Swan Song from Paris: La Fenêtre

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At 8:00 a.m., November 3, 2007, red-eyed and flight-addled, Noel and I were huddling with our roller bags around cafe cremes across rue Cler from our favorite Greek-French café from the previous trip—Ulysse en Gaulle—which had yet to open.

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Thanks to an IGMA travel/research grant, we were back in Paris, watching Parisians hurry through the market to work and school. Our mission was to find a design for our final project.

Paris in November in the rain felt like Oregon in November in the rain, but only as far as the weather went. In contrast to our spring trip there 3 years earlier, the crowds had thinned, making access to museums, wine, cheese and crostini as simple as walking through a door. By returning to the rue Cler neighborhood, we felt instantly at homIMG_2203e, especially when Ulysse en Gaulle finally opened its doors, and the owner greeted us with effusive smiles and hugging. I’m sure he mistook us for someone else, but we rode with the welcome.

 

 

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Noel with Marcos, the owner of Ulysse en Gaulle

 

For our last piece we were in search of an elusive something—a design, a little shop holding ground between the walls of taller buildings that had grown up around it. A David and Goliath feeling. We knew we had seen one, or some, or thought we had, it was just a matter of finding it, which we did one afternoon, walking the Left Bank near Notre Dame.

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Inspiration for La Fenetre

Another aspect of this project was Noel’s wanting to take it beyond miniatures per se, to design it as more of an art piece, a sculpture. He imagined an architectural anomaly, smaller and older than the towering white plaster buildings flanking it. It would be more of a vignette than a roombox, finding its ideal home on a shelf—a little wayside between the books. Something to be stumbled upon rather than showcased within a collection. Something that would require a lot of willingness on the part of our students to stretch their own ideas of what a miniature could be. Having faith in our fellow miniaturists, we forged ahead—Noel made a design, then a foam- core mockup so this Doubting Thomas could see how it worked.

 

Mock-up and sketch for project # 62.

Since the focal point of the tiny shop would be the display window, we decided to name it after the french word for window–la Fenêtre. For our prototype, the window would be the only interior space we would finish. For me, the window display would be my first chance at miniature dress-making.

Our 2009 Guild School proposal went as follows: “This project was designed after a handful of tiny structures we found dotting the streets of Paris—quirkily-angled relics of another time, squeezed-in between taller, more modern buildings. It depicts a somewhat neglected cityscape, containing a shop with a single room, narrow door and display window, with a small room above, for, perhaps, the owner of the shop, or the one-time home of a struggling artist.

As always, we aim to create the illusion of reality of an aged structure, at home in its surroundings. Students will start with a wooden shell, to which they will apply finishing materials, including plastering, stripwood, and copper and shingle roofing. Classwork includes plastering, carving paving stones, finishing the door and windows, along with applications of various aging techniques, including watercolors, latex and acrylic paints, and Bug Juice.”

To our great relief, enough students to fill three classes came along for the ride. A year and a half later we were packing for class #1 in Castine:

packingA few of the fourteen boxes packed to ship across country to Maine. After years of trial and error, I had pretty much figured how to pack things so they arrived intact.

 

Day one in the classroom–tidy, but not for long.

As was our time-honored routine, the workshop began with everyone Bug Juicing their plywood shells, gutters, roofs, window frames and door–anything that would be on the exterior of the building–to neutralize the raw plywood color. We went on to the copper roofing, much as described in the Au Petite entry, so I will not re-do it here. It might, however, be helpful to talk more in depth about the plastering techniques for both projects. We used Activa Art Plaster, ordered online. It is a moldable plaster of Paris that adheres well to plywood, and can be carved with an Exacto knife. We started by taping off the areas not to be plastered with masking tape.

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Noel demonstrating plastering a wall.

Yogurt cups are great for mixing plaster–you want to work in small batches because it dries fast. We started each batch with 3 scoops (1 scoop=a rounded tablespoon) of plaster, then added 1/3 scoop cement adhesive (from the hardware store, it guarantees the plaster will stay stuck to the plwood base, though it may not be necessary), filling the remainder of the scoop with water (3 scoops plaster to 1 scoop liquid). Mix into plaster with an old metal fork or knife. If needed, add water sparingly, and mix throughly. You want a smooth, loose paste that can be spread easily with a putty knife, but isn’t runny–about the thickness of room temp. peanut butter. Smooth on to the project, avoiding streaks or edge marks from the knife.

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Refining the surface with a toothbrush and knife.

If you’re after a very smooth surface, use a single-edge razor blade and toothbrush to further smooth and flatten the surface. If the plaster mix gets stiff and hard to work with, dump it and start over. Once the surface is fully dry, you can go back and modify or fix problems areas with sandpaper, or more plaster. If you will be carving pavement out of the plaster, it’s best to start while the plaster is still slightly damp.

The versatility of plaster can be seen in the photo below. The same material produced both the walls, and the paving stone sidewalk.

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The walls were aged with ochre acrylic, and watercolor dirty-water (Mars Black and Raw Umber tube acrylic) washes. The illusion of moss and general grime utilize the dirty-water wash, along with diluted Raw Umber acrylic, and Grumbacher Payne’s Gray and Sap Green watercolor.

Always looking to add interest and texture to our work, Noel included both cedar shingles and copper roofing for the project. IMG_3399.JPG – Version 2

The copper is 32 guage copper tooling foil from Dick Blick. The flashing is molded wine-bottle lead, aged with Brass Black from Whittemore Durgin. The left downspout is square basswood stock, cut at angles, glued together with Elmer’s white glue, and spray painted antique bronze. You can play around with Patina Green chemical, and acryclic washes for more or less aging. The gutter is basswood, clipped to the edge with wine-battle lead.

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Maggie Zimmerman has finished both roof sections. The tall side walls of the flanking buildings were not attached until the project was done and ready to be set in place. It also made them easier to ship.

This, complete with classroom spills, was our diagram for making drain pipes:

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The diagram below is one of those “everything else” pages Noel put together when I said we needed more explanation–board and batten siding, door diagram and roof flashing instructions:La Fen sketch168

We thought of the front of the shop as an assemblage of picture frames–one for the sign, one for the door, and the fanciest for the window.

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As always the students amazed us by getting all this done in 6 days.

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The sign was a cheat–there were just too many mini projects within the whole to make it from scratch in class. Most students would choose a different name, but they also would want a sign for the final day exhibit, so I color printed the signs at home on a medium brown card stock. Noel touched-in the lettering with gold paint. In class the students painted on Mod Podge to seal it, as well as bring out the colors, and to create the look of mini-brushstrokes.

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Inside looking out

Lighting for the front window display–not pretty, but we weren’t planning on finishing the inside, so this was easy back stage magic. There’s also a dim light in the upstairs window, just to give the illusion of reality another little kick.

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I took the window dressing idea from a Parisian baby store with white christening gowns hanging from a clothesline in the window. The hardest part was scaling down the dress to look right in the window–not a very big space. Knowing I was mini-dress challenged, Susan Rhoades kindly sent me a beautiful dress for our window, but it was too big for the space. I used old handerchief material for the fabric, and stitched on the ribbon at the waist. It is stuffed with cotton balls to fill out the form, and the rest is fabric glue and luck. The background is origami paper.

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The dilemma of what to do with the front door (so that the lack of interior decor wouldn’t ruin the illusion) came from a story our friend Melanie Wilson told. One day in Paris she had seen a little shop she fell in love with, but was too rushed to stop in and explore. The next day when she went back, her last day in Paris, there was that little sign:  Fermé . Closed.

We loved the story and had to include it in the project–the closed window shade would conceal the empty space behind. Rather than risk trying to hand-letter it on our dwindling supply of old window roller shades (that our students needed) we had a rubber stamp made, which we tried first with a gold inkpad, only to find it unreadable–the value of the green and gold were too close. Due to some quirk in the combination of old roller shade and ink, it was red ink that came out looking gold.La Fen sketch169

 

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Chicago, class of  2009

This is our swan song, or, as the French would say, Le chant du cygne–an emotional farewellI’m finding this difficult to write–we have come to the end of our long run as miniaturists. The end really came in 2011, our final year of teaching at the IGMA Guild School, but the blog has helped extend it in our minds. Beginning in 1974, we built a total of 62 structures, and reading this blog doesn’t make it any easier to understand how we did it. We worked hard, yes, but we also stumbled upon miniatures just as it was having a re-birth in So. California. Yes, we were lucky to be doing something we liked, and to have it appreciated by so many. The best part was the people–our clients, students, and fellow artisans. We thank you all for being part of the ride. I hope this blog stays online and available to fellow miniaturists for decades to come–you’ve been a pleasure to write for.

