Mothers, Don't Let your Daughters Grow into Miniaturists
Writ through tears, October 2020
Dearest reader, hark and heed my tale of woe---the tale of a good girl turned miniaturist! As I sit within the shadow of my towering craft hoard, a light of consolation flickers: that the telling of this tale may save another from my fate. Fingertips, eternally besmudged with paint, trace across the page. I write. And I hope.
My girlhood was like any other, lighted by the sunny optimism attended on clever-ish girls. You would have been hard pressed to discover early symptoms of my peculiarity. With nimble fingers and brain, a detour through some academy was certainly certain. Mine was a stable and loving home, filled with books, kindly laughter, and innumerable opportunities to pursue less “miniacal” pastimes. Alas, with wanton access to the scrap heap and two grandparents already succumbed to the hobby, my fate was sealed, my downfall secure.
In the midst of idyllic girlhood, well-meaning Grandparents presented their littles with a “Beacon Hill” dollhouse, affectionately rendered by Grandfather’s hand. The trap was set! Complete with a widow’s walk, three floors of spacious rooms, and gossamer-thin windows through which to spy, the manse was a blank canvas waiting to be splattered on by young hands. Pictures were torn from father’s magazines and shellacked to the walls. Mother’s thimbles topsy turved to collect twee rubbish. Old delicates were hacked into curtains and rugs. But the skills of our child paws were limited, so with Mother in tow, we set out for our first miniature show.
And what a spectacle it was! A vast acreage of miniature wares in that hotel ballroom, all fussily arranged for our consideration. Teetering on tipped toes, our wide eyes peeked up and over tables and universes arrayed there a-top. Why, you could have filled several villages of tiny mansions with such a bounty! Finding that the accompanying price tags were not quite so miniature as the wares themselves, we left clutching a rