Doll in a day's work

Posted: Monday, November 08, 2010

It was a two-and-a-half-year-old girl's nightmare. Not only were we delaying the cupcake I'd promised for sitting still during her haircut - let alone a Halloween costume, which came next on our downtown to-do list - but the detour placed us amidst hundreds of dolls, none of which she could touch.

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

The sign advertised both a doll museum and doll-making studio - outside an office suite on the second floor of the Triangle Building at 114 S. Franklin. My curiosity was piqued. I had to go in.

What I didn't have to do was engage in that horrid adult practice of talking, talking, talking - with Mary Ellen Frank, a local doll-maker and the museum's curator - while all sorts of forbidden figurines danced before my daughter's eyes: Alaska native hunters with replica bidarkas; Hopi kachina dolls; Navajo clown dolls; (and for some reason) a talking Pee-Wee Herman still in its original packaging.

"I should get some dolls you can actually play with," Frank said, noticing my daughter's growing discomfort. I couldn't contain her much longer, and I didn't feel like running afoul of the "you broke it, you bought it" policy. Not in a room full of several-thousand-dollar "it"s.

When I visited Frank two weeks later (and toddler-free), I found her at work, hunched over a magnifying glass, looking through a pair of glasses with yet another set of magnifying glasses barnacled onto them.

Strains of pan flute filled the air like only new-age music can, as she painstakingly embroidered a symbol onto the back of the tunic that will be worn by the portrait doll of Cecilia Kunz, which Frank will deliver to the City Museum on Nov. 20.

"Yesterday, this was my whole day's work," she said, running a needle along a quarter-inch of design. "Micro-embroidery is new to me, but it has to look like I've been doing it for 20 years."

Though Frank does commission tribal basket weavers and model-makers, in the end, she decided not to hire out the beadwork.

"Several local native craftswomen do absolutely beautiful life-sized work, but not this miniature," she said.

Frank's dolls usually take two years - Ceclia Kunz, owing to the detail, has been a four-year undertaking. She walked me through the process.

"First, I ask myself: what is it about this person that makes them look how they look?"

Then, Frank sculpts a rough head out of clay before carving a prototype in Alaskan yellow cedar, which she gets from local harvesters. She also carves the final in yellow cedar, along with the hands, which she fashions as intricately as the face, with articulated knuckles, tendons and veins. She solders copper wire into tiny glasses frames and grinds lenses from salvaged watch crystal.

Frank started making dolls professionally in 2001, having begun in earnest after a workshop in 1989 at the State Museum with Inupiak doll-maker Dolly Spencer.

"Of course, I made dolls as a kid, too," she said, gesturing to a soft-sculpture Statue of Liberty, which hung, alongside various other dolls and doll parts, stuffed into a giant shoe caddy on the wall.

In her old life, Frank, "a Juneau girl born and raised," worked as a taxation economist for the Department of Revenue, a career she referred to as a "padded trap."

And then, when she was 35, her father passed away.

"It made me realize how short life was," she said. "So I quit. To make dolls."

Frank apprenticed with noted cloth doll-maker Akira Blount and enrolled in anatomy and figure drawing classes, as well as courses in Northwest carving and miniature totem making.

"A lot was trial and error, too," she said. For instance, only after endless experimentation did she discover that sausage casings made the best seal and walrus parka replicas.

Frank started selling dolls through galleries, but her big break came via the Bellevue Art Fair, a high-end festival that routinely draws 300,000 well-healed arts and crafts enthusiasts. She now counts among her clients Seattle Times publisher John Price, a native art aficionado who commissions her to make dolls of the print artists he collects.

But Frank saves her most ambitious project for herself: a portrait of her father, a mechanic and pilot for Alaska Coastal airlines, which will be accompanied by a model seaplane made by Ketchikan model-builder Terry Richardson. For now, the plane hangs pilotless above her other finished dolls.

Mary Ellen Frank's workshop also houses Aunt Claudia's Dolls, so named for "Aunt" Claudia Kelsey. Passing away several years ago at age 96, Kelsey left behind a collection of more than 500 dolls, some dating back to the 1700s. Her partner, Bea Shephard, approached Frank - who first met Aunt Claudia at Spencer's workshop - and the two decided to create a permanent display space.

Among the highlights of Aunt Claudia's Dolls: soft-sculpture harlequins in bright green, yellow and orange; Asian dolls from the 1930s; "Dementia," a series made by inmates at a mental institution and an old wooden puppet theater with rolling curtain, working lights, a trapdoor ("for a beanstalk") and a hand crank-operated pit orchestra.

"You're never alone in here," Frank said, "surrounded by so many friends."

• Geoff Kirsch is a writer living in Juneau. Visit his website at

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