The Care and Feeding of Dollhouse Makers…

Sushi in the Desert

Sushi in the Desert

or, Fueling the Muse

Part I: Get a Job

The Mini Muse started a hunger strike about ten years into our stint as miniaturists. For most of those years we lived, mind and body, immersed in work (even though work was dollhouses, it had to pay the rent) spending seven days a week, 12-17 hours a day in our miniatures studio. The studio was the largest room in the house. Located at the bottom of the stairs and right next to the front door, it was hard to miss, or avoid. More times than not, we ate there—it seemed simpler to stay with the project on the table. After a while, and about 30 Victorians, we grew tired of moving the same house parts into new configurations. When inspiration yawned, we opted to take 6 months off and get, as they say, “real jobs.”

Noel, with his experience as a fry cook at the first Jack in the Box (San Diego), along with being an Army cook, signed on to peel garlic at a friend’s restaurant. Let’s just say it was by mutual consent that two days later he found himself  jobless. Another friend took him on as staff chef and chief biscuit maker. The main problem there was that his bad math skills and dyslexia made baking and serving “biscuits for three” (3X2) a comedy routine, but the laughs (and great biscuits) kept him employed.

Another friend with a printing shop hired me to help run a press. It was an old and ticklish  offset press, used mainly for flyers and throw-aways, and the owner was the original Mr. Jury-Rig (I’m talking string and chewing gum), so I spent much of that 6 months fighting with and swearing at the recalcitrant machinery. We lost a friend in the process (restaurant #1), but made it through our commitments. Barely. The big lesson learned was that we were unemployable—too long under our own rule, it was agony working under someone else’s, even a friend’s. And, the mini studio never looked so good.

Part II: The Sushi Solution

It was a find, that little cafe at the end of a long day on the road. We were on our way home from delivering our 38th dollhouse—the big Greene & Greene–and had driven along in silence for hours. We just wanted some food and a bed. The road delivered, in the middle of nowhere, a motel on one side of the road, a cafe on the other. The fact that the café was Japanese, with a sushi bar, was serendipitous—our first date had been at a sushi bar, and we sought them out wherever we traveled. This one was a gem–family-run, with Mom hosting and waiting table, Dad and Grandma in the kitchen, and the kids doing their homework at one of the tables. With GREAT sushi!  As I recall, we were the only customers. After toasting our day with a little sake, Noel said from across the table, “I want to get back to painting.” I nodded, because all day I had been thinking about how to make time to get back to writing.

I had written since childhood, starting with doll stories at a desk in my bedroom, then on through high school and college until I eventually found ways to write for pay, including advertising copy (where Noel and I met), and more recently in my miniatures column for Nutshell News. But I was getting the itch to see where creative writing might take me.

Noel was painting long before I met him—several decades and careers before. Two of his student watercolors hung in our dining room, and in our bedroom we slept under two large acrylics—one of his shoes (6 pairs, from Italian leather dress shoes to desert boots and worn tennies) and the other of a hangerful of neckties he had worn to brighten up his Madison Ave. suits, each signed Noel ’66.

Though we slept under Noel’s paintings, our dream lives connected us like umbilical cords to the miniatures studio. Of course the dollhouse Muse was again begging for refreshment–our days were resembling a menu with no variation. We needed some juice, some fire for the operation to continue. The question wasn’t what, but how. The answer was clear: to feed the Muse, use the Muse. Miniatures would become our day job, and the rest would be for fun and replenishment. “Deal?” Right there at the table we resolved to act like real people and start taking evenings off, and spending weekends pursuing the other talents we were fortunate enough to be born with. “Deal!”

Part II: The Italian Connection

Fast forward to 1995. Noel was painting on weekends out of his studio across the river in Oregon, and I had staked out one end of the dining room for writing. Over weekend meals we compared the ups and downs of our solitary time. Clinton was President. Toy Story introduced the first ever wholly computer generated film, the U.S. Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian Mir space station, peace was declared in the Balkans, and The Dead announced their break-up. By then we were beyond knowing anything about pop singers or the top 40. Our big news was we were heading to Italy for a month.

After 21 years of dollhouses, it was my parents who convinced us we weren’t getting any younger, and it was time for a travel break. We were stumped over what to teach next–the Guild School was proposing double classes, a 3-day, followed by a 6-day, so, two projects per year. We also felt empty-headed about the next commissioned piece—a gift really, from a client who posed the challenge of what did we want to make next? We were turning away commissions, as we had no idea how to fill this one.

Over the years, clients and students had requested European buildings, but without living with them, we didn’t feel we could do them justice. And that kind of travel seemed like more than we could swing. My dreamy father suggested we ask Noel’s painting clients to pay in advance for any paintings to come out of the trip, which somehow didn’t mesh with my version of how to stay sane and/or fiscally solvent. Then a friend spent an afternoon and evening hooking us with stories of his year in Italy—the history, the art, the food! How does one decide to throw caution to the wind (yet again) and spend a month in Italy? The same way we left Los Angeles and advertising for dollhouses and a beach in Washington.

October 1. It’s 5:00 a.m. at the airport. After a sleepless night churning over small potatoes, like the Italian word for “fork,” and locking ourselves out of our motel room (twice) in the flurry of leaving, we’re pacing. We are also headed for a room in Florence (one star), armed with Eurail passes and an invitation from friends in Vienna. The dog and cats are parked with the dog & cat sitter. At the last moment my parents gift us with the cost of the airfare.

A One-Star View of Florence

A One-Star View of Florence

About smallhousepress

In 1974, my husband Noel and I began building aged miniature houses for collectors and museums. We were 70's dropouts. We quit our careers in advertising--art director and writer, respectively--and escaped Los Angeles in a VW camper and a Bug for a simpler life on the coast of Washington State. From a tiny studio in our home, we built 64 houses and buildings. Our specialty was aging--making a structure that reflected the scars and wrinkles of time, the elements, and human habitation. In the 80s we began teaching our techniques in workshops around the country, and I began to write our how-to's in Nutshell News and Miniature Collector. In 2000 we migrated across the Columbia to Astoria, OR, where , in 2011, we retired from miniatures. We are Fellows of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans and taught at their annual school in Castine, ME. By avocation I am a writer and poet. The blog is my way of working back into a writing routine, as well as recording what we did, and what we learned along the way.
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17 Responses to The Care and Feeding of Dollhouse Makers…

  1. I’m loving these stories.

  2. Nancy Enge says:

    Oh, the siren call of Northern Italy. Looking forward to seeing it through your eyes and experience.

  3. jendy63 says:

    It is really fascinating to read about your journey. I have been reading about you and admiring your work since the mid-70’s when I wasn’t even a teenager. Your stories are inspiring!

  4. Carol says:

    So delightful reading about the stages of your saga…look forward to more after some time in Italy!

  5. Barbara Ann Shields says:

    Pat, so glad you got back to your writing and we get to tag along with your Italian adventure. Grazie!!! Barbara Ann

  6. Natalie says:

    I just love the pure delight of these stories – I have long been an admirer of your work and many pieces have inspired me to create my own versions – to know that I am not the only one with a one-track mind arguing with the logic of day-to-day living while still trying to feed myself – AND – understand serendipity! Lovely and thank you. You continue to inspire.

  7. jcslan says:

    Actually, that one-star view is much more authentically Italian than a five-star view in most hotels. What I remember most about life in Italy is the way people hung out their wash. Bravo for capturing it so beautifully!

  8. Laurie says:

    I’m hanging on every word….

  9. Pat says:

    This is wonderful! I’ve been a huge fan of your work since 1979, and I love reading about your experiences. Thank you for writing!

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