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Kachina Restorer Bill Neely

Author: Judy Harper
Issue: March, 2012, Page 39
Photos by Garrett Cook

Kachina dolls with broken parts and missing or damaged feathers await their turn under the skilled hands of Bill Neely, as he sands a doll that is missing a leg.


A perfectionist who puts his heart and soul into his work, Bill Neely has enjoyed a diverse career, ranging from aviator to schoolteacher to firefighter. The 78-year-old grew up at a time “when a pocketknife was as important to a young boy as his right hand,” so it was only natural that he would pack some chisels and wood inside his lunchbox.

A working woodcarver since the 1970s, Neely is known for the Western birds he carves, which are sold at a number of galleries, as well as Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. He also has whittled himself a niche as one of a handful of carvers qualified to repair and restore kachinas (“katsinas” in Hopi). To date, he has repaired 3,025 dolls.

The kachinas come to the Prescott, Arizona, artist from some of the finest museums, galleries and private collectors in the country, including the Heard Museum in Phoenix and Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Occasionally, he receives restoration work from the Hopi as well. Some dolls have been damaged by earthquakes, neglect or carelessness, others have been ravaged by puppies or termites.

Neely repaired and carved delicate wooden feathers for these two kachinas.

With an artist’s eye and practiced hands, Neely restores the cherished dolls to their former glory. His meticulous repairs range from inserting tiny dowel rods to reattach an arm, to carving new feathers to match others in an elaborate headdress—being careful to make sure the barbs of each tiny feather are carved at precisely the right angle. “This is real tedious work—not complex like building a watch—but sometimes I feel like I’m an orthopedic surgeon because I have to know how far to insert the dowel rod in a leg and follow the curve of the foot.”

Neely invested countless hours to learn his craft, a never-ending process. When he is puzzled by a kachina’s design, the self-taught artist consults his reference library to learn about the doll and its carver. “There are 350 to 400 different katsinas, and I find the more I learn about them, the less I seem to know.

New feathers were carved to replace those that were broken off in the quiver of this kachina, which is about 25" tall.
“One of my first jobs came to me after the Northridge earthquake in California,” he recalls. “A local gallery owner contacted me after a collector who lived a half-mile from the epicenter called in tears, heartbroken that her 60 katsinas were in shambles. They were on their hands and knees picking up broken pieces and tiny feathers; then shipped it all to me and said, ‘See what you can do.’ The dolls were worth about $2,000 to $3,000 each, and I had to discern which doll was carved by which artist, which rattle went with which doll, and match feathers—I call that my primer in repair,” he says with a grin.

The artist spends up to eight hours most days in his shop, down from the 12 or 14 he worked as a younger man scratching out a living. He credits his wife of 51 years, Sylvia, for much of his success. “I was carving in the mornings before I taught school, then came home and was in my workshop until she called me for dinner, and then back carving until about 10 p.m. It took a toll on me, and when I had some health problems, I knew something had to change. Sylvia told me, ‘Do what you want to do—follow your passion.’” He retired from teaching and flying planes for the U.S. Forest Service and never looked back, although he continues to work as a “ramp rat” tending to air tankers during fire season.

Bill Neely says he strives to please four entities with his work: the owner of the doll, the carver of the doll, himself and the doll itself. This kachina had been made into a lamp, with a bulb coming up from the top of its head and a wire leading from the base. “I didn’t like to see that, and immediately removed the electrical paraphernalia and replaced the missing and damaged feathers,” he says. “It’s real happy it’s not a lamp anymore.”
“I love what I do and am honored that people entrust me with these treasured works,” Neely says with a tone of affection and respect. “I would never want to offend the Hopis, and would never carve a katsina—that’s their realm. I have asked many Hopi carvers how they feel about my repairs, and they have told me, ‘The dolls need a doctor, so you can be their doctor.’

“A good repair does not lower the value of a doll, although, to me, a poor repair is worse than no repair at all,” he adds. “I try very hard to make my work invisible. And when I’m done, if the gods are smiling on me, it will look pretty good.”
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