These days, Noyac-based artist Dorothy Frankel is most comfortable working on the floor of her light-filled, whitewashed, mirrored studio. Kneeling, she compresses her fit 5-foot-2-inch figure into a ball before reaching out toward her canvas, her fingertips pressing clay dust into precise lines.Her beloved dog, Ben, can’t help but give her a sloppy kiss of encouragement before trotting outside.
She wipes her hands on her jeans and follows his lead, down the stairs and onto the deck, where she lifts her chin toward the beaming sun. She closes her eyes and inhales deeply—lost for a moment in thought before returning to her backyard, a lawn dotted with sculptures, fountains and wooden furniture, all made with her own hands.
Life wasn’t always this fulfilling for Ms. Frankel, who, despite growing up in northern New Jersey, had never visited the East End before 1978. And she did not take her first formal art class until her college years—which, initially, steered her in the opposite direction.
“I said, ‘This is way too time consuming and expensive,’” she recalled a day earlier, leaning back in her chair as she sipped a glass of water. “But my sister said, ‘Well, you’re having fun.’ And I said, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ I wasn’t raised to think the arts were something to value.”
Ms. Frankel’s career path wound down the health and fitness route—and a successful one, at that. It was when she moved from Manhattan to the East End, after a breathtaking drive down Long Beach, that she began to see a shift.
And it all started with rebuilding her deck.
A job that should have taken Ms. Frankel and her former partner two weekends to complete ticked on for months. Neither of the women knew how to use a hammer, let alone a saw. When they finally finished, Ms. Frankel set off to find a woodworking shop that would hire her and, while at home, pieced together fallen wood into animal sculptures.
“I’d come home dirty and happy,” she smiled. “My spouse said, ‘You’re really happy.’ And I said, ‘I’m paid $5 an hour.’ And she said, ‘But you’re happy.’ At one point, I said, ‘I’m a sculptor.’ It came out of nowhere. And everybody’s just looking at me like I didn’t know how to sculpt. I don’t know—I just knew it.”
Drawing did not come naturally to Ms. Frankel, but sculpting did, encouraging her to take a class in Italy. That was her turn, she said, and she came home a new woman. She found herself thinking about art while instructing her clients—which was fair to neither them nor her.
“It was at that time I had to change. It was as challenge,” she said. “I think it was an emotional, letting my walls down. To create, you have to create from your inner self and, all of a sudden, you’re going to be expressing things you don’t know if you want people to see. I decided that was okay. My emotions were very raw, and I would sculpt that.”
They often manifested in the pieces for which Ms. Frankel is best known—her Visual Poetry series, primarily depicting hands and gestures that began in the late 1990s. “LOVE,” a sculpture of four hands spelling out the word “love” in sign language, will be installed in front of the Coronado Public Library in California—it was previously on view in the Carl Schurz Park Conservancy in Manhattan and Peach Arch Park in Washington.
The artist has always loved hands, she explained, the way they move and accentuate speech, often revealing much about a person. The hands behind “LOVE” belong to author Lou Ann Walker—“one of the best human beings ever,” Ms. Frankel said, “who knew sign language because both of her parents are deaf.” The hand sculptures take months, money—“That’s what I said right from the beginning,” she noted—and every ounce of Ms. Frankel’s charm to persuade her friends, and sometimes strangers, to model for her.
Not everyone is cooperative, the sculptor has learned. One day at Provisions Health Food Market in Sag Harbor, Ms. Frankel was chatting with a couple she saw occasionally when the husband made a gesture that caught her eye.
Ms. Frankel stopped him mid-sentence. “That pose was so nice,” she said. “I’m so turned on to it—can I sculpt your hands?”
“No way!” the wife interjected, not giving her husband a chance to answer.
“Really, you don’t have to worry about it,” Ms. Frankel said. “You do not have to worry.”
Ms. Frankel laughed, recalling the story. “Well, he didn’t come. She was worried.”
In her studio, the artist is taking a break from her hand sculptures and focusing on canvas work—due in part to an accident that led to early onset arthritis in her thumb. But that doesn’t mean her work has any less feeling attached. She is discovering a new side to her creativity.
“From someone who has, at times, been shut down, I know shut down,” she said. “If I can look over and see something that pulls me back into an emotional way of relating, then I think that’s important. The only way we have peace and harmony is when we’re in our own peace and harmony—when something tickles us. It could be a hummingbird coming along, your cat or dog being silly, or your sweetheart coming. Or it could be, for me, looking over and seeing the light come through ‘LOVE.’”
For more information on Dorothy Frankel, visit dorothyfrankel.com.