, is dressed in vintage lace. Winnipeg artist Charlotte Sigurdson has been creating new dolls during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tyler Funk and Carmen Ponto)

The art dolls have delicately painted faces and are dressed in 1900s-style formal wear. A gentleman doll has the face of a bird while another doll is a melancholy woman holding a bird’s head. 

The dolls are a new endeavour for Sigurdson, who started her professional life as a lawyer.

Winnipeg artist Charlotte Sigurdson sews clothes for her handmade dolls. She was inspired to create the hybrid bird and human dolls after discovering the children’s song In Flew Enza, which is about the Spanish flu. (Tyler Funk and Carmen Ponto)

Deciding law wasn’t for her, she launched a bath and body products business before landing where she feels most at home: motherhood and full-time art.

Sigurdson began making children’s dolls in 2017 before graduating to the more intricate art dolls she creates now. 

“I didn’t really understand the depths of humanity until I became a mother,” she said.

“Once that happened, it was a very natural thing to start expressing myself through my art.… It’s just sort of evolved into what it is now.” 

While navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, Winnipeg artist Charlotte Sigurdson drew from history and the Spanish flu of 1918 to create her new dolls. (Tyler Funk )

Sigurdson now creates art whenever she has a spare moment, and says doing so has become a necessary aspect of her identity; she finds catharsis both in researching and creating her pandemic-inspired pieces.

Her followup art involves themes of isolation and prairie-wind-induced madness.

Sigurdson’s work can be seen on Instagram @charlotte_sigurdson_studio.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s