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Dolls and Discovery
The Work of Gretchen Lima
By Susanna Oroyan

Lima has the curiosity and willingness that it takes to experiment and make changes.
When we speak of artist's dolls, we should not forget that they are exactly that: the artist's dolls. They are the product of the artist's background, skills, personality and current emotional state. When we, as collectors, take them into our homes, we are acquiring a piece of that artist's persona.

Technically speaking, Wisconsin artist Gretchen Lima is a fabric dollmaker whose work appeals to the eye and begs the hand to touch. On closer examination, however, we find that her dolls also take us on a journey of discovery—hers and our own.

After completing an art degree, Lima worked for awhile as a potter's apprentice before getting "tired of being dirty." Leaving that position, she went on "to get a real job."

The job turned out to be one most artists would like—she taught arts and crafts to the homebound. She had a regular paycheck and all the benefits of doing what one enjoys.

After nearly ten years, Lima realized that what she really wanted to do was to be self-supporting with her art. For a year or two after her day job, she worked to establish herself at art fairs. In 1985 she was able to quit her job and has been on the show circuit ever since.

She sells her work at art shows and festivals in the Midwest from Michigan to Minnesota or, as she says, "within the 12 hour radius from my home [in Sheboygan, Wisconsin]." When at home, she works on as many as six dolls at a time, usually finishing and shipping three a week.

A lot, maybe all, of the courage And self-awareness it took to make the move to supporting herself through her art is reflected in Lima's work. Her figures are mostly female. They stand erect. They are thoughtful, sometimes angry. They project wisdom and strength. Many are very feminine, incorporating colors, textures, beads and baubles-the touchy-feely-glittery things-associated with the feminine image.

Her work evolves weekly, and perhaps even daily, she admits. Lima has the curiosity and willingness that it takes to experiment and make changes. Note that some of her figures have faces drawn in inks and some are fully rendered as if painted on canvas. Some of her figures have sculpted hands and heads.

She began adding sculpted elements to her cloth figures when she asked herself, "What if it had hands?" She discovered she could sculpt hands and heads, too.

This same bit of "what if" process is applied in Lima's unique costuming. Here, we know it must be a case of "What a wonderful bit of weaving; what if I added it here? What if she held a piece of coral? What about this crystal?" Of course, if none of the "what ifs" exist, then Lima creates them to suit the figure. This means making jewelry, doing appliqué and creating her own fabric.

Equally important to Lima is how dollmaking can reflect personal discoveries. All of her dolls are visions of people she has met or observed. Her figures, particularly the larger more complex ones, reflect what she calls her process of self-discovery.

For instance, one day she was thinking about anger and drew what she thought "really angry" might look like. The resulting sketch illustrated the concept which became Iza, War Woman. Through Iza, Lima realized that she had never really allowed herself to express her feelings when she became angry about things.

On exploring the idea of the earth mother. Lima sculpted a figure holding three differently colored babies. "Since I never had children," she said. "it was quite interesting to see how I interpreted them in doll form-as expected, not at all like a typical baby doll Image."

In any conversation between two artists (I am also a cloth doll artist) sooner or later a "what if" comes up in regard to the future. I said, "What if you win the lottery and get the studio of your dreams? What then? And she laughingly replied, "Probably sit in my studio and keep doing the same thing." Then, with more discoveries in mind, she added, "I would like to do more teaching, I would like to share what I do with others and see what they might discover in dollmaking."

Lima said that she enjoys doing commission work and accepts special "challenge assignments." Since her work is not of the type that would create a very realistic physical portrait, it would be more precise to say she creates an interpretation of a person's special characteristics. Lima feels that in such a case what the collector wants is how she, as an artist, imagines the doll subject to be. And that, in itself, is another type of discovery.

A very positive aspect of Lima's discovery with dolls, and the public's very positive response to it, Is that others are allowing themselves to discover feelings or to identify with feelings expressed by an artist's work. When people find they do not mind dolls with tears or anger-emotions we all share at one time or another then dollmaking truly is an art form which fully expresses the human condition.

The author is a doll artist and freelance writer.

Iza, War Woman, 23"
A lot, maybe all, of the courage and self-awareness it took to make the move to supporting herself through her art is reflected in Lima's work.

A one-of-a-kind cloth doll. The Child Behind the Mask, 21"

Part of a series of similar pieces, this is Chachka, 14"

Holding an amethyst crystal, Estrella, 21"
Reprinted with permission from Contemporary Doll Magazine / November 1993

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This page last modified 12/18/05
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