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Ellen Frankenstein

Ellen Frankenstein of Sitka is a filmmaker and the executive director of the media-focused nonprofit, Artchange. Her latest project focuses on the community of Sitka and the complexities of life in this small city.


  • Project Award
  • Media Arts

Going Out and Back

Decades ago when teenaged Ellen Frankenstein picked up a camera, she took a step onto a path that led her to see the world through lenses and dark rooms. She became a street photographer. A filmmaker. An artist.

She has lingered over shadows and textures, light and gesture, perspective and truth ever since.

These days, she said, there’s a lot to think about in terms of image, framing and what it means to be involved as a citizen in a democracy.

Frankenstein’s awareness of the story of our times unfolding around us, and the divisions created between people, prompted the development of a film series focusing on Sitka, the southeast Alaska community between Anchorage and Seattle where she lives.

The project, called “14 Miles: Dispatches from an Island in Alaska” — an allusion to the 14 miles of road that connect one end of Sitka to the other — depicts everyday beauty, hardships and challenges experienced by Sitka residents, their dreams and perspectives on film.

Frankenstein’s nonprofit, Artchange, produces the films. She’s the principal filmmaker, and people in the community contribute ideas and resources. Sound designers, interns, volunteers, students, advisers and, of course, the subjects all help develop the series. Artchange also hosts Sitka Tells Tales, a local live storytelling series, and produces photo essays, short films and documentaries. The organization also collaborates on community projects like murals and cabaret shows.

The 14 Miles micro-documentaries are shared online and on social media, embedded on websites and screened at public gatherings. For Frankenstein, who spent decades doing independent film projects that required two to four years each, these films suit today’s world in duration and immediacy.

Making and posting videos in a matter of months or even weeks is gratifying, and the response from the community has been positive and powerful. Still, putting one’s work into the virtual world means viewers can respond, comment and share as they please.

It also means that Frankenstein and others who help her make the films won’t know entirely where these films travel or how they land.

Rearranging the Furniture

The 14 Miles project has grounded Frankenstein in Sitka and its challenges in new ways. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” she said. “It’s made this place more like home, but it’s also generated questions. What is our future going to look like? What is our environment going to look like? And are our fisheries going to hold up?”

A multi-year film project took her to Sitka decades ago. Soon enough, she met a fisherman and stayed. She has called Sitka home for 22 years now.

In a small town, “you constantly see the same people,” she said. “You learn different layers to the same people. Knowing them over time — people you knew as kids now running organizations and having kids. Well, in big places, you don’t always have that layered knowledge of people.”

The short films in 14 Miles capture some of Sitka’s layers, too — dancers preparing for a local production of the Nutcracker, a teenager talking about recovery, a family sharing how they got into the marijuana business, people protesting fish allocations, thrift store volunteers talking about what to repurpose and what to throw away, a sushi chef’s journey.

“Documentary film making is about rearranging the furniture,” Frankenstein said.

Sometimes you have to move things around a bit to notice their character for the first time or see them in new light. Recently, Frankenstein took a break from making films to work on ceramics, tiles and masks, to step away from the computer screen, the film screen and all the other screens that define her work.

Out and Back

She focused on kiln work because her town is home to a number of accomplished ceramic artists. She appreciates the unpredictability of what clay and heat produce.

Working with her hands used a different part of her brain and gave her time to think about her next project. It gave her pause from her work to think about the future, this time in our world, and what she has accomplished so far.

The 14 Miles series is scheduled to end in fall of 2019, so Frankenstein wanted to start plotting a new course.

When not filmmaking, Frankenstein spends her workdays in an ample backyard studio behind a “small house we’ve been remodeling for 20 years,” she said. She’s close to town and just minutes from trails.

Her next project or journey likely will take her away from home, she said, but it will be out-and-back. Those 14 miles of road are most definitely her base.

Dawnell Smith does communications work for a public interest law firm and commits nights and weekends to trying to keep a local bookstore café alive. She has worked as a news and arts reporter and continues to freelance. She lives in Anchorage, where she makes poems, essays and stories as family, community, dogs and workload allow. She received an Individual Artist Award in 2015.

Image credits - All gallery images and artist portrait courtesy of the artist. Writer portrait courtesy of the writer.