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Au revoir and happy trails from Noel and Pat.

 

Posted in Miniatures, shops | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

Is it time to find new homes for your miniatures?

 

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Before I file my final entry on our miniatures, I wanted to open up a discussion about what to do with your miniatures when you can no longer keep them. Over the years, many of you, or your relatives, have collected valuable items that you hoped to pass down, only to find that no one in the family is interested, or has the room (especially for houses).  It’s a difficult topic to consider, because for most of us there’s an emotional connection to our pieces—we remember when and where we bought them, all the ways we have played with and displayed them. Usually we know, or know the history of, the craftsperson who made them, which strengthens the emotional connection. Sometimes we have pieces of great monetary value, but the value is recognized only within the relatively tiny miniatures market. We love our miniatures so much we save up for months for them, and sometimes we even fudge a little (a lot?) on the price to our spouses because they don’t understand the market, and would absolutely not understand why a tiny silver tea tray cost more than last month’s root canal. I know you all have your own stories…

So how do you go about finding homes for your treasures? If you value your collection, it’s good to start looking ahead, so you aren’t rushed, and make a plan, to make sure your things wind up where they will be 1: cared for, and/or 2: valued, as in sold for a good price.

My first suggestion is to contact the artisans directly, if possible. There is no better way to acknowledge the artisan than returning one of their pieces for them to re-sell. Most craftspeople are not earning a living at miniatures, nor do they charge what a piece is worth, and this gives them a chance to recoup some of their losses. To contact them, Google their names, or check with the International Guild of Miniature Artisans (IGMA) website at www.igma.org for addresses. While you’re there, explore the Forum page on the site, which includes information on auctions, shows, and other miniatures resources on the web. Also check the N.A.M.E. website, which may have similar resources.

The next suggestion would be miniature shops—they will know the value of your collection. Often, they will sell on consignment, or will buy outright when it’s a rare piece, or is made by a famous artisan. This is a good resource if you are trying to sell something big like a house—they may have a list of people looking for houses by specific artists. Two shops that come to mind are:

Larrianne’s Small Wonders

http://www.larriannessmallwonders.com

3457 Telegraph Rd.

Ventura, CA 93003

Larrianne has been in business for eons, and knows her miniatures.

 

Another is a newcomer to me, who recently successfully re-sold one of our early houses:

Connie at CJN Miniatures & More

http://CJNMiniatures.com

23030 Hwy 99

Edmonds, WA 98026

Check the internet–there are plenty of other shops, and it’s best if you can find one near you to simplify getting your pieces to them for inspection.

Another resource is miniatures museums—they may be looking for unusual pieces for their collection, or for donations for their own fundraising. The two I know most about are:

The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures in Kansas City

http://www.toyandminiaturemuseum.org/

 

The Mini Time Machine in Tucson

http://www.theminitimemachine.org/

Another resource is auction houses—Do an internet search for Dollhouse Miniatures Auctions and you will find plenty of places to start. Don’t assume your collection is too small for an auction house–they often auction off multiple collections when they have enough.

Doing a Google search for “selling dollhouse miniatures,” I found a forum on selling on the Greenleaf Miniatures website: http://www.greenleafdollhouses.com/forum/?app=forums&module=forums..

If you are enterprising, energetic and techno savvy, you can look into selling your pieces through ebay, or Etsy. And there are online miniatures forums like The Camp and Small Stuff where you might get advice, and even help in dispersing your collection. As with anything else in life, it’s a good idea to make sure you are dealing with reputable people.

Those are just a few suggestions. If you have questions or suggestions, please add your comments below. I take no responsibility for sales or exchanges, but hope this might be a help in getting your thinking going.

Posted in Miniatures | Tagged | 2 Comments

Au Petit: aka Artisan’s Cottage/Golden Lane, or, how we managed to stay married all these years

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Eons ago–in the early 1980’s–a miniatures columnist wrote that Noel and I looked “slim in our jeans,” a term which still makes us laugh. We, indeed, lived in jeans, in our studio, building mini houses as fast as we could to keep us tricked out in no-name jeans and sweatshirts. We “dined” on sandwiches and Lean Cuisine from the slide-out cutting boards at the end of the studio worktable. Hours were long, and “vacations” entailed delivering houses far and wide, and, later, teaching, with multiple little houses and their parts in tow. By 2005, with 60 projects under our belts, both we and our jeans were definitely worse for the wear, and fresh ideas for projects were hard to come by.

Spring of 2005 found us nosing a tight proposal deadline for the 2006 Guild School. Our only design idea was for some kind of European stucco or plaster building, along the lines of our 1993 Toymaker’s Workshop. But we hedged–plaster has tricky drying times, and unpredictable results–did we want to bring that into a class? Being true procrastinators, we decided to go to Paris and Prague,  to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary, in hopes the trip would give us the inspirational shot in the arm we needed. If nothing else, it would be a great escape.

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No, that’s our friend Catherine Soubzmaigne’s arm as she’s touring us around Paris.

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It was spring, and the city was a-bloom. Worry about the pending deadline lifted—we had bridges to cross, museums to see, café lattes and vin rouge to sip.

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Dawdling in Paris

Paris in May was warm, and full of people kissing, kissing, kissing. A week later, Prague was rainy and gritty, borscht-y and garlicky (we both had colds), but thrilling. Everywhere the architecture was old and older. We flew home, tired, satiated, and without idea one.

Once home, we had two weeks to pack the current class for Maine, and to come up with a proposal sketch for the following year. Our initial notion to create an artisan’s cottage inspired by Prague’s Golden Lane hadn’t visually panned out—it was the neighborhood and history that was interesting, not the individual structures. We flipped through our trip photos of bookshops and 2nd hand stores, decaying utility pipes, sidewalks and cornerstones.

Overall, I was favoring the cozy interior of a Mexican restaurant we found in Prague on a cold, dank day, but nothing was gelling for Noel. Finally, the magic element slipped out of a file of past project ideas—a magazine photo of a small shop in Worcestershire, England—a place we had never visited. It had all the elements—venerable stucco, engaging bow window, a slate roof, aged wood plank door. By making it a fragment—a section of a corner building–with just two exterior walls, we could include the Mexican restaurant’s golden-walled, red-tiled-floor interior as part of the class. Luckily ,the proposal involved “only” a quick drawing, which, with some crucial elaborating, Noel adapted from the Worcestershire building into what we still thought of as the Artisan’s Cottage.

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Noel’s sketch for the new project

It had morphed into a generic Olde Euro shop (via Mexico, Great Britain, Prague and Paris), a space that students could adapt to their own uses. The how’s and from what’s of actual construction shifted to the Scarlet O’Hara file.

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Months later, back in our work jeans, we had the prototype walls up and secured to the base, ready for “stucco.” Plaster of Paris (aka gypsum) this time would prove to be a versatile and mostly predictable medium. Appropriately, Paris is famous for its plaster-coated buildings and gypsum mines–spend an afternoon sipping a café latte in Montmartre, and it’s all around you.

In the past, we had experienced adhesion troubles with plaster of Paris. This time we tried Activa Art Plaster from an art supply dealer. I don’t know if it had additives, or not, but it stuck where we wanted it to, was highly carve-able, and took color washes well.  We used it for the walls, inside and out, as well as for the cobblestones and street.

