I’m a little child who’s lost in the woods

of miniaturization. Sinatra sang that line–well, not the last part.

That’s the hand of Hubert Lengdorfer with one of his marvelous miniatures. There are a lot of people out there creating these tiny environments, whether they’re called shadow boxes or doll houses or dioramas.

I can’t help being attracted to small, perfect rooms. I guess it all started with Alice in Wonderland, with our girl’s exquisite terror at being oversized in a house. A gentle giant, as portrayed in the original Tenniel illustrations.

Or the Disney animation.

I also loved The Borrowers, the lively family who lived in a cigar box beneath the floor boards. Was it that?

Or was it simply my industrious play in the hole at the base of the oak outside my house when I was small, building interiors with twigs and acorn caps.

I always treasured those little wooden scenes you get in different counties. I no longer have the ones my grandparents brought me as souvenirs from Mexico. But my mother recently shared a version she picked up in Japan in 1955.

The detail is exquisite. That word again. Helen Keller said, What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us.

In any case, small things still grab me by the throat. That tea pot.

And especially those scenes at the Phoenix Art Museum, where I went to tour the Thorne Rooms.

In a case of I go there because you probably never will, I’ll share my experience of seeing the Rooms, each one more extraordinary than the next. And bring you in close.

A philanthropist and patroness of the arts, Narcissa Niblack Thorne I1882-1966), the socialite wife of Aaron Montgomery Ward’s nephew James Ward Thorne, donated the Thorne Rooms to The Art Institute of Chicago, to the Phoenix Art Museum and to many other institutions. She made them all, hundreds of them, from the 1920s up until the 1960s. She hired dozens of artisans to help her, benefiting from the Great Depression by utilizing the skills of people who would otherwise be out of work and who knew a thing or two about carving eensy wooden picture frames or executing the intricate canework for chair seats.

Thorne taught herself some of these skills, such as the needlepoint required to create the area rug for this scene.

Pablo Neruda wrote:

So I wait for you like a lonely house

till you will see me again and live in me.

Till then my windows ache.

In a novel I am working on, the reclusive adolescent heroine spends her time duplicating the lavish historical Manhattan home she resides in with her family, furnishing a chest-high dollhouse with period furniture she crafts herself. Perhaps it’s easier to build pint-size rooms with pint-size fingers. Though brilliant older miniaturists seem to do okay. Check out this marvelous interior.

As a little girl, Narcissa Niblack had been encouraged in collecting miniatures by her uncle, a rear admiral who sent her his finds as the U.S. Navy sent him all around the world. Growing up, not a lot was thought of her intellectual prospects, and she only was allowed to attend finishing school. She later recalled, “The trouble with my childhood was that I was given no education. Knowing how to put my hat on straight was supposed to be enough.”

It wasn’t until 1930 that Thorne bought two miniature chandeliers and designed her first shadow box. Soon she rented a studio near her Chicago mansion to hold her projects.

In 1934, approximately 300,000 people paid twenty-five cents each to see 26 or Thorne’s recreations of English, French, Spanish, Italian and American rooms at an exhibit called A Century of Progress. She traveled the world collecting appurtenances for her miniature rooms, filling steamer trunks to bring home.

In 1940, Thorne and her sister went to San Francisco to supervise installation of an exhibit of her works in an airplane hangar on Treasure Island. The San Franciso Chronicle reported that the Chicago Historical Society’s Blanche Sudlow came along to clean the Rooms with “tiny brushes and cloths.” Over 1,000,000 fans waited in line to see the small wonders.

Walt Disney felt inspired by the tiny masterworks to begin collecting miniatures of his own. See the little knitting kit?

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place, wrote Zora Neale Hurston, and I think that these tiny spaces do that as well.

I’ve been drawn to snow globes recently, even though they tend to feature a cold landscape and the kind I’d really like is one with a fireplace and a puppy, a warm sort of hygge snow globe that I could keep on a shelf and know that I always had it for the shaking. The story of the snow globe begins around 1900 when Austrian Erwin Perzy, a surgical instrument maker in Vienna, Austria, got a request from a doctor for a lightbulb that would produce the strong  illumination needed for surgery. Experimenting with ways to amplify light, he inserted metal flakes into a globe, thought they resembled falling snow, and tried filling the globe with semolina to enhance the effect. Shook the globe, saw his familiar winter Vienna, and the snow globe was born. Supposedly his company created the snow globe made famous by Citizen Kane: “Rosebud!” It would be fun to work as a consultant on contemporary globes today.

Miniatures are not necessarily as wondrous as a snow globe or as small and neat as Thorne’s rooms. At around the same time that Thorne worked, Frances Glessner Lee produced her now rather famous Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of 1/12-scale dioramas based on real-life criminal investigation cases. Even today the dioramas are used to train investigators in the art of evidence gathering, meticulous documentation, and keen observation of crime scenes.

Glessner Lee also came from a wealthy upbringing and enjoyed limited schooling.

She learned about forensics from a friend who became the Chief Medical Examiner of Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Once she began her life’s work, already in her early 60s and benefiting from a large inheritance, she aimed at precisely recreating the scenes of each crime that had actually happened. Each corpse she rendered—from clothing to blood stains to level of decomposition—had to be precisely crafted. She made sure that the locks on the doors and even a tiny mousetrap all actually worked. A rocking chair moves when pushed. It’s all true, as true as any miniature can be.

 Only 19 of the scenes still exist.

People still dedicate themselves to building dollhouses. Today’s artists, like Jason Dillard, often prefer moody or dreamy effects rather than the tightly controlled Thorne Rooms or the grisly works of Glessner Lee.

It’s all amazing stuff, perhaps because the results are so finite, so intimate, as opposed to huge, messy life itself. There’s a prismatic clarity in each contained space, especially when the light shines in through an open door, as in this Thorne interior.

An exquisite detail. Come closer. Closer.

We saw a piece today at the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum, Untitled (Glass House) by Thermon Statum, which shows how intimate transparency can be.

Sometimes it’s good to come down from out of the clouds and take a much closer look at life.

As Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice, Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop. Now that’s good advice.

1 Comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

One response to “I’m a little child who’s lost in the woods

  1. Barbara Lilley

    I loved this article. Have you been to the New York Botanical Gardens at Christmas time? They have a train show that includes miniatures of NYC landmark buildings built from organic materials the maker finds in the woods.

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