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All Dolled Up

Raisa Gomer, senior instructor of russian

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It’s impossible to leave her office in a bad mood.

Between the hot tea she serves and the warm conversation she offers, a visit with Raisa Gomer, senior instructor of Russian, is a real treat. “It is important that we take time to enjoy each other,” she says. “You must find something to lift your spirit.”

And, chances are, you’ll find it in Gomer’s office – “the office of treasures” is full of fine examples of Russia’s most cherished craftwork: decorative eggs, plates of the Kohkloma craft, lacquered papier-mâché boxes from Palekh and, of course, the nesting dolls, or matryoshkas, that pepper her bookshelves with splashes of bright red, deep blue and lively yellows, purples, oranges and greens.

“The colors are beautiful. In Russia, you have snow forever, until it meets the gray sky, so you need some color,” says Gomer. “Color affects a mood. It’s good to have something bright to keep from feeling blue.”

And, if the dolls’ vivid colors don’t do the trick, perhaps the process of playing with them will. “It is good to take care of your stress,” she says, opening and reassembling the set of matryoshkas in front of her. “It keeps your hands busy. It takes attention away from what is in your head and gives it to the matryoshka.”

Most of the hollowed birch dolls in Gomer’s collection depict the traditional rosy-cheeked, curly-haired young maiden, opening up to another, smaller, young maiden inside, and so on and so forth – typically with five nested figures in all.

“But this one is special,” says Gomer, picking up a figure with the face of an old woman. She opens the doll to reveal an old man, and then again to uncover a young girl. “And then you see a little cat, and then a little chick,” she says, lining the figures up in a row. “Isn’t it wonderful?”

Each and every one of the hand-painted dolls is indeed wonderful – the intricate handwork that goes into painting the tiny, elaborate details shows true artistry and skill. “It is an art form that is Russia’s own.”

Still, it wasn’t until she left her native Ukraine that Gomer herself took an interest in the matryoshkas. “We brought some with us to show people, to represent Russia,” she says, joking that she “took all the color” from the country when she left.

Fortunately there was plenty more to pick up when she visited again in 2001, and she returned to Charleston with about 25 new dolls. But, because she gives them away to friends and students, her “collection gets smaller instead of bigger.” She shrugs: “They deserve to be passed around for other people to see. They are beautiful, so they make people smile.”

And everyone deserves to smile – whether visiting Gomer’s office or not.