After plastering the walls, Noel began laying “cement” for the sidewalk. The cement consisted of plaster, colored with Grumbacher Mars Black and Raw Umber tube acrylics. He mixed the neutral grey coloring and plaster in small batches in a plastic cup. He then spread the plaster about 1/16”-3/32” deep—just deep enough to carve in the paving pattern without hitting plywood. Next, using a ruler, pencil and small engineer’s square, he marked the paving stone grid on the dry plaster at 3/16” to ¼” increments—a little tedious, but not too bad until we had to use a lot of Zen to steer the somewhat wavering grid gracefully around the corner. It’s like laying tiles, or mini bricks and trying to keep your lines straight until suddenly they’re not, but this was thousands of tiny tiles.

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Our small paving stone pattern and size favored Prague over Paris.

Parisian cobbles tended to be larger, and were often more rectangular, while Prague used a smaller stone, perhaps because they were easier for the populace to pry out of the street and throw at their many invaders.

As happened so often in our work, Noel set up the job, then I continued so he could go on to the next phase. Using an Exacto knife, he carved a section of stones, showed me what he’d done, and I took over. Carving into the plaster was fairly easy, but scribing consistent patterns, basically free-hand over the indicated grid, took some concentration. It needed to flow. I scribed smallish sections at a time, aiming to keep the lines parallel and perpendicular, but also with some waviness. I used a toothbrush to clear the lines, and a small flashlight for better visibility. Variation in stone size was inevitable, and variation in depth and width of lines was desirable–the deal was to keep the stone patterns and sizes balanced, in scale, and convincing. When things got out of control (usually the stones getting too large, or lines wandering too far off straight), I erased with a new layer of plaster. When the plaster got too hard to scribe I moistened it with water. After scribing the grid, I went back with the tip of an Exacto to slightly bevel the stones—not every edge of every stone, just enough to suggest to the viewer what was going on and let his or her imagination complete the task.

stones front

Later Noel came in with washes of Payne’s Gray and Raw Umber to make the final aged-stone color. The surprise of this lengthy and often tedious job was that it became mesmerizing, and addictive—nearly every student completed their sidewalks during the class week.

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Copper roofing viewed from our hotel window on rue Valadon in Paris

For the Paris-inspired copper roof, we cut thin copper sheeting in strips the width of the depth of the roof (for us, 3 5/8 “x 12”), aged, and embossed/grooved for the illusion of standing ridge seams—all relatively straightforward until it came to making even overlaps of the seams, while making a smooth turn around the corner. But once the puzzle pieces came together, we had a credible cooper roof.

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The copper aging began on the work table with rubbing down each strip, before embossing, with 4/0 steel wool, enough to cut through the lacquer. Next, we embossed the standing ridge seams by pressing the back of the copper strips into a wooden jig–using an engineer’s square and hammer–to form the squared-off grooves. We then applied Brass Black chemical with a 1” wide sponge brush, working it in until the metal turned evenly dark. The panels were allowed to dry on a slant, so that the aging would mimic that of a full-scale roof. To even-out the finish and warm the color, we applied a Patina Green Wash made from tube acrylics—a little Titanium White, a little less Thalo Green, and water. It’s good to start out with a thin wash, then add coats as needed after each coat dries. Finally, a Dirty Water Wash (Mars Black—4 dabs—Raw Umber (3 dabs), and lots of water) was applied over all, then set aside to dry. Each step took some fiddling to get an even, overall look, so, if you try this, have patience, and extra copper. The finished copper sections were then glued to the plywood roof with Elmer’s and spots of Flash super glue, then secured with a few tiny nails. The roof was then taped in place and allowed to dry. Once it was dry, we capped the top roof edge with a 3/16” cove molding, glued cove side down and behind the copper. At the bottom we added basswood gutters.

Next up was figuring out the slates for the bay window. Using real slate was out—far too expensive, and too heavy for shipping.  Instead Noel came up with the illusion of slates by carving them from Winsor Newton 300 lb. rough watercolor paper with an Exacto knife. First, he cut the paper in strips 3/4” x 14”, then used the knife to mark shape slates ranging from 3/8”- 12” w X 3/16”x ½” deep, like a row of teeth, without cutting through to the top edge of the strip. Next, he notched and beveled the lower edges of each slate with the knife tip, followed by layering slate texture over the whole surface by carving and shaving the paper. Once the carving was complete, he painted the slates with a gray watercolor wash of Payne’s Gray and Titanium White Gouache, warmed with a little Raw Umber. The dried strips were then glued down with Elmer’s, in rows approx. 3/8” deep. The final touch was gluing bits of dried moss between the seams. Et voila—slates!

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Paper slates

But that was Noel making one strip, and many strips were required. When my turn as proxy student came, the whole system bogged down. It took me hours to get the hang of the technique, and even then, the work was discouragingly slow. But I had the time, and eventually the skill. However, the time aspect did not bode well for a classroom situation. Once again tough, our students astonished us with their drive and ability to get the job done outside of class time—nights and between classes.

 

Originally, we thought Plaster would work for the interior floor. The reality was it made a mess—when Noel tried painting it terra cotta, the white of the plaster kept leaking through, making the finish chalky, uneven, and mucky-looking. Vetoing that, we went back to our old standby of red, brick-pattern Armstrong vinyl floors tiles—our standard brick material–this time using the bottom (smooth) side, cut in 1” squares.

Finishing touches:

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The plank door came strictly out of Noel’s imagination. It was built from scratch–cedar planks wire-brushed and Bug Juiced for age, then darkened further with watercolor washes. We hung it with brass hinges, counter-sunk, and hidden behind the framing, and cut the faux wrought iron handle and hinges from lead serving tape (from the plumbing section, hardware store) aged with Brass Black and glued on.

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Finally, it was down to the shrubbery–how to make a wonderfully gnarly tree that would spread over the entrance. It began with a dead branch of rosemary we’d saved because of its graceful curve (and then had to cull many more of for our students!).

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Cafe chairs and table by Catherine Soubzmaigne


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Creeping thyme

The greenery is my mini-shrubbery fallback–creeping thyme that I have dried in silica gel. It’s easily grown around the edges of the driveway, where it thrives on neglect. IMG_2852_1.jpg

I glued it on with Elmer’s, small bunch at a time, holding each section in place until it adhered. Bits of wax paper between fingers and leaves helped. Yes, it takes patience, but it’s the crowning glory of the project, and, it’s great to be able to design your own tree.

Once the tree was done, Noel got to do his favorite thing–aging and adding the aging washes, the bits and pieces of rock, moss, dirt to create the illusion of a piece of history, built out of the ground, and weathered by time.

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Interior based on the restaurant in Prague where we warmed ourselves with hot plates of Mexican food.

It was months later, close to time to pack up for the Guild School, when Noel and I sat around the work table (in our jeans and ancient bodies…) contemplating what we had made, and the winding paths that led to it. We needed a name for the prototype, to hang over the door. We no longer thought of it as the artisan’s cottage. The architecture, if not the paving, had moved definitively west of Prague. As we talked, we could still practically taste that first day in Paris–the balmy weather, trees all pink around the Eiffel Tower, couples kissing along the Seine–and we wanted the project to reflect that part of the trip. Something French was in order.

What came to mind was another, earlier time in our lives, about 1974, when we first dated in Los Angeles, and really were slim in our jeans, It was a Friday, and after work we were heading out for the weekend to go camping on the Kern River. Noel got invited to lunch at a romantic French restaurant by a supplier (a very pretty supplier), and I was a bit miffed. The restaurant was called Au Petit, and it served the best escargots west of Paris. Double-miffed. However, that night after we’d pulled into the campsite, Noel fired up the Coleman stove while I poured the wine and unpacked the dinner gear. He said, “I’ll make dinner–wait here,” and returned to the camper, deftly re-emerging with–Voila!–two trays of Au Petit‘s escargots, ready to heat up on the stove.

 

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To my faithful readers–the next entry will be the last, as it is about the last project we made–#61. I have promised myself to have it done by the end of the year, so please stay tuned, and I thank for your patience and on-going support.

 

Posted in Buildings, Miniatures | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

The Aero II Travel Trailer–“You can go where you want with it”

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Aero II miniature Travel Trailer initial sketches

Ever the car nut, and ever the headline writer, Noel came up with the line, “You can go where you want with it,” while conjuring the travel traveler. It would be, of all the buildings we made, his pet project. Where he really wanted it to go was downhill to a derelict trailer park with one tire jacked up on a stump, but I, as acting CFO, won him over to the idea that we would more likely fill a class with the non-beater version of what was already an unconventional class project.

