The other night I was eating out with friends in Portland, people I have known for years through my life as a poet. They had another friend along who was visiting town, one of those people who thrives on asking questions. The wine arrived and he began to drill into the whats and how-comes of my life. Inevitably the topic of miniatures came up. As he pried open the miniatures box with more enthusiasm, I brought out my Ipod to show him photos. Of course it got passed around the table, and soon even my long-time friends were passing the pictures back and forth. By their response it seemed that for the first time they really “got,” and were impressed by, miniatures and the kind of work Noel and I did. The visitor’s big, squashy question of “Why?” went unanswered as we left the restaurant and headed out for ice cream. But why people connect with and/or make miniatures is the question that’s always interested me.
It was early 1986 when we got home from delivering the Whittier bungalow. We were slated to teach at the Guild School in June, which meant the class prototype needed building so the kit builder could get to work and we could figure out how to teach it, plus we had two commissioned pieces to get going. Then a letter came asking for a donation piece for the Guild School Auction. The fact that all would be done by the end of the year gives me a headache to even think about, but at the time it felt doable, and we set into our work. If I go by our scrapbook as the time-keeper, I started building a wooden wheelbarrow for the auction—the least important item in the triage line. Motto: postpone disaster for as long as possible
This was not just any wheelbarrow, it was Uncle Cecil’s wheelbarrow, probably close to 100 years old–simple and totally functional. It had belonged to my friend Sydney’s Uncle Cecil in Oysterville, WA. I came upon it one day in his yard as we were walking around the town. It struck me as being a near duplicate of the one my father had when I was little. It had a big spoked iron wheel for negotiating rough terrain, and, the best apart, sides that came off for accommodating wide loads. Dad used it mainly to transport firewood out of the woods behind our house, wood that he and friends would cut in the spring from trees felled by the previous winter’s storms. They cut and stacked it in the woods to age, then Dad loaded it out of the woods to the house, where it was stacked again and eventually carried into the house to warm us. That was where I came in, following Dad into the house with a small load of kindling in my arms. Eventually the wheelbarrow went the way of all things, but on that day seemed to be reincarnated here in Oysterville. So, the wheelbarrow came with a story, one I wanted to continue in miniature.
I measured and photographed the original, but was mostly aiming for the finished piece to look convincing, like it had served its purpose for many years. The hardest part was finding the wheel—I wasn’t a metalsmith, and didn’t have the time to start that particular process. I finally found some manufactured wagon wheels–maybe in one of those handy NAME Houseparty favor bags. The rims were too thick, but I thought I could make it work. After filing out as much excess metal as I could, I used a rasp and Exacto to make rust shavings from our collection of rusted metal, things like old cheese graters, tin cans, discarded tools, and pieces of car bodies (rotted-out by the salt air) that fall off along the road (another motto: never pass up a good piece of rust). I painted the wheel rust-color (burnt sienna tube acrylic with a little raw umber), then painted it with Elmer’s, and rolled it in the shavings, a technique we would use in many projects to come. The framework, brackets to anchor the sides, and metal brace legs, were rusted strip metal, touched up with more rust.
The wood was from our stash of aged and rotted wood, embellished with studio-made rot, and tiny iron nails. I’m sure Noel carved the handles, handles that were too far apart for my arms as a child to grasp simultaneously. The best part was still that the sides came off.
It was crude, functioning, and fun, and took way too much time out of our need to generate income, but it was one of my all time favorite projects. It reminded me of my dad, and those years trotting around after him in the woods. Maybe that’s why. Or one of the whys.