artist profile15 Sep 2008 08:30 am

I first met Pat Lillich back in 1996 on an email list ( She told a story about how she reacted to a painful time in her life by wanting to make a baby doll. She felt that she had made a beautiful doll in her characteristic all white look, but when she exhibited it at an art show people berated her for showing a sculpture of a dead baby. I didn’t see the doll, but for some reason I could picture it perfectly and the image stayed in my head. I could imagine a sleeping ethereal face that made some observers recoil.

I didn’t hear from Pat for years. Years later, I mentioned her story of the dead baby on the list and wondered what happened to her. To my surprise, she answered me. She had been lurking all along. This time, I had the opportunity to see her artwork, and my expectations were blown away. Typically, her pieces are otherworldly and pure white, with maybe a splash of color. Even the ones that aren’t obviously fantasy seem to have come from another world.

Recently, her work has received acclaim from many sources. She was profiled on Endicott Studio, and she was voted into NIADA, one of the highest honors in the dollmaking world.

1) What happened to that first baby doll?

The baby doll was what started me to realize what a powerful tool sculpting/dollmaking could be. I had had an early midterm miscarriage – far enough along that there was a fetus, but not far enough along that there was a body for us to bury. I kept “hearing” the baby crying, and knew I needed some way to say goodbye. To hold the baby and tell it I loved it and let it go. So I created that first baby doll – which looking back, really wasn’t beautiful or special in any way. But it allowed me to say goodbye to Morgan, heal and move on. And its a sign of the success of the process that the baby doll sat on the shelf until we moved to California and then disappeared. I didn’t need it anymore. An awful lot of my pieces do that – I intensely need to sculpt them — but once they are done – I’m not especially interested in them anymore. So they wander off with family or sit on shelves until the room is too full and then get tossed. My kids on a few occasions have rescued pieces out of the trash and given them to friends – I’ve gotten some strange reactions from parents for some of them…

2) Were you still working on your artwork in those years that I didn’t hear from you? My impression is that you had a fallow period. What do you think of fallow periods for artists?

I think that artists are people who are driven to express themselves, to try to capture/explain/explore what they experience. I don’t think that an audience is necessary. It is that undeniable need to scream, cry or sing in whatever medium works for you that makes you an artist. Before the time in my life that you are referring to, I tended to sculpt things that were cute or pretty. It was what I experienced during that fallow time that made me more introspective, that made me start needing to think about what existed behind the surface of what we see. I wouldn’t wish the experiences of that time on anyone, but without them I wouldn’t be the person or the artist I am now.

By nature I’m a watcher – someone who stands at the edge and observes, but doesn’t participate. For me it feels like those painful years when I couldn’t sculpt, built up an incredible level of frustration and need. And it feels like eventually that need burst through a lot of my inhibitions. Before the hard years, i sculpted what i thought other people wanted to see. After them, I sculpted the feeling that were carved in my heart or that oozed out of my nightmares. I was still too inhibited to scream in public, but I started showing these new sculpts on your list. I really not sure what kind of response I expected, but it was so wonderful to find people who looked at them and “saw” some of what I was trying to share. I desperately needed that validation. At that point I truly didn’t see any value in what i was doing – I just had to do them. I wonder if fallow years for other artists are like that. Where your life is changing, and what you need to say is changing- and you need that time for the new images to come clear – or for the need to express yourself to become desperate enough to burst through whatever is blocking you.

These days I’m mellowing. I feel like I’m mostly doing downright simple and accessible sculpts – just glorying in the beauty of the media. But some images still push forward with that urgency. Like last year’s Transitions – my feelings on the impending death of a friend’s only family, and this year’s Bone Dragon’s Daughter – a metaphor for my soul.

3) Could you talk a bit about your favorite authors and books?

I love reading, I love the worlds that books create. I almost never like movies made from my favorite books because they interfere with the images my imagination created for me. (one exception is the Princess Bride – love that movie AND the book) I’m currently working on trying to memorize most of “the artists complete guide to facial expression” by Gary Faigin.
Currently I’m reading a lot of urban mythology. Charles DeLint is an all time favorite – He understands artists and outsiders. He is the writer who started me looking more closely at the people I walk by in the city, and imagining the fae and other creatures who i might have just glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. All the Border Land books (Terri Windling, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull )

I passionately love P.G. Hodgell – whose very dark fantasy series has been giving me nightmares for decades now.

One of the most incredible reads lately is Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow – 308 page epic poem (verse novel?) about werewolves.

