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Prescott man carves niche repairing Hopi dolls

By Bruce Colbert
Prescott, Arizona (AP) 11-08

The Hopi carve katsina dolls to represent a specific spiritual aspect of the world. Among these dolls, the “chief” symbolizes a great power of knowledge.

In the world of katsina carvers and collectors, Bill Neely is a chief.

The Prescott resident is one of a handful of craftsmen worldwide who has the knowledge and skill to repair and restore katsina dolls, also known as kachina dolls.

“I have always loved katsina dolls,” he said. “And I love the Hopi people and their traditions.”

Neely moved to Arizona in 1945. He settled in Prescott in 1966 where he taught school until 1985. His wife, Sylvia, is a 1955 Prescott High School graduate.

During his teaching career, he started carving wooden birds and garnered a reputation as a skilled carver.

That hobby lasted until 1992 when he suffered a heart attack and quit carving.

Two years later, the Northridge earthquake struck California.

“The former owner of the Galloping Goose (in Prescott) asked if I would be interested in fixing some katsina dolls for a woman in Northridge whose collection was in a shambles,” Neely said.

He agreed to try. Several months later, he finished repairing the 60 katsina dolls that had arrived at his home in a jumble of broken pieces.

“That was my primer in repair,” he says with a chuckle.

Neely does not solicit repair jobs and he does not have a Web site. He earned his reputation from a close-knit community of museum directors, katsina carvers and gallery owners.

Some katsina dolls arrive with heart-rending stories about the doll’s history, and others arrive with little more than a note imploring Neely to fix a cherished possession.

Neely’s business card reads, “Katsina doll repair and restoration,” and he takes the distinction seriously.

For example, a repair would be drilling a tiny hole in a doll and using a toothpick as a peg to reattach a broken limb; a restoration would be matching sacred colors, reattaching a rattle to the left or right hand according to the Hopi tradition, or knowing how many feathers to use in a certain headdress.

“The first thing I do when a repair comes in is open the box and look for the broken pieces. Then I lay it all out to see where to start,” he said.

The Hopi have around 400 katsinas. When a doll puzzles Neely, he consults his reference library to figure out what the doll should look like.

Hopi and Zuni carvers entrust Neely with their personal doll repairs, and he in turn promises that he would never carve his own katsina doll.

“The Hopi have a very complex religion and culture. I respect that and treat the dolls that way,” he said.

Neely’s workshop, which his wife refers to as his “kiva,” is filled with the tools of his trade – toothpicks for dowels, tiny beads and copper wire for jewelry, carving knives, feathers, paints, glues, drills, files and wood.

Authentic katsina dolls are carved from cottonwood roots. Hopi carvers did not start signing dolls until the 1960s.

“To the Hopi, the dolls represent the spirit world,” Neely said. “To me, a poor repair is worse than no repair at all.”