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Aero II Travel Trailer, by Noel & Pat Thomas, 2003 (yes, it’s a miniature)

Early trailer folk were a jovial bunch—they dubbed themselves Tin Can Tourists. Our round-ended, flat-sided design they called the canned ham, not to be confused with the bread loaf, teardrop, or classic Airstream shapes. These aerodynamic designs were a combination of the talents of car designers, and, after World War II, airplane manufacturers.

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The body design and warm wood interior stemmed from longtime Seaview neighbors Joe and Nita’s aluminum trailer, where they unwound on summer weekends after driving in from Portland. When they weren’t out fishing, or sacking the local Bingo parlor, they sat inside at the fold-out table smoking Kools and playing endless hands of poker. Late into the night we would hear them slapping down their cards and cackling.

As you can see below, construction of the body was labor intensive, requiring a lot of  bending, taping, pinning, and time waiting for glue to dry.

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The shell consists of 1/4″ mahogany plywood sides with fir veneer end pieces

You can see that the size of the left window hole was modified when we realized we needed closet space inside.

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Aluminum car detailing tape covers the seams

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Old aluminum printing plate is cut to cover the shell

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Class diagram for cutting and placing aluminum siding.

As always there were big questions about sources and supplies–things like exterior lights, wheels and tires, window glass, etc., but by this time (project #60) we had winged it so many times we didn’t lose much sleep over them–we knew, trusted, prayed that the lights would go on when needed.

The exterior tail and running lights gave us yet another excuse to visit New York, this time in search of rhinestones from one of the buttons & trims emporiums in the Garment District. To make the most of our short trip, we walked up Sixth Ave. from Greenwich Village to Herald Square so we could savor at ground level the mix of people, buildings, traffic–the sounds, smells and sights of the city we once inhabited. The District offered an array of businesses dealing in notions, but we chose, according to the card I saved, Metropolitan Impex, a bridal supply shop. Maybe it was the Pepto-pink exterior that called us in. The interior was a mammoth shoebox of a room whose walls were upholstered, floor-to-ceiling, with columns of little drawers, each containing some sort of button, beading, ribbon, or rhinestone. The quintessentially imperious shopkeeper didn’t bat an eyelash when we told her what we were looking for, and why (she wasn’t really interested in “why”)—she sailed toward the back of the shop and up a 12’ ladder to pull out boxes A, B, and C, for our approval. All she had needed was a ballpark measurement to hit it right, the first time.

 

side light

Exterior lights: 2 each red and amber 3/16 flat-backed rhinestones for the side running lights, and 2 ¼” reds for the tail lights. The running lights were backed with thin mini washers or aluminum punch-outs, plus the domed backing of  ½” Dritz covered button refills from Joanne. The window “glass” we cut from thin plexiglass sold by US Plastics.

wheels

For the tires and wheels we fudged a bit on scale, sacrificing precision for looks, using smaller, diecast model car tires to get the right balloon look with half moon hubcaps. Noel found the first car, somewhere, for the prototype, but down the road, finding enough for thirty students took some real ingenuity. It turns out the wheel manufacturers wouldn’t sell to us, so we had to resort to buying a new model car for every two students. Luckily our wonderful local Deals Only overstock store just happened to have truckloads of trucks with tires that suited the project.

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Spare parts pile

Details like the aging trailer hitch prompted a trip back to our old neighborhood in Seaview to inspect the one-time neighbors’ trailer. Not much was left of the original mechanism, but enough to give Noel a start. Trailer hitch photo132

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Ours (to the right) included the propane tank and saftey chain for when it was in tow.

That little touch of realism required our students to assemble 1/8 X 5/16″ basswood channel, a carved wooden knob, a brass finding, wire for the crank handle, a traingular basswod brace, a trapezoidal basswood brace, socket head cap screws, a grommet, chain, wood for hitch to rest on, thread for the electrical hookup to the tow vehicle tail lights.Aero II_trlr hitch diag129

A lot of work, maybe, but hey, we’re miniaturists, and detail is everything!

The trailer hitch has a terrific story to go with it, submitted by Janice Pattrson, one of our students: Pop was an oil field welder, which required him to be away in isolated places (for eleven years he never took even one day off). So he bought our trailer second-hand, and took us along every weekend, holiday, and summer vacation. It really was our little home on wheels—never a “recreational” vehicle. It was made of plywood, and painted two shades of green. I can still remember the sound of a hail storm in Saskatchewan (on the bald prairie). I was 8 years old, and I remember Mom reciting “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” trying to distract us from the storm. My parents remember it being called a “teardrop” trailer.

My other memories are of sitting for hours in the hot sun (again on the open prairie) while waiting for Pop to hitchhike to the nearest town for metal to repair the broken trailer hitch—we were grateful he could weld, because this happened fairly often. I hope our mini has a trailer hitch—if so I’ll age mine realistically by ripping half of it off and laying mini welding rods around it. Need a few gophers, too!

Last, but not least, access to the interior is gained by lifting out a roof panel:

 

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The overhead cupboards, drawers and closet are made from 1/16″ basswood, stained a light oak. The counter and tabletop are basswood, covered with sponge-painted craft paper.

 

Noel carved the sink, stove and fridge unit from gelutong wood, finished with multiple layers of car primer and paint. The sink spigot was from Vix, that last I heard was bought by Classic Miniatures. The rest of the hardware is found items, including an old beer can tab for the oven door.

flooring

The floor is sponge-painted craft paper cut into squares with an Exacto knife and T-square, and glued down individually, which I can tell you took some sweat and tears to align–but the results are so great! For painting details, see my posting on the Airplane Cafe.

 

The aged, non-removable couch/fold-out bed cushions I made following upholstery directions from Judee Williamson and Nicole Walton-Marble. My edges are a bit wobbly, but it works from a distance–once installed, it contributes to the look of the whole, without attracting attention to itself. It’s all about illusion, right?

Taking the trailer where it wanted to go–The Guild School in Maine twice, and Nantucket–required a lot of steps, a lot of fitting and fiddling, and I continue to be amazed at how many students wanted to ride along with us. The prototype sits in our dining room, on top of an old oak ice box, the one minature of ours we have on display. As we consider down-sizing, we are also considering selling it. We’re in a negotiating mood–should you be interested, please email me at pst592@outlook.com.

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Rooftop Studio, Part II–A little more parsley, please?

Rooftop Studio 2001-2 - Version 3

Finishing details of the Rooftop Studio miniature project

The rooftop studio was #59 of our miniature buildings and houses, completed in 2001-2 almost thirty years after #1. If we stick with the minis-as-meal-prep metaphor, all that time we wished we had a sous-chef—someone to build the basic structures to our exacting, often off-kilter standards, then be at our beck-and-call to finish applying battens, bricks, shingles and flooring so we could focus on the cooking, plating and garnish. Snubbing our customary less-is-more credo, the rooftop setting begged for many and varied garnishes, starting with the alchemy of turning a wooden dowel into gritty, galvanized vent pipes.

Vent Pipe Ingredients: 5/16” X 3 1/8” and ¼” X 3 1/8”wooden dowels with a hole drilled in one end, Rustoleum Cold Galvanizing Compound, Patina Green (see diagram for recipe), acrylic patina wash, a small piece of 1/8” wood to plug the vent holes, masking tape, push pins.

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Rooftop vent pipes and walkway diagram.

To “galvinize” a dowel, stick a pushpin into each length in the end without the hole (see ingredients above),  use the pushpin as a handle and prime them by spraying (outdoors) with the Galvanizing Compound. Do this on sheet of cardboard or disposable tray. Allow to dry. Be skeptical while wrapping the tops of the pipes with masking tape, telling yourself this will soon look like galvanized metal pipes. After applying the tape as per the diagram, take the dowels outside again and spray with more galvanized paint–allow to dry. Next, hold dry dowel by pushpin, dip in Patina Green aging chemical, et voila!–watch it turn a burnt rust color (the men in our classes were particularly thrilled with this make-over). When dry, dampen the pipes with water on a paintbrush, then paint on a thin wash of patina green paint to further the aging. Cut pipe holes in roofing (through already drilled holes in project base), glue a small piece of 1/8” doorskin (or any scrap of stripwood) to the underside of the hole. When the glue is dry, glue vent pipe in place.

