Loretta Daum Byrne is an artist, designer and expert seamstress; a rare combination of talent that has brought her success in many media. Of Native American ancestry Loretta reflects her heritage in her work. Although her background was in dress design, it is her soft sculptured dolls and animals that are exhibited in galleries and museums, her banners, watercolors, wall hangings and tapestries which hang in private collections, churches, and offices across the nation.
I call Loretta to set an appointment and I meet her in her home the following Thursday. I walk in the house; it is a small charming place. The aroma of the food coming from the kitchen drifts by my nose. The whole living room is saturated with colors. Pieces of artwork, dolls and fabric animals seem to be spread everywhere in a sort of coordinated, chromatic mess. Little and cozy, this house has been Loretta and John's nest since they married almost 35 years ago. The atmosphere is strange but familiar. This is my first time being in an artist's kingdom.
Loretta is tall and brunette, her big, brown, slanted eyes and the prominent cheekbones show the typical features of Native Americans. Although in her early sixty's she is still a beautiful woman and her graceful movements make her appear very elegant. Her traits are touched by the time passed but even her wrinkles transmit the serenity of her soul. Her vivacious open mind is the foundation of her private and artistic life.
She invites me to take a place at the table while carrying out a big pot full of pasta. I didn't think I would be her dinner guest, but the food looks excellent and a few glasses of wine help to break through the last barriers of apprehension. I had thoughtfully prepared my list of questions and here I am chatting between bites and now the whole list seems so useless.
Loretta's Childhood and Her Love for Diversity
Loretta grew up in a multicultural suburb of Milwaukee where the immigrants hardly spoke English and where she needed to develop new ways of communication. "I've always been attracted by diversities in people in a broad spectrum of the world, respecting cultural and racial differences. She says, "Mine was a really open minded family, anyone, anytime could stop over for dinner." I easily understand now why I am sitting facing a plate of spaghetti. "I worked a great deal in interracial adoptions and several of my friends and I have interracial families. I have been privileged to know children of many backgrounds."
"I can't remember a time when I didn't draw. When I was only three I was so color conscious that I wanted my father to give me a cracker that would match the pink jam." Then as if she were recapturing a memory, she continues, "Animals were my models, I was a creative child. I grew up without television, so I didn't have my creativity disrupted by preformatted programs. Television kills children's imagination and prevents them from thinking on their own. Imagination is something that must be cultivated!" I nod with my head encouraging her to continue.
"Since I was a small child I realized that I was different, more sensitive I saw details that others couldn't see. Kids my age looked at me as a weird person and that made me sad. I felt different and kids don't like to be different. But I do remember the admiring voices of my peers when I drew a beautiful horse. Episodes like this made me feel later that I was on the right path."
While Loretta caresses the plate's edge with her finger she hands me a photo album. I open it and gently flip through its pages. Her whole life is in it, her four adopted children and a bunch of grandchildren of every color, white, black and Hispanic. Now, I start understanding her idea of diversity as moments of sharing and not of division.
The World Friends Project
She runs upstairs to her studio and rushes back down with a large cardboard box. Inside it is full of dolls, white, black, Indian and Asian. They reveal the many diversities of the planet. "I designed these many years ago," she says proudly, "they were part of a project called World Friends. Each one of us can identify ourselves in a doll, and then dress them as they wish. The only requirement I gave to the manufacturers was the price, not more than two dollars, so as to be affordable for everyone."
The Desert Gipsy
Loretta is still talking when my attention is completely captured by an amazing two-foot tall doll standing behind her in a display case. With big and expressive brown eyes, olive complexion and tousled dark black hair, She seems an Arabian princess. Elegantly dressed in a colorful cape wrapped around her shoulders, she is the picture of freedom. I feel like I have been caught with my hand in the cookie jar when Loretta stops speaking and asks perceptively, "Do you like my Desert Gypsy?" "Oh, she's dazzling," I say, trying to apologize. Full of pride, Loretta whispers, "She was tired of wearing the veil, so she packed up and left. The desert wind now finally can blow on her face and gust through her hair revealing a beautiful face that was once hidden."
Old Scraps of Fabric Inspire Me
Loretta's love of nature and people of all races shines through in her work. Her fascination with fabrics adds a special, exciting dimension. "I love to find a wonderful old scrap of fabric...It inspires me to create a face to go with it, then to research a custom to go with the face, and then find a perfect name. My work is the extension of the artist in me; there is empathy between my creations and me. My object is to call peoples attention to social issues."
The Desert Gypsy is a clear statement about the condition of Middle Eastern women. Loretta, in her little world made of dolls and soft sculptured animals, carries on every day her commitment to cultural, social and racial issues.
There is a Story Behind each Creation
It is difficult sometimes to understand how much hard work it takes to give birth to an artist's creations; for instance, the Desert Gypsy. Loretta felt the story behind the princess, and then reproduced the idea in a way comprehensible to others. The medium used and the combination of techniques she learned over many years were the basic tools to deliver her 'message'.
When a piece is completed Loretta puts it aside for a few days in a visible place so she can look objectively and improve it. "I like to share what I do with others. I don't like artists that call their art works 'untitled'. You need to give your audience a jumping off point to understand and be involved in what you create. Untitled is like saying "I don't care what you think. It is selfish and has no regard for others. My philosophy is to show my message clearly."
I ask with curiosity, "After all this hard work it's easy for you to sell your creation?" "Every time it feels like I give part of myself away. In the past it was difficult but I have learned to overcome the feeling of loss. Once, when I was doing a show in Fort Worth, Texas, I had to take Mohlle, a doll, to the gallery. The doll sat beside me while I was driving and looked at me like a human being. I can't understand why, but I felt like she was a family member and I couldn't part with her. She is still with me." As she speaks she proudly points to a doll sitting on a chair on the opposite side of the room. I look at the doll, and it is as if she were alive, smiling at me. I can perceive her soul, the soul that Loretta saw so many years ago.
Future Projects and Opportunities
The Holiday Art Fair next November at the Madison Art Center and a proposal to be a teacher at Washington Island Art School, are the next stages of her brilliant career. Taking another step as a mature artist, she will be helping young talent to bring out the artistic ability inside them, giving Loretta the opportunity to share her experience with impressionable students.
Our conversation is over. We both rise and I anticipate a handshake, but instead she hugs me in a warm goodbye. I'm standing in the doorway and I turn my face to glance once more at the Desert Gypsy. Our eyes meet and I feel captivated by her Middle Eastern beauty, no longer hidden by an archaic veil. Her soul touches mine in a passionate emotional moment.
Today I have learned, as Loretta did long ago, that creations from the heart have a soul.
Inverview by Gianni Losi, October 30, 1998