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Award-winning artist dolls up clay


With natural talent and self-taught skills, Nancy Coblentz-Nelson transforms clay into award-winning dolls.

Only three years into doll-making, she was inducted into the Original Doll Artists Council of America (ODACA) during the United Federation of Doll Clubs conference in Atlanta two weeks ago. To be accepted into ODACA, prospective members must be critiqued and voted on by the membership over a year's time.

Last year at the conference, her dolls earned four first-place awards and two second places.

"I feel real privileged that I'm out there among the ODACA members," she said. "Most of these people have been doing dolls for 20 years, and I've been making them only three years."

"I'm totally self-taught," said the 54-year-old resident of Rocky Ridge, in Frederick County. "I've never had a lesson in anything."

Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson's dolls are collectibles rather than children's toys. Her dolls, carefully sculpted from scratch, can cost $300 to $500 or more. But she's willing to let clients help, such as with the clothing, which makes the dolls less costly.

She started out three years ago carving a two-dimensional Santa from wood. After gaining confidence in her work, she turned to three-dimensional figures, making dolls from clay. It is the faces -- carefully shaped by hand to be miniature images of real people -- that are distinctive.

"When I first started making clay dolls, I realized the faces looked like people I knew -- a lawyer, doctor, friend, relative," Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson said.

So she began creating her own character dolls, as well as dolls from photographs of people. She carefully studies someone's facial features before drawing a likeness to use in sculpting a head from clay.

"I was a hairdresser for 23 years and that gave me a feel for faces," she said. "When you're doing somebody's hair, you have to study their features and try to enhance them."

She uses a combination of half super culpey and half pro matt clay. When a head and face are sculpted to her satisfaction, they are baked at a low temperature to hardness.

She also shapes a doll's hands and feet from clay. The hair is made from wool from Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson's sheep, raised on her seven-acre property. The face is painted, then the doll is assembled on a wooden block form, with stuffing on the inside to add shape under the costume, also originally designed and handmade.

The dolls are sold under her trademark, Timber Wool.

Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson tells the story of a Carroll County couple who asked her to make a doll for their son, who loves clowns. It was one of her first portrait dolls.

"What I did was make the doll to look like him, then I made a clown mask that fit perfectly over the face that you could take off and put on," Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson said.

"They said on Christmas morning when he opened up the doll, he couldn't get over how it looked like him," she recalled. "They said he just sat there pulling the mask off and on and laughing. He loved it."

Her first body-sculpted doll earned her the label of "voodoo" woman by its owner, a young body-builder who wanted a doll of his whole body. After some struggle to get the chest and arms correct, Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson dropped the doll while painting it. Its right upper arm broke.

That same day, she found out later, the young man broke his right upper arm while wrestling.

Many of Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson's character dolls portray Native Americans, a culture for which she has great love and respect. To make the Indian dolls, she studied in detail the different tribes, their lifestyles and beliefs.

The artist is a charter member of the Smithsonian's newest museum to be opened next year -- the Native American Museum -- and its director, Richard West, has asked her to call him about an exhibit of her Indian dolls for the facility.

She also made a Confederate boy and a Union soldier for a display in Gettysburg for the opening of the movie "Gettysburg," and has created various ethnic dolls.

"I love my dolls, only I don't call them dolls," she said. "They're my little people. I talk to them and get frustrated with them. They change so much -- you can start off doing one thing and come out with something totally different."

Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson and her dolls have been the subject of articles in several magazines. She has a doll on display at Gallery II in Frederick that is priced at $1,200.

Her works have also been offered at Collectable Dolls and Bears, at 3 W. Main St. in Westminster. She belongs to the Lady Baltimore Doll and Study Club and plans to join a doll club in Westminster in the fall. Her next goal is to become a member of the National Institute of American Doll Artists.

Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson is talented in art forms and media besides dolls. Her trompe l'oeil paintings make a wall scene appear three-dimensional.

She also draws, sculpts, makes crafts and wood carvings, and grows herbs for homeopathic medicines, a field in which she is pursuing a degree from the Clayton School of Natural Healing in Alabama.

Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson is a true artist in another sense -- she has a deep desire to share her abilities by teaching others.

She teaches candle, soap and doll making; felting; furniture painting; silk flower arranging; wood burning and Christmas crafts for the Frederick County Public Schools adult education program. She said she's eager to share her talents with others and willing to go wherever there is sufficient interest.

Besides being an artist, Mrs. Coblentz-Nelson is a wife, mother and grandmother, plus a little bit of a farmer. She and her husband, Carl Nelson, have sheep, chickens, ducks, a dog and two cats and plan to get a horse for their children and grandchildren.

"The dolls are my full-time job, along with teaching adult education classes. I'm a jack-of-all-trades and master of none," she declared.

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