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In previous entries I’ve covered rolled and tarred roofing, but I thought you might enjoy Noel’s detailed diagram (above), complete with blemishes and edits, to show the whole process. A student comment sheet from the first class said, “It was more than I expected–I didn’t know I would laugh as much.” Looking at our diagrams, I’m relieved he wrote “laugh” instead of “cry.”

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In-facing brick wall before aging.

Due to its size, the brick wall might be considered more of a side dish than a garnish–whichever, here’s how we did it. To save time, weight for shipping, and to preserve our dwindling reserve of vinyl mini bricks (and also because we can’t stand leaving raw plywood on a project, even if it will spend its life against a wall), here we reverted to less-is-more. For the inside, or front-facing side, we used bricks enough to establish the illusion of “brickness,” grouted them, then filled the remaining space with spackle that was then aged with acrylics and watercolors to reflect the decades of grime, sootiness and mold on a mostly hidden exterior city wall.

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Inside wall with acyrlic and watercolor paints for aging

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Inside wall aged to simulate years of city soot and mold.

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Rooftop bricking diagram

Although the back of the wall will be seldom seen when the project is displayed, you want something there that doesn’t break the illusion, should anyone look. And, its’ a great place to practice your painting skills.

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Back view of the Rooftop Studio

 

Because the back wall will get little scrutiny, it’s a good place to start practicing the techniques. To smooth the bare plywood surface, Spackle and sand the ¾” ply to make it flush with the base. Then paint the whole piece with reddish-brown latex paint. Once dry, glue on the dimensional bricks, then segue into painted bricks, then finally, let the rest speak for itself. And don’t forget the aging paints. For more details on our bricks and bricking techniques, please see the entry titled A Brick inTime, 7/16/2011.

The truth of mini electricity:

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Wiring–aka Point A

The lighting of a project—the mood, the ambiance–takes work enough to be considered a main element for the head chef. As romantic as the end product may be, there was nothing pretty about Noel’s technique to get the job done. It was strictly a nitty-gritty process, with a little magic thrown in. I’m only showing it here to reveal how imperfect what’s out of sight can be, and to say it’s okay, as long as it works.

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Wiring ingredients: Red and black thin electrical wire (the finest you can find), 1/8” copper tubing–2 pieces cut to the length needed, 3/16” wooden dowel, Brass Black, 4/0 Steel wool, Patina Green (chemical), plug-end mini transformer.

To get from Point A to Point B, pin mini flourette fixtures to the ceiling. Then feed each set of wires through a hole to the roof, bring all the wires together, reduce them to the two wires that will go down the utility pipes, then through a hole in the metal roofing, and up into the short pipe on the studio roof, over to and down the taller pipe on the big building roof, and eventually down to the tranformer wires underneath the base.

 

You’ll want to file and sand the metal pipe ends to make them smooth. tubing to smooth them. Next, dull the shine on the tubing-now-utility pipes with steel wool. Once you have the wires braided down to two nice long ones, feed them through both pipes—short first, long second. Age them with Brass Black and Patina Green, allow to dry, move the long pipe away from the short so you can glue the short one in place, “caulk” the short pipe to the roof with black paint. Use the same paint to color the exposed wiring.

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Wiring: the inside story

Rooftop Studio, back detail - Version 2

 

The hoods covering the top of the pipes are made from the wooden dowel. Cut a length of dowel and drill a hole down through the center. Slice off a section of drilled dowel approx. 3/8”wide, and cut in half (to make two equal half circles). Bug Juice to gray, then paint to match pipes, and glue on top of the wires. Repeat the process for the longer pipe, later, once you have attached it to the building with a bracket made of the metal roofing material, as per the diagram.

When your project is complete, feed the two wire ends through an inconspicuous hole drilled in the base, then braid them to the two transformer wires (along with any other lights—as in under the skylight and over the door), do a little sun dance, and plug it in—Lights! Call yourself brilliant. Messy?–yes. Maybe complex, but not complicated–you don’t need an engineering degree to do it. When you are done, send your compliments to the chef, and take a bow.

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SOLD!

 

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Recipe for a Rooftop Artist’s Studio

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Rooftop Artist’s Studio, Miniature by Noel & Pat Thomas, 2002

  1. To make an artist’s studio, start in 1960 when you are 14. Into a large bowl pour one trip to New York City to see your art student/coffee house waitress older sister. Sprinkle in one bitter espresso brewed in her tiny stove-top pot. Next, walk around the Lower East Side and Canal St. At Katz’s, bite into your first pickle. Fold in a blintz and celery soda. This will take about an hour. Head uptown and a little west to find a friend who lives in a building with an AS Beck shoe store downstairs, and a dying potted palm leaning out over the rooftop. Hike the 6 flights to the roof. Be careful while following the duckboard path past the palm tree to the peeling door of the one-room rooftop house. Or studio. Or shack? Savor the light-filled room and city views, the mess of sheet music, books,  bedding, pieces of instruments, and a whole harpsichord. Leave with one $5.00 guitar and a love of rooftop nests. Mix together all of the above, set aside, and wait 40 years.

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    Looking across W. 11th St. NY, NY 2000

  1. Whisk ahead to the year 2000. On a Greenwich Village rooftop, sip a morning coffee with your spouse/partner-in-crime Noel, and friend Michael, upstairs from his W 11th St. apartment. Soak in the crusty neighboring roof-scapes—the jungle of water towers, electrical wires, skylights and chimneys, mixed with steam stacks, prized pocket gardens, and mysterious slant-roofed structures. Sift some stories of the Village’s legendary attic studios. Toss around the idea of a free-standing miniature artist’s studio, with a north-facing glazed wall–perched on a roof like this. Poke it and turn it. Stir in the first part. Pour all into your biggest saucepan. Turn up the heat.

It may have taken 40 years to cook up our rooftop studio, but it finally boiled down to a simple, teachable building with a utilitarian city roof for landscape. As with most of our work, the final piece is an interpretation of existing structures, tweaked over time by our imaginations and memory flashes.

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Home from New York, Noel made the above sketch for the 2002 Guild School workshop. The building itself is a pretty simple board-and-batten box with a slanted glass front—the fun part was seeing what kind of detail we could bring in to make it feel real in its setting, and then to set our minds on how we would make that happen. For example, Noel designed the roof (the “ground” on which the project sits) with a skylight (similar to the one in the hall outside his full-scale painting studio in downtown Astoria). A great, unusual detail for aging, and a great place for a hidden light, but in a 5-day class?

skylight

And so, we come to the diagram, complete with corrections and changes and which, if you weren’t in class, may seem close to incomprehensible, but please read on.

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Skylight Ingredients: wine bottle lead, 1/8” window glass, ¼” plywood, Elmer’s white glue, black ballet dress netting (tulle), black & metallic spray paints, Blacken-It, Brass Black, Patina Green, Thalo green and Permanent white acrylics.

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To save class time, Noel cut and assembled the basic skylight structures—a glass box with a wooden base–for the students to finish. The base is simply a box of ¼” ply strips. For the glass structure, he carved a wooden form to build it around. Next he cut 1/8’ window glass panels with a glass cutter, beveling the edges with a glass grinder. He tested the fit by setting the pieces over the wooden form. The beveled edges were then glued together, with lots of, yes, good old Elmer’s. It was tricky, but eventually he got all the glass to stay together. He did not try to make the top edges meet. Instead he carved a wooden cap that the students would glue to the top edges of the glass, giving the whole piece more stability. Finally, he glued the base to the bottom glass edges.

skylight in prog 1

While Noel wrestled with the glass, I glued on battens and flooring.

