Following Fifi

La Grange artist, writer sees world
from a child's innocent perspective

By Dianne Stoess
Contributing Writer

LA GRANGE, Ky. – Her full name is Deborah Lynn LeFan Gattis, but most people, including her husband, call her Fifi. In college, her friends dubbed her with the nickname because of her short, curly hair style and French surname.

Fifi LeFan

Photo by Dianne Stoess

La Grange artist and writer Fifi
LeFan poses in her home stuido.
She finds inspiration in her
childhood for both talents.

Fifi is a multitalented artist who has done mainly commissioned portraits in the past, but she says that after a while, “I began to feel like a portrait machine.”
She now limits herself to only six or seven portraits a year because her real passion lies in free artistic expression.
Freeing up more of her time allowed her to create a beautifully illustrated children’s book, “Dancing in the Hollyhocks.” The manuscript is completed and she and her husband, Bob, are “putting out feelers” for a publisher.
“Dancing in the Hollyhocks” is about a little girl named Hannah Rose, who is not entirely fictional. She was modeled after Anna, the 8-year-old daughter of friends, Lisa and Richard Roederer, of Westport, Ky.
“This [Hannah Rose] is actually Lisa Roederer’s daughter. She’s a cross between Pippi Longstocking and me growing up,” Fifi said. “It’s about Hanna Rose, and the things she likes to do.
"She likes to skip and twirl and dance in the hollyhocks her mother planted by the barn. She chases butterflies and pretends she’s a princess. When she feels sad, she simply wants to fly away, so she goes out in the wind, looks up to the sky, stretches her arms out wide, and closes her eyes very tight. She imagines the wind is picking her up and carrying her high above the house.
"It’s about how she views life and it has a lot of wonder in it.”
Roederer says that Fifi chose her daughter as the model for the book because “Fifi thinks Anna’s a lot like her, delighting in the simple pleasures of life like watching sunsets, being by the river, in her own world.”
She said that the illustrations of Hannah Rose look exactly like Anna.
Indeed, Hannah Rose does mirror the author’s own childhood. She was an only child for eight years and enjoyed being alone, exploring nature and drawing pictures of the natural beauty all around her.
Her mother says, “She’d sing to the cows, sit on the ground, take her pencil and paper and just draw and draw. She was as happy as a bug in a rug all by herself in her own little world.”
When Fifi was five, her parents moved to a farm in Oldham County, and it is there that she grew up. She explored her new world with awe. The surrounding countryside with its woods, creeks, and wildlife, was her playground.
Her paintings usually depict a single child delighting in nature and animals: a child on his back gazing at the clouds; a pigtailed girl, arms outstretched, eyes tightly closed, dancing in the wind; a little girl singing to a herd of cows; a child walking along a creek. Among the illustrations in her book are watercolor images of Hannah looking at the stars, making silly faces and playing under a weeping willow tree. All are recreations of Fifi’s own childhood.
Her artistic talent surfaced at age two when her parents gave her a child’s desk with a chalkboard top. Across the back of the desk were pictures of an airplane, a butterfly and an elephant. With a piece of chalk, Fifi reproduced the pictures one after another without once looking down at the surface on which she was drawing.
Her mother, Doris LeFan, recognized her daughter’s talent instantly. In her excitement, she ran to her husband and said, “Oh my gosh! This kid’s going to be an artist!”
She didn’t enroll Fifi in art classes, but added, “We spent a fortune all her life on art supplies.”
The driving force that compelled Fifi to write “Dancing in the Hollyhocks” came from her desire to use her talent as a means of self expression and to send a message to parents.
“My real passion is proclaiming Christ, and I wanted a way to use my creativity not only to project that, but to affirm children who are creative. And to remind adults that (a creative) child’s perspective is a worthy thing.”
Fifi still enjoys long walks in the woods. She sometimes walks two miles along the country lane where she lives, feeling free to sing or pray without intrusion by the outside world. It helps her keep in touch with the creative spark that produced her book.
“Dancing in the Hollyhocks” is ready for submission a publisher. It’s not certain when the book will be available to the public, but watch for it, because it’s a work of art and a refreshing account of childhood memories you won’t want to miss.

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