A lot of people get emotional when they first see the dollhouse-sized figures that Lucy Francis makes.
“I cried. It took my breath away,” said Carol Bryant about opening the package Francis sent her about 10 years ago.
Inside was a tiny sculpture of a dog, a replica of Bryant’s beloved pet, a cocker spaniel named Brandy Noel who had recently died.
“It’s like she took my dog and shrunk it down,” said Bryant, a pet blogger from Pennsylvania. “It’s like a memorial to her.”
That’s how Francis has been making a living for the past 20 years, creating three-dimensional, pocket-size portraits of dead but not forgotten family pets.
The Hastings artist (lucyfrancisminiatures.com) combines pieces of fur and fiber, wool and wire, and ends up with a miniature, fuzzy model of a dog, often incorporating bits of the dog’s hair.
That way the grieving dog owner can “feel like they still have a little bit of them there,” Francis said.
Francis charges $300 to $2,400 for the custom sculptures, depending on the size and complexity. Demand is strong. She’s sent her dog sculptures to 17 countries, from Japan to South Africa. One customer was a sheikh from Qatar who collects miniatures. She’s currently working on an order of several dogs for a customer in Portugal. She’s made miniatures of some celebrity pets, including dogs owned by Martha Stewart, Shirley MacLaine, John Prine and Andrew W.K.
At her home, where she lives with a cairn terrier named Bob and a Chihuahua terrier mix named Fred, Francis has shoe boxes filled with plastic zip-top bags containing tufts of hair sent in by dog owners to be used in miniatures.
One is labeled “Merlin left side neck/rough.” Another reads, “Lexie ears, legs.”
“The real fur is really important to most of the owners,” Francis said. “Many of them want it back because it’s treasure for them.”
She also uses bits of alpaca fur, camel’s hair, silk, cashmere and leather to make the miniatures, basing the models on photographs of the real dogs.
Her customers say she can somehow capture the essence of their animals in a fuzzy figurine just a few inches tall.
“Their facial expressions are perfect. Their poses are perfect,” said Judy Ersery, of Bloomington, Ill., who had Francis duplicate her Brussels Griffon named Bentley and her Maltese named Daphne.
The small versions of Bentley and Daphne are curled up in a little dog bed in a scale-model room, just as they did in real life.
“It’s comforting,” Ersery said.
It’s a small world
Francis works at the intersection of two communities that can seem a little odd to outsiders: the world of miniatures, where dollhouses and miniature furnishings can cost as much as the real thing. And the world of pet lovers, where the loss of a four-legged companion can be more devastating than the death of a relative.
“The work I like most is dealing with the dog owners, helping them deal with the loss of their pet,” Francis said. “People get in that place of grief and they want to see that dog again.”
She said some of her sculptures have been done of a pet that died years ago, purchased by an owner who is still grieving.
One customer was a woman with terminal brain cancer who emerged from a coma to learn that her sister had given away her borzoi hound and she couldn’t get it back. The woman ordered a replica from Francis.
“She’s going to be buried with that dog,” Francis said.
Amanda Speva, a Chicago-based filmmaker, filmed Francis for a documentary she is making about people who are obsessed with miniature objects.
“Her work is so beautiful and meaningful. The attention to the details, the passion for animals,” Speva said.
Speva said Francis ended up doing a miniature of her cocker spaniel. The resemblance is “pretty uncanny,” Speva said.
Francis, 65, was a housewife before becoming a miniature dog sculptor. She made her first fiber dog model because she wanted to give something to her parents after their Yorkshire terrier died.
It turned into a business after her models started to draw attention at craft shows, in magazines devoted to dollhouse hobbyists and at conventions of miniature craft makers.
“The miniature world is huge,” Francis said.
Francis said most of her dogs are made in either 1:12 scale, the typical scale for dollhouses, or 1:6 scale, the same scale as original Barbie or G.I. Joe figures.
But she’s made even tinier versions of dogs for customers who wanted to show off their pets as earrings. And she’s made a few life-size models.
“That’s Cinder,” Francis said of a life-size sculpture of a Cairn terrier forever standing alert but immobile in a clear plastic display case with a tennis ball at his feet. Cinder was Francis’ pet and died seven years ago. The sculpture version of her was covered completely with the dog’s own fur.
One customer got her to make a life-size model of a one-eyed Maltese named Holly, also covered entirely with its own hair.
Joseph Alfano said his kids wouldn’t let him get his beloved Holly taxidermied after it died of congestive heart failure about four years ago. But the model Francis made of his dog was just as realistic, using hair he had saved from Holly’s visits to the groomers. He said he placed Holly’s ashes inside the model. It’s kept on the dog bed where Holly died, surrounded by her favorite toys.
“It looks like the real dog sitting there,” said the Long Island retiree.
The $1,000 goat
Francis mostly gets orders for dogs, but she’s also had customers ask for horses, guinea pigs, hyenas and rabbits. She once made a cat named Bisi for a customer in Beirut.
Karen Privett, an Ohio woman, said she first contacted Francis to make a version of her Maltese/poodle mix, Abby, to guard her dollhouse.
Then she hired Francis to make her a 1:6 scale goat and a 1:6 scale tiger for $1,000 each.
One of Privett’s hobbies is making dioramas of scenes from her favorite television shows, “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” using Barbie-sized figures with custom-sculpted heads to represent the characters on the show.
For her dioramas, Privett orders bespoke doll clothing from tailors in China and miniature meth lab racks, weapons and a custom scale motorcycle from a metal worker in the Philippines. Custom sculpted doll heads cost about $300. The motorcycle cost $1,200.
“This stuff is not cheap,” Privett said. “My husband thinks I’m crazy. He said we could get a real motorcycle, a used one, for that.”
But a $1,000 miniature model goat — based on an animal named Tabitha that was on a single episode of “The Walking Dead” before being killed by zombies — was worth it to Privett, if only for bragging rights among other “Walking Dead” diorama makers.
“You’re talking real goat hair,” Privett said. “If you put it next to the goat on the show, you can’t tell the difference between the real one and the fake one.”
A tiger named Shiva was another character on the show.
“I’m probably the only person in the whole country who has a tiger and a goat in my collection,” Privett said. “There’s a lot of jealousy over them.”
Back in Hastings, Francis is working on another miniature dog, a memorial to a pit bull named Skeeter. And she’s making a model of a collie mix named Bryson who is still alive. It’s being purchased as a gift to a woman who is going on an extended trip and will be away from her dog for a long time.
Then there’s the woman in Hong Kong who has ordered a version of her Persian cat, LuLu.
“LuLu’s been dead for a year,” Francis said.
According to Francis, the fuzzy little tributes make the pet owners “feel like they have them back again in some weird way.”