This doll is called “Sheila, an Athapaskan Berrypicker, Yukon” she was made by Mary Ellen Frank. The doll is contemporary, completed in 2000. Artifact courtesy of the Alaska State Museum – Juneau.
This doll is one of my favorite pieces in the collection. I have always been drawn to dolls and really anything miniature. The craftsmanship on things that are smaller amazes me, as does the imagination behind each of the characters. I chose this object in part for my love of dolls, but also because I am researching Athabascan culture. This doll holds a traditional birchwood basket with her in order to collect berries.
There are also many other artifacts containing birchwood throughout the Alaska State Museum like this basket on the left. The Athabascan used birchwood bark to make baskets because the bark was available, sturdy, light, and waterproof. The baskets are incredible versatile. Some are strapped onto backs, adorned with a leather harness, and embroidered with beads to be used as baby carriers. The baskets were also used to collect berries and medicinal plants or to haul water. When filled with hot rocks, the baskets could be used for cooking.
The artist who created the doll, Mary Ellen Frank was born in Juneau where she still lives and makes dolls. Each doll takes at least two years to complete. She has trained under renowned Inupiak doll-maker Dolly Spencer and has taken many traditional Northwest carving courses and apprenticed under other doll makers. Her process really fascinated me. She makes a rough draft of each doll, sculpting its face first in clay and then carving the final product in yellow cedar. Everything from the clothing to the facial features look realistic. Many people commission dolls to look loved ones and community leaders because Frank seems to be able to capture the spirit of a person within her dolls. In a local newspaper interview Frank said, “First, I ask myself: what is it about this person that makes them look how they look?”
Visit Aunt Claudia’s Doll Museum to see a beautiful doll collection and to visit Frank in her art studio. Call (907) 586-4969 for available open hours.