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Dolph Gotelli

Nov 23, 2009 11:26AM ● Published by Wendy Sipple

Photo by Dante Fontana

Dolph Gotelli describes his art with a phrase that captures the spirit of his work as much as it captures the creative experience itself: he’s playing with his toys.

As an internationally-known curator, artist and exhibition designer, Gotelli has made a profession of what he always enjoyed as a child – taking a group of unrelated objects and arranging them together in visual harmony to tell a story.

“As an only child in a rural environment I did a lot of imaginary play,” he says. “I’d spend hours placing my toys into designed environments indoors and outdoors. These little worlds transported me into hours of fantasy play.”

Now as an adult who’s designed detailed and imaginative window displays for many of the big department stores around the holidays, he revels in creating fantasy environments for others to see and experience. His current exhibition, “Enchanted Christmas,” runs through February 7 at the Folsom History Museum, featuring a collection of antique Christmas decorations and artifacts, which is aptly described as world famous. He’s collected toys, prints, ornaments and other artifacts from every continent on the planet, and has fans all around the world.

His vignettes always offer more than meets the eye, especially in the way he works with proportions and scale. Also, with some vignettes containing more than 300 pieces, each one adding a different element to the visual story, it can be easy to get lost in your imagination. “My hope is that people will revert to their childhoods by experiencing this exhibition,” Gotelli says. “I want to take them to a whimsical, fantastical place that reminds them of traditional Christmas rituals of the past, and lets them imagine for themselves what kind of story is being told.”

Though he describes his work and his collection as “embracing the whimsical,” he’s almost as adamant about re-forging the link between visual perception and imagination, especially among children. As someone who grew up in the radio era, where imagination was the only way to “see” and fully experience his childhood heroes, he’s not a big fan of today’s technical world. “With the high tech toys, games and television, all the imagination is done for us,” he says. “Kids especially are required to tap into their imagination, which they need to use if they’re ever in a situation that requires creative problem solving.” 

As a professor at UC Davis for more than 35 years, he developed a class based on fantasy as a problem-solving device in which students were prompted to explore their own creativity and exercise their imaginations. That passion to spark the imagination motivates him to keep collecting and keep looking for ways to enhance his displays. He’s constantly scouring antique shows and flea markets for those perfect items that will improve his visual presentations. “Ultimately my goal is to create a museum of childhood and play right here in Folsom,” says Gotelli.


To learn more about Gotelli and his work, visit the Folsom History Museum exhibition (folsomhistorymuseum.org for info) as well as his Web site at dolphgotelli.com

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