Skylight glass needs wire mesh reinforcement, so it doesn’t break so easily (remember the “chicken-wire” mesh in school door glass?). Some late-night thinking led to my trying tulle, the stiff netting fabric used for ballet costumes. The most realistic color turned out to be black netting, sprayed with metallic paint, then lightly dusted with black (not that anybody would ever see it, but we knew it was there, and maybe a little showed through the glass). Using the glass panes for a pattern, I cut the netting to fit. Tulle, even with paint on it, is not as stiff as imagined—when I tried gluing it to the underside of the glass it became floppy, and wouldn’t stick. Next trick was to stiffen the netting pieces first with Elmer’s (before spray painting), on the table, laid on a strip of wax paper, painted with glue and allowed to dry. Then spray paint, and dry again. Next, I painted a light coat (thinned with water) of Elmer’s on the underside of the glass, and pressed on the stiffened netting sections. The glue residue gives the glass a desirable cloudiness, but if it’s eye-catchingly messy, you’ll have to do some cleaning up.

The best part was making the whole look like a metal structure, starting with cutting and gluing on strips of wine-bottle lead to cover the cap, base, glass edges and imagined reinforcement mullions. Then the aging–applying Blacken-It, Brass Black, and Patina Green (lightly applied & dried until you get a patina that looks right). When dry, we went back in with an acrylic patina wash (water, Thalo green, Permanent white) to soften the effects and meld the colors. And maybe the tiniest bit of bird poop (white tube acrylic dotted with whatever color food they might have had for lunch).

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As you can see, the roofing strips (and later a lot of tar goop (black tube acrylic)) laps over the bottom edge of the metal framework to act as flashing.

With that food for thought, I’ll set this aside for now. The next entry will include side dishes such as rooftop vent pipes, electrical wiring, and painting faux bricks.

*Last but not least, for those of you who made it this far: a reader recently found a current (Feb. 2017) website for old mini magazines, including many with my old Creative Notebook articles: http://minimagindex.com/index.php

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An Ode to the Odd: The Castine Gallery

Castine Gallery "about 1988"

On almost any day in June of 1994, at about 8:00 a.m., if you were to head to downtown Castine from the Maine Maritime Academy–home to the IGMA’s annual Guild School mini camp—you might cut across Deadman’s Alley, turn down the hill on Main, walking past the poet Philip Booth’s white clapboard house, past Town Selectman Paul Manning’s white clapboard house with its driveway full of un-split firewood, past the Post Office, the Castine Inn, the pocket-size McGrath-Dunham Gallery, and on down to the foot of Main, a block up from the town dock, you’d probably find Paul Manning’s rig–an old wooden wheelbarrow full of redeemable bottles and cans–parked in front of the Variety, where you could go in, get a cup of coffee, sit at the community table with Paul, in his yellow Sou-wester looking for all the world like the Gorton’s fishcake fisherman–and find out what’s been going on for the past year. He always introduced us around the table as “the Thomases–they’re from away, but they’re okay.”

After coffee, you might follow Greg Dunham, watercolor artist and new owner of the circa 1885 Ricker—now McGrath-Dunham—building, back up the hill to open the recently refurbished shop. While Greg’s a pretty straight ahead guy, his building is as idiosyncratic as many of the townspeople. The one-story, glass-fronted shop is sandwiched between an alley and a staid, Federal-style building it seems to poke out of the side of like an aberrant gem. A textbook example of vernacular architecture, it doesn’t fit any particular style, but draws from its surroundings, including the slant of the hillside it sits on. In a history-laden town, the Gallery is one of those unsung places where Washington never slept, fought the invaders in front of, nor left a famous tea set. While its history may be unwritten, everyone in town has a story about it.

Among our favorite features of the building is the multi-paned, wiggly-glass bay window with stained glass transoms. Next to that, more glass—an inset 9-paned entry door, with its own transom, and a wood-framed screen door. Capping all is a false-front Mansard roof covered in tiny fish-scale shingles. Inside the walls and ceiling are paneled in whitewashed pressed tin, recently restored floors of wide, unpainted pine planks, and overhead a crawlspace attic. The window box of geraniums, an add-on, and hardly a major architectural element, lends itself to the appeal of the building. Each detail is a facet combining to form a little jewel box of a space, the kind of place that both reflects and magnifies the town’s personality. That summer, it all but jumped into our arms as a great teaching project.

Castine Gallery drawingWith other projects on the worktable at home taking precedence, it wasn’t until June of 1997 that our students would see our proposal for the following year. Even then we had little idea of the amount of detail required for the project.

Diagram for the multi-paned front window

Diagram for the multi-paned front window

The front window–the building’s crowning glory–made for a lot of mullions and measuring, and measuring was never one of our fortes–we believed in the concept of eyeball geometry, but that eyeball still had to have square corners. The window was made from a single sheet of old glass (with the cut edges darkened with black felt marker to mask the thickness of the glass), framed in cedar channeling. The 1/16th basswood mullions were glued to both sides of the glass, creating the illusion of individual panes. Packing that many sheets of glass to travel cross country unscathed was another challenge. Only one piece broke en route to Maine, which gave us a chance to visit the resourceful Paul Manning (of the yellow Sou-wester), who invited us in and steered us toward his “old glass department” in a kitchen cabinet. Sure enough, we were saved–he had exactly what we needed.

scalloped, or fishscale shingle roof, capping the stained-glass windows.

Scalloped, or fishscale shingle roof, capping the stained-glass windows.

For the false-front Mansard roof, Noel cut 850 cedar shingles (approx. 1/4″ wide) per student, which gave them a good supply of extras for breakage and loss. Cutting that number for the prototype seemed doable, but by the time he was done with ten batches for the 1998 Castine students, more for the 1999 class, plus another 10 for a New Orleans class, he called it quits, and felt lucky to have all fingers intact. We glued the shingles on with Elmer’s white glue–16 rows, 1/4′ apart. Once the glue dried we sanded them lightly, with the grain, to remove burrs, then applied Bug Juice, to darken them, with a 1″ foam brush. Bug Juice can make cedar too dark, so we next applied household bleach, daubed off with a paper towel. From there we experimented with dirty water washes (a lot of water, a dab of Grumbacher acrylic Mars Black, warmed with a smaller daub of raw Umber), and more Bug Juice. It’s just a matter of playing with it to get a nice, weathered look.

In the photo above, you may also notice the leaded stained glass windows, a design we adapted from the original building. Fred Hultberg of Fotocut made the photo-etched brass patterns as a base for the “leading.” In class, to simulate the leading, we applied solder, followed by caming darkener to the top side of the brass designs, then Brass Blacked the backs. The blackened side of each brass piece was then glued to the window glass. When dry, we painted in the color with liquid glass stains. The individual “panes” were then framed with painted stripwood. In retrospect, this process sounds like it could have taken the whole week, but somehow we all managed to work this in with all the other facets of the project.

Doors included a front, a back, and, just for fun, a front screen door.

Gallery Back Door

Gallery back door

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Gallery front and screen doors.

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Generic screen door diagram, cut and assembled to fit the space.

The screening we used was a fine mesh brass sink drainer material we bought years ago from a plumbing supply company in California. To age it we combined wire brushing with applications of Brass Black to the screen. Again, it took time and experimentation to achieve the most reallistic-looking results.

Alley side of the building with shiplap siding and water meter

Alley side of the miniature project with shiplap siding and water meter

Dunham McGrath Building life-size version

Dunham McGrath Building life-size version

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see by the photos above, we chose to age, rather than age and paint the narrow siding. Again, the siding is cut from cedar, which, to save class time, we wire-brushed and Bug Juiced at home. The students glued it on with, yes, more Elmer’s. Then they got to age it with washes. The mossy look at the bottom corner is watered-down Windsor Newton Sap Green watercolor, with real bits of moss glued on. The water meter is a stock miniature item, with various pieces of electrical wiring added. The metal keepers holding it to the building are cut from wine bottle lead, and rusted with burnt sienna tube acrylic.

The photo shows the side of the miniature attached to a breakaway section of the building next door

The photo shows the side of the miniature project attached to a breakaway section of the building next door

And, because we can’t leave anything alone, Noel cut a wider shiplap siding for the cutaway building next door.

Down the open side and around the corner brings us to the back view, showing more of the breakaway building on the left, the Gallery back wall wooden shingle siding, and the alley-side to the right. The kickplate at the bottom of the door was wine-bottled lead aged with caming darkener.