Many of my favorite authors seem to be in the young adult section of the bookstore – Dianna Wynn Jones, Holly Black’s more adult Spiderwick books, Patricia McKillip, lots more.

And I’ve got some favorite guilty pleasures in Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher and others who don’t write deep stories, but paint rich and vivid worlds.

4) And now, every single one of those books are going on my must read list! As other-worldly as your dolls are, they have a strong auto-biographical content. I know this isn’t a question, but I wondered if you would be comfortable sharing some of your stories.

A lot of what I do is very selfish – a way to work through issues in my life, or to explain things to my kids… I’ve been blessed with 3 wonderful kids who happened to have a lot of challenges. They spent so very much time with doctors and being told that this or that part of their body wasn’t working right – they all became defensive about it in different ways. One child got to the point of asking why life was so unfair – why did they have to be so different, why couldn’t they be like everyone else? This child has a wonderfully strange imagination and is an incredible 2D artist – but also has differences that will be with them all their life. I couldn’t belittle what they were experiencing by telling them “happy ever after” stories – I wanted them to see that being different wasn’t necessarily all bad – that it could possibly be glorious and beautiful. I sculpted the dancer – the figure with wings instead of arms and asked – look at this person, they have no arms. Should we pity them? Or envy them… they can fly. I believe that all the more successful pieces I do are portraits of family or friends. But they are portraits in the sense that they show what I feel about a person, their strengths, their challenges. They aren’t literal portraits. The Courtesan focused on someone who’s childhood was stolen away by psychosis. Who has had to learn to literally live with the demons inside. Nato – the Faun focused on the internal joy and impishness of my son (ok, that whole joy thing is currently on hiatus, but entering your 20’s is a serious thing for some folk)

What are you working on now?
Right now I’m learning to make Asian style ball jointed dolls. I’ve loved them for years, spent a lot of time searching for Japanese artists’ websites – and now I’m working on my own. But i have real problems staying focused on a single project – especially one that takes so very long to finish. So I’m actually working on fine tuning a tiny bjd – Lola at 8″, finishing preparing for molding a slightly larger bjd Bug at about 10″, working on a bjd rocking horse fly , finishing up a head mold for an SD size bjd (23″), while getting ready to teach a quick bjd head sculpting class at the BJD artist retreat in Ohio next month (creating a head armature for this class to help people make bjd heads without having to worry about sizing or neck jointing issues) My daughter and I just finished an article for Doll Crafter on how to do faceups on bjds and I get to attend a head sculpting class with George Stuart at the end of October. Long range – I may be team teaching a class on bjds at next year’s NIADA at Arrowmont and I’m hoping to take Philippe Faraut’s one week portrait sculpting class next summer. I keep trying to get my husband to let me retire from my day job (I maintain servers, applications and databases for a community college district in California) so I’ll have more time to focus on sculpting projects – my children are trying to get me to promise no more projects, just focus on sculpting. Maybe starting in November…. <grin>

5) Could you say a few words about how you see art dolls, what ball-jointed dolls mean to you?

For me, the ability to make a doll move (ie ball jointed dolls) draws me into its world. One part of my mind is caught up by the engineering questions in how to get different types of joints working while at the same time images of the doll/figure moving are flashing across the back of my mind…. maybe I spent too many years being terrified by Ray Harryhausen stop motion/claymation films – and this is my way to do my own animated characters.

But not all ball jointed dolls are art dolls. For me, an art doll is one that has a deeper emotional burden. Hans Bellmer’s figures were art dolls – screams against the Nazi regime, while trying to understand himself. Not beautiful, but intense. Miuta Etsuko’s figures are Art Dolls – while the Korean company Dollti’s – – Wizard of Oz dolls aren’t. Dollti’s dolls are some of my favorite bjds – wonderfully engineered, vividly imaginative – but there is no emotion there for me. Great fun to play with , but they don’t make me think.

Thank you Pat, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking answers to my questions. To see more about Pat, look at her website or her interview at the deeply lamented Endicott Studios blog.


4 Responses to “An Interview with Pat Lillich”

  1. on 27 Sep 2008 at 9:51 pm Pepperh

    Excellent interview. Pat has long been one of my very favorite artists. The sublime elegance of her other-worldly dolls makes them very special.


  2. on 28 Sep 2008 at 1:38 pm CindyCelusta

    What a wonderful interview. Look forward to seeing more of Pat’s work and also more interviews with artists!

  3. on 29 Sep 2008 at 6:44 am suzanne.artist

    Wonderful interview on an intriguing artist! Congrats on the your new e-zine Dawn!

  4. […] The Art of Pat Lillich […]

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