Doll Maker Donates Handiwork To Help Harbor Hospital Center

Severn Woman, Now Retired, Turned A Hobby Into A Big Business

July 29, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Barbara Frank's mother steps out in her student nurse uniform from Boston City Hospital, circa 1918.

Nearby is Frank's granddaughter, Carrie, as a toddler with short blond hair, dressed in white. Then there's Aunt Pattipat, looking as she did in "Gone With the Wind," right down to the double chin and dark veins on the back of her hands.

When the Severn resident donated a dozen hand-crafted dolls to the Harbor Hospital Center this summer, she didn't send these favorites. But Barbara Frank did offer seven originals and five reproductions valued at $2,600.

Health problems prompted Frank to start making dolls, which gave her a way to help others.

As a child, she suffered from respiratory problems and was house-bound with tuberculosis. She grew up during the Depression years. The family had little money, and her parents separated.

"I was a semi-invalid as a child, and sothere were a lot of things I was not able to do," she recalled.

It wasn't the sort of environment conducive to creative development, but Franks learned to hook rugs, knit and paint.

When she was olderand married, she one day "fell in love" with an antique doll in a shop. She couldn't afford to buy it, so she sent for a doll-making kit from a women's magazine.

Two decades later, a home craft project -- creating porcelain dolls -- had turned into a big business, with customers all over the world.

After repeated hospitalizations in Anne Arundel County, Frank, who is 65, wanted to give something back to those who had cared for her.

"My husband, Marvin, and I are retired, and cash is sometimes difficult to come up with, but I had my dolls," she said.

Five years ago, she donated a doll to a muscular dystrophy telethon, which raised hundreds of dollars raffling it.

Shedonates a doll every year to St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Odenton, helping with the church building fund.

Last year, she contributed dolls to North Arundel Hospital, and more recently, she gave the 12 porcelain handcrafted dolls to Harbor Hospital. The dolls are to be raffled off this summer for the hospital's modernization fund.

The hospital is completing the last phase of a $6.75 million project, started in 1988 to renovate much of the building, such as the emergency room.

When she embarked on doll-marking, like many entrepreneurs, Franks didn't plan on turning it into a business. She just wanted a doll that looked like her granddaughter.

She bought books and taught herself. Her hobby evolved from rag dolls to porcelain, and from reproductions to original creations.

"I'm not particularly artistic myself," she said. But she learned to cast antique dolls and pour liquid porcelain. She learned to dry a doll, clean it, fire it ata high temperature, and paint it. Between each painting, she'd fire the doll repeatedly, as often as five times.

The painting alone can take up to 36 hours on a reproduction, and designing and completingan original can take up to six months, she said.

Frank begins each original by modeling the doll's head from clay or Plasticine. Creating dolls was entertaining, she found, because she was "forced to useall my talents. It was a challenge to decide hair and eye color, different costumes."

She enjoys making lifelike dolls, such as the one of her mother and a set of five dolls that look like her granddaughter.

Another favorite is a 36-inch reproduction of a French doll, dressed in blue silk, lace-trimmed taffeta and a matching taffeta andvelvet bonnet trimmed with old rose ribbons. A velvet cape trimmed with ermine matches the doll's muff, also trimmed with ermine and lined with silk.

"It was just supposed to be just a hobby, but I endedup with six employees. I trained them to do some of the work, but I continued the painting myself and designed the costumes," she said.

Frank enjoyed hiring women who needed to work at home. One had a husband who was ill, another had a disabled child. For 12 years she sold the dolls wholesale all over the world. Aunt Pattipat, one of her original compositions, is now in a private museum in London.

About five years ago, Frank could no longer handle the heavy doll molds anddecided to limit the business to attending doll shows. She's been selling the 2,000 dolls she had in stock; she has 35 left.

Ann K. Murray, director of development for Harbor Hospital Center, said peopleoften don't consider collector's items and real estate as a way of making charitable contributions.

"But many people can't afford to give a cash gift. However, they may be able to donate a gift of property," Murray says.

For Frank, doll-making has become a benefit to others as well as her hobby.

"You can't give what you don't have," she said, "but the work of my hands, I could give."

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