Castine Gallery back view

Castine Gallery back view

The breakaway side of the building allowed for access to the interior, and gave us a chance to include one of our favorites, an overhead attic crawlspace, borrowing cobwebs from our full-sized basement.Castine Gallery

This side is framed by the interior walls of the building next door, as well as a glimpse of the gallery interior

This final side is framed by the interior walls of the building next door, as well as a glimpse of the gallery interior

The prototype interior flooring is cut from 12″ oak planks, because we had bundles of it (so much so that we’re now using the last of it for fireplace kindling). Because this was an exterior only class, the students were free to choose their own floor, along with the rest of the furnishings, once they got home. The cabinet under the window is made from oak veneer covering a  1/4″ plywood base. To replicate the pressed tin ceiling of the original, we used our stock of embossed business cards, acquired in 1980 for our first commercial building, the 2oth Street Emporium.

Then there’s a mystery, another facet of the jewel–along one of the interior walls, Noel attached a large section of mirror, so that when you looked in through the front windows, you saw a reflection of the interior space, making it feel twice the size, and closer in scale to the full-sized building. It was a fake-out, as most people didn’t notice the mirror. It had to have covered the interior left wall, but it has evaded all our photos, and certainly the cobweb-ridden corners of our collective mind.

Last but not least is the fearless Guild School class of 1998, posed in front of the Gallery, that little gem a few doors up from the foot of Main St., where you’ll probably still find Paul Manning’s rig, and if you look a little further, you’ll find the man himself. Say hello from us.

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Wrap Party: Curtain Call for the Davis Theater

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Davis Miniature Theater with Nutcracker Christmas set

Most of the year 2000, while the world recovered from Y2K madness, we spent in the studio wrapping up the lagging miniature theater project. It became a matter of, finally, shelving everything else to finish in time for the client’s 60th birthday celebration.

What began as the germ of an idea over dinner at the client’s home, would be presented in full bloom at his birthday dinner at the top of Seattle’s Smith Tower. The 7 or so years-long path between the two events was littered with starts and stops, victories and defeats, hair-pulling, time bending, tricks and theatrics, and at least one bulk pack of #10 Exacto blades. With the deadline in sight, we had a lot of pieces to tie together, and needed quick resolutions to postponed decisions. Specifically, the brick wall needed finishing, along with all the little painting details, the proscenium arch needed cutting and assembling, and there were sets to be painted.

The project was designed to resemble a theater interior on three sides, with a brick exterior wall and stage entrance at the back.

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Theater rear view. Note cutaway wall at the bottom for viewing the dressing and make-up room.

If you do much nosing-up to brick buildings, you know that there are distinct brick patterns, designed both for aesthetics and strength. In miniature, the “fun” is determining a pattern, outlining it, then making it work within the confines of the wall. A common pattern found on the walls of many Victorian buildings in Port Townsend, WA, was 5 horizontal rows of full bricks—the length of the brick facing out–then one row of shorter brick “ends” –the width facing out–representing bricks turned 90 degrees to run crosswise into the building for strength. Aka five rows of long bricks, followed by one row of short bricks, and repeat, up the wall. But then, when we looked harder, we discovered there was variation in the numbers of long and short rows–you don’t have to be a slave to rules, just be sure you know them.

As I have written before (see my entry A Brick in Time), we cut our bricks ( 3/16″wide X 5/8″ long X 1/16″ thick) from old brick-pattern vinyl floor tile, which is no longer available. (For making a similar Fimo brick, see our website at http://www.thomasopenhouse.com/tips_fimo.html.) There are many other good brick solutions—individual brick facades cut from stripwood, or sculpted from various polymers, paper clay, gesso, or cut from mini brick sheeting. Whatever you use, you’ll want to apply individual bricks, not sheets. Sheets of molded brick, applied as is,  just look like sheets of molded brick, and will detract from the other painstaking, wonderful work on your project. And while I’m being preachy, measured-to-scale full bricks (as opposed to thinner  (approx. 1/16th”) brick facades), will add excess weight, thickness, and calculation headaches to your project. And it will look heavy, out of scale. Less is more, as the old axiom goes. You’re not building a wall or a chimney, you’re creating an illusion by adorning a piece of plywood with a suggestion of brick. Trust the viewer to fill in the rest.

Rule 1: There is no perfect solution. Rule 2: Whatever you use will need some paint and texture alterations to make it look “natural.” Rule 3: It’s all about illusion, the illusion of reality.

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Outer brick wall construction, where individual bricks are cut from a scored sheet oh vinyl floor tile, then glued on individually, in rows.

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Further along, this shows how you can apply bricks on top of bricks to frame door and window openings.

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After mixing a grout of Bondex Quick-Patch cement with water, it is applied by scrubbing it into the bricked area with a sturdy 1″ foam brush.

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Before it dries, most of the grout is then scrubbed into the spaces between the bricks, and off the surface.

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Adding the owner’s name to the back of the building. Notice how the edges of some bricks have been aged by carving with an Exacto knife.

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Stage door area finished, complete with a Thomas garbage can made from old wine bottle leads.

When I joined my college theater department, a very small department, in my junior year, they were thrilled, not because of my great acting skills, but because, due to lack of interest, and the small number of theater majors, no one was the head of the scene shop. Despite the fact I had never touched a power tool, and was afraid of heights (theater ladders are very tall), it turned out to be a good match–I liked the backstage area better than the front, and wanted to include some of this in the project. Thus I convinced Noel to paint a scene shop and costume area on the side walls of the base. Regrettably, these photos don’t do the work justice. Using watercolors, gouache and acrylic washes, he painted the scenes as more of a hint of the theater workings, so as not to detract from the grand splash of the proscenium and stage front.  I think of it as a voyeur’s-eye-view of what’s going on inside. Not too much is explained, but enough to nudge you toward the illusion of theater.

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Side view of the stage area, with a frieze of the scene shop and costume areas covering the side of the project base, painted by Noel with watercolors and gouache.

A theater needs an orchestra pit,  and an orchestra. The inspiration for this one came, again, from the book on toy theaters. Here you can see Noel’s original sketch, and the finished frieze.

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Orchestra illustration.

From the start, the proscenium frame construction was The Big Problem we kept in the back of our minds. In keeping with the tradition of toy theaters, we wanted it to be ornate, extravagant, even flashy, in the mode of Broadway and major world theaters. Given our limited carving skills, and entire lack of knowledge of casting, we knew it had to be a found material. I don’t remember if it was a trip to a museum, or when Noel took some of his paintings into the frame shop, but one day there it was, practically jumping off the walls at us–gilded picture frame molding. Our local framer just happened to have one strip of the golden cherubs left over from another order, and perfect for our purposes. After that they found coordinating framing for the top and sides. As the cherubs were the last of their kind, the tricky part was going to be finding where to cut the strip so that there was a balance of similar figures on either end, and a center of interest the center. One mistake could ruin the piece and set us back to hunting again. Like all good procrastinators, we decided to think about it some more. But then one morning, Noel made the fateful cut, and with only a little putty and gold paint to fill a joint, got it right.

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The sets were left to the end, more or less as a treat for Noel to paint after the hard work of the theater was done. The theater’s owner-to-be lived, year round, among his huge collection of Christmas decor, full-size and miniature. He was also nuts about (no pun intended), and a supporter of, Seattle’s annual Nutcracker Suite production, with its outsize sets by children’s book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak. Both these traits made it easy to decide what sets to make for him.

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Davis Miniature Theater with Nutcracker Christmas set

 

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Davis Miniature Theater with Nutcracker Christmas set

With the theater complete, we had only hours to pack it into the van for the trip to Seattle, and dress for the birthday party presentation. I was always nervous about transporting our work, as it was not secured in the back, just sitting on its own weight, padded with quilts and pillows to soften the blow should we have to stop fast, or get bumped. Smart people would have built a barrier, some kind of gate closing off the front of the van, but we were too busy trying to meet deadlines to think of that in time. Again the gods smiled on us and we made it safely to the basement parking garage of The Smith Tower. The gods were less kind when when Security would not allow us to park, or unload near the elevator. We found a restaurant busboy to loan us a rolling metal bus cart, and loaded the theater on, with the edges of the base hanging over the edges of the cart. From there, with Noel pushing ,and me guiding and holding the project to the cart, we negotiated a long, sloping ramp up to the next floor, wobbling our way, finally, to the elevator, only to find we had two elevators to take to the top, and no one was happy about it. A little frazzled, we made it to the dining room filled with people, acting as if this had all happened by a little magic.

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The Homecoming or, All the World’s a Stage…

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Sketch of the Davis Miniature Theater-to-be

 It’s late. Two dog-tired travelers are trailing roller bags. It takes a beat or two to register–their motel parking space is empty. The car is gone.

That was us on October 30, 1995, just off the plane from Italy. The title quote–Sean O’Casey’s version–ends with, “and most of us are unprepared.” Sure enough, during our month of eating, walking and Eurailing around Italy, someone had availed themselves of that cute little ‘85 Honda hatchback parked at the back of the lot, a consequence we were unprepared for. The world whirled on, and no kind of magic would bring the car back. On the drive home the next day in the rental car, we repeated the family mantra—“It’s just another adventure.”

Despite being out of wheels, we had had a great adventure (beginning with locking ourselves out of that very same motel (not once, but twice) the morning we left for the airport). Our minds were full of the trip, miniature theater ideas, and the reality of other mini-projects awaiting our attentions. There was hardly time to notice that in our absence the Grateful Dead had announced their break up, or that Ebay was the newest quirk on the Internet.

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Sketch of the Davis Miniature Theater-to-be

Once home, we hit the floor running. I’ve forgotten when, exactly, we began the Theater, but over the next 5 years we juggled teaching projects and travels with its construction. With the Italian toy theaters still fresh in mind, Noel sketched a design for the client, but then we were on to class preparation. More than a year later a floor plan evolved. Even later the base was constructed, flooring laid, and walls were cut so that bricking could begin. And there were the floating unknowns of how to make the elaborate proscenium, and what kind of scenery we’d build.

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Rear view, with stage door at lower right, and cut-out for the dressing/make-up room

My favorite part was the make-up/dressing area, the one backstage room we finished, with a cutaway wall for close viewing.

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Dressing/make-up Room, Davis Theater. Just by luck, and to add to the realism, some of the bulbs in the mirror light were out even before we installed them.

 

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View showing finished exterior and cutaway wall. The orange door to the right is the open door to the small bathroom.

To me this room is the hub of the theater–the transition space where actors change themselves from daily life to the character on stage. The feeling of the room we made, if not the design, was a direct steal from the one-time Skidmore College Little Theater, where I spent the better part of my Junior and Senior years, so many lifetimes ago.

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Taping off the floor for concrete

 

 

 

 

 

Laying out the floor

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Spreading the Bondex patching cement floor with a wide putty knife

The other finished room under the stage is the bathroom,  which we squeezed in to the right of the make up room and under the stage door stairs. It can only be viewed from the far left side, or with a dental mirror, but here are some construction shots

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Aging a corner of the lathe-and-plaster bathroom wall

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Just the basics…

 

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Mirrored bathroom door, outside view, using an old, de-silvering piece of mirror edged with 1/16″ double bead framing.

So much of theater (and miniatures) is magic, a slight of hand, and so much of that comes from (beyond the playwright, director and actors) what is created backstage in the scene shop, the lighting booth, the costume and property rooms, and of course the Green Room—that other nest between stage life and reality. And miniatures share that kind of theatrical magic. One of my favorite quotes, which applies to both, comes from the sweet, Vaudevillian, long-running musical, The Fantasticks. It is spoken at the end , “It’s all an il-lu-sionnnn…” in a swirl of enchanted dust.

 

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Madama Butterfly and the Toy Theaters of Siena: The Davis Theater, Pt. 2

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The illustration is of unknown origin. I have borrowed it from The Museum of Everyday Things website, an adventure not unrelated to toy theaters, and worth exploring.                       museumofeverydaylife.org

            The world of toy theatre is filled with eccentrics                                                                                                … Peter Baldwin, Toy Theaters of the World

With our upcoming miniature theater commission nesting in the back of our minds, we set out for Italy in October 1995. Florence was our destination, our home for a month in a one star hotel room at one end of the Ponte Vecchio–a base station for exploration and further travels on our Eurail passes. In particular, we were looking forward to the side trip to Siena to see the antique toy theater collection, which we hoped would furnish us with some greatly needed inspiration–details and stories about the genre, its designs and traditions, as well as about the collector himself, Dottore (Doctor) G. Anyone who collected such a trove was bound to be a fount of information, and a quirky character. To pave the way, I wrote to the Dottore before our departure. From Florence I phoned a few days ahead to confirm the date of our visit.

Up early for the morning bus, we caught the local to Siena, winding through hill towns famous for their wines and music festivals. At 10:15 precisely, as scheduled, we arrived at San Domenico Square. From there we phoned the Dottore, as arranged, about seeing his toy theaters. He said to take a tassi, and that any cab driver would know the way to his home, Villa L’apertita. Our driver denied knowledge of the place, but drove us far out of town on a road that eventually ended in the countryside at a pile of major road construction. The driver shrugged, and abandoned us at a driveway in front of some garages. We took a chance on a path that indeed lead to the door of the Dottore’s villa—a striking and spacious home in the converted stables of a 12th-18th century Tuscan farm. (The house and property can be seen in the book Living in Tuscany, by Leonardo Castulucci).

We knocked. The man who answered looked puzzled, or maybe disappointed that we didn’t look more promising. Or something. I forged ahead in broken Italian about the miniature theaters, our research, etc. He asked if we were there to see the gardens. Before I could answer, we were off on a tour of his espaliered roses, native plantings, views of and from the famed Tuscan hills, along with a people-size small stone amphitheater on the property where he and his friends performed plays, ballets and operas.

Once inside the villa, we discovered the “friends” were luminaries. He was, it seemed, also a collector of famous personages–celebrities whose autographed photos covered every wall and table surface that art and books did not, including the Pope, Fellini, Nureyev, and jockeys of the Palio, Siena’s famed breakneck horse race. For winter entertainments they used the indoor theater built into one room of the house.

Eventually the Dottore led us back to the rooms of toy theaters–a museum’s worth–many commercially produced, some one of a kind, the simple and ornate, a good number made by famous scene designers, and many inscribed to “Nanni,” our host. Some were made from stone or wood, but mostly from paper, with hand-cranked scenic cloth or paper curtains, wobbly scenery, and dollhouse miniatures in varying scales. Every one was different and every one triggered our curiosity. The Dottore spoke animatedly about each piece he rushed us past, underlining the value and rarity of it all, and refusing to slow or answer our questions.

Finally he stopped before a paper theater set for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Only the elaborate proscenium faced out, with the theater itself recessed into the wall, behind which our host disappeared. The familiar notes of an old recording of the opera rose, along with the lights and curtain to a performance of the final act. The ship steaming across the back of the stage, the paper doll characters playing the scene were all on strings guided by the Dottore, who sang softly along behind the heartbreaking music until, finally, his voice quavered and broke, as it no doubt did in every performance. The music ended abruptly, the curtain squeaked down. After a few moments, our host reappeared and ushered us back to the enormous living room, where he left us. After some noisy negotiations with the housekeeper, he returned with two juice glasses of wine, and, Noel recalls, a cup of dry roasted peanuts.

The Dottore was then called away for a lengthy phone call. Noel and I sat mostly in stunned silence, sipping our wine and soaking it all in–the house, the collection, the performance, the collector. When he returned he had called a tassi, and, end of play, showed us the door.

***

Before I leave the Dottore, to wade, next time, into our own toy theater, I’ll leave you with this final quote from Peter Baldwin’s book:

 I will go so far as to suggest that it is these things—trifling things—that the world stands most in need of, and that the weighty ones are absorbing all our strength…might it not be wiser and more sociable to concern ourselves with trifles for a few decades…I have seen in most lands that I have visited, even miniature theatre held by grown men…to be…of great value.

Edward Gordon Craig 1932

 

 

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