Beyond the dollhouse

Frank featured in new book of contemporary dollmaking

Posted: Thursday, August 19, 2004

Juneau-born artist Mary Ellen Frank began making wooden portrait dolls after taking a workshop with Inupiat teacher Dolly Spencer in March 1988. She completed her first doll in 1989 and sold her first the following year.

"I don't think I'll ever feel like I've fully learned," she said. "I still look at older work and feel like there's a lot that's happened every year. It took five years to get to the point where you saw very much of the features."

Frank has been featured in a handful of local shows throughout the years, and is now one of 25 dollmakers profiled in "Contemporary American Doll Artists and their Dolls," a brand-new book by Kentucky writer Kathryn Witt.

The book tells the story of 25 artists and the dolls they create. The dollmakers range in experience and age. The youngest is 28; the oldest is 78. Some are from the United States. Others are from Japan, Iceland and the Bahamas. Media include clay, cloth, wood, bronze, resin and porcelain.

Witt writes for a handful of newspaper and magazines in the United States and England, as well as the English publication "Doll Magazine." Information about "Contemp-orary American," and an upcoming book, "The Doll Directory," is available at or

Pictures of six of Frank's dolls are included in the book. Many of her portrait dolls have been Northern Native Americans from Alaska and Canada. In the last few years, she's received commissions to do portraits.

"I collected Northern Native dolls and I've gotten some Russian Northern dolls," Frank said. "I collect them for interest and they inform my work. I love the kind of work that people do - from very folkish art to extremely refined piece that Native people do. I've never collected work that looks like what I do. What I'm interested is collecting art that looks a lot less real, just freer."

Frank's work can be intricate. She spends an average of two to three months on a doll, carving in Alaska yellow cedar and Alaska paper birch.

"When you do portrait work, you're looking at the doll closely and agonizing over the act," Frank said. "When you work capturing personalities and activity, there's a lot more freedom."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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