The East Hampton Star, Feb. 2, 2006

Directions in Sculpture

By Jennifer Farbar

    Dorothy Frankel has a Buddhist's sensibility about the interconnectedness of things. Gestures, whether large or small, actual or implied, convey more than action, and frozen instants hint at the history that has come before them. As a sculptor, it is that moment of movement captured and chiseled into permanence that has defined her ever-evolving relationship to both the materials she works with and the shapes she creates.

    A tour of the grounds surrounding Ms. Frankel's Noyac house, where she has lived and worked for some 20 years, reveals the broad strokes that have defined her artistic accomplishments, from the six-inch-high glazed terra-cotta figure of a woman classical in its execution standing atop a plaster pedestal in a small clearing, surrounded by towering cedar and locust trees and barely restrained vines, to the several brightly colored pieces of acrylic Ms. Frankel has molded and hand cut to create fountains that gurgle, trickle, and tinkle like bells.

    "Every one has a different look, a different sound," she said midway through a backyard stroll on Friday afternoon as the heat of the day accumulated just above the treetops and her two dogs, Barbara Ann and Billy, darted in and out of sight. "The way the water flows and hits the water, that's what's important to me."

    The fountains are connected to the dogs by way of the birds in the Morton Wildlife Refuge, just down Noyac Road from Ms. Frankel's house. "I started going there, taking walks, and I loved the birds," she said, "so I decided to create some birdfeeders for them here. Then someone told me that you need to give them water, too. I chose acrylic because it gives you color, it's lively, and it's easy to clean."

    Scattered around the property are examples of Ms. Frankel's original birdfeeders: cupped hands, sculpted from terra-cotta and fired in the kiln she has in her basement, mounted on a pedestal. A large pair of hands stands to the side of the path that leads to the woods behind Ms. Frankel's house, proffering silky black sunflower seeds to avian visitors.

    There is also a resident frog, Ms. Frankel said, who moves from fountain to fountain. On Friday the frog was wallowing in the shallows of the three-tiered, stone-encircled creation that stands a few yards from the just-finished addition on Ms. Frankel's house - which is also where she works.

    The sculpture-fountain is made of three pieces of molded acrylic, red, blue, and yellow-green, arranged so that they descend like stairs. They give the impression of brightly colored sunspots hovering in the air, their translucence magnified by the sunlight sparkling in the small pool of water, light and drops of water dancing back and forth, mirrored and mirroring. In fact, the shapes are grounded by means of stainless steel rods, which, Ms. Frankel said, she took great pains to make sure were as slender and unobtrusive as possible.

    Across a softly sloping swatch of grass from the fountain, one of Ms. Frankel's many hand sculptures is tucked into another nook, its terra-cotta relief standing out against the green like a desert in an oasis, stark, surprising, and beautiful. The clasping hands, Ms. Frankel explained, are those of the late photographer Jay Hoops, a fellow animal lover.

    "She was an extraordinary person, with an inner strength of kindness," Ms. Frankel said. "She liked the quiet, she liked nature, and she meditated, with her hands like this." The simple unbroken line, arc of forearms leading to wrists and restful hands, curving around and back on itself, looks like a universal symbol of some kind. Infinity. Containment. Self-fulfillment, energy moving through and renewing itself. Like Ms. Frankel's large clay circles mounted on steel or laid on the earth, one of which was on display all last summer in the garden at Guild Hall, the form invites contemplation.

    "What I like about circles is that they give you the negative space and positive space," Ms. Frankel said. Pointing to an example, several feet in diameter, that is mounted on the front lawn of her house, she explained: "You can be looking at the circle, or looking through it. Or, in this case, you can be looking at something in between."

    Ms. Frankel's fascination with hands dates to the nascent days of her work, when she turned her back on being an exercise physiologist and decided to devote herself to sculpture.

    "I must have sculpted thousands of pairs of hands when I was first starting, trying to get the lines right, the muscles, the way they move. People would come over for a beer or a glass of wine and I would say, 'Can I sculpt your hands?' It's an easy thing to ask of someone. It's not like asking them to disrobe and model for you."

    That mastery led to a series of sculptures Ms. Frankel made with the aid of Lou Ann Walker, a Sag Harbor writer. Ms. Walker, both of whose parents are deaf, volunteers as a sign language interpreter. Ms. Frankel was so moved by the effort and extent of Ms. Walker's work, she said, as well as by the message implicit in it - that communication can transcend sight and sound and bring people together in understanding - that she asked Ms. Walker to pose for a series of sculptures depicting hands signing the letters for the word "love" and the symbols for "I love you" and "connection." One of the sculptures is on display at the School for the Deaf in Manhattan, Ms. Frankel said. She hopes to get a commission to cast them in bronze, large enough to stand as a public monument somewhere.

    Back behind the house, in the wooded area a clearing appears, and another acrylic sculpture, a red triangular shape standing on a pedestal that raises it about four feet off the ground, looks liquid, both elastic and plastic, hard and soft. Across from it, in a low wooden shed, sits one of Ms. Frankel?s lying dog sculptures, a look of ready alertness on its face.

    "For some people, sculpture is all about capturing the detail. For me, especially with the dogs, it's about essence."

    Between the dog and the pyramidal sculpture Ms. Frankel has placed a futon. The setup is almost impossibly sylvan, statues and glazed-clay shapes peeking through foliage, a soft blue cotton comforter atop the bed beckoning like a Himalayan dream of clouds and weightlessness. The textured surface of a terra cotta figure, a woman whose sculpted torso ends in a tiered skirting like layers of feathers, the clay flowing down into the base, carefulness of shape yielding to shapelessness of creation. The woman rises from the heavy, solid mass, emerging perfect and intact.

    Movement and experimentation, and her fearless willingness to continue playing with ideas of shape, permanence, moment, and eternity, have made Ms. Frankel's work as a whole somewhat difficult to describe, she concedes. "There are people who say of one phase or example of my work, 'This is it. This is what you should be doing.' But I don't want to limit myself in that way, to focus solely on making what will sell. The thing that unites all the sculptures I make is that they all come from me, they are all part of me."

    "You're telling a story - you're telling your story. Like writing, it has to be your own voice. I'm eclectic, yes, but I do maintain direction. It just happens to be more than one."