Artist preserves history, tells stories

Nancy Lee Moran is a painter from Auburn, Neb.

Nancy Lee Moran has been painting portraits of families, executives, children, babies — even dogs and cats — for more than 20 years.

And for the past eight years, the Auburn, Neb., artist has been painting realistic dolls commissioned by collectors.

Through the portraiture and dolls, Moran said she hopes to both preserve families’ history and tell a story about her subjects’ lives.

Moran took her first commission in 1989, while she was spending most of her time at home with her children.

Prior to that she had worked as a registered nurse at the Nebraska Medical Center. But her commission portrait work started to take off.

In 1994, she had a solo show at the Nebraska Governor’s Mansion. She showed portraits at the Omaha Symphony Interior Designer Showhouses in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Moran said most of the people she has painted are Nebraskans. Some are formal portraits, such as one she did of the late Gretchen Reeder, who is the namesake for Gretchen Reeder Elementary School in Gretna. Reeder’s children commissioned the portrait and it now hangs in the school.

But most of Moran’s portraiture is much more casual. She said she tries to get to know her subjects before she paints them.

“We usually get together and talk about the setting of the portrait and the level of formality they would like,” she said. “It is always surprising.”

Often, she asks her clients if they have a family heirloom or something historical that they would like to include. One client included a photograph of her father and a lamp that she’d seen in a photograph of her historical home’s previous owner.

Moran takes photographs of her subjects and works from those when she’s painting. She’s painted people at their vacation homes, in their gardens and in settings around Nebraska, such as on the hills in Brownville, Neb., an hour south of Omaha.

About eight years ago, Moran started painting dolls.

When her late father was ill and in the hospital for seven months, she said she started reading about dolls.

“It brought me out of feeling sad,” Moran said. “I always admired sculptors but I don’t respond the same way to a bronze as I do to a child-like doll.”

Moran accepts commission work to paint realistic, striking faces on collectible dolls. When she’s done painting a doll’s face, usually including the eyes, she works with seamstresses to create outfits for the dolls. Most are sold to adult collectors; they’re not for kids to play with.

One client commissioned Moran to make a doll that looked like her mother, who lived in New York City in the 1920s. The doll’s face, painted to look like a photograph of the client’s mother as a child, is strikingly similar. The doll wears a silk-satin dress, matching period appropriate bloomers and a lined, gray coat and hat.

The 1920s and 1960s are especially popular eras for doll collectors, Moran said.

“The collaboration with seamstresses has been the fun part of this,” Moran said. “Most of my life I have worked on my own with clients in portraiture. This isn’t as lonely as it can sometimes be in the studio.”

She said the differences in the two surfaces she paints on have affected her work in unexpected ways.

“After so many years of working on a flat canvas, it has helped me think about the face in new ways,” she said. “That’s coming back to my work on the flat surface in good ways.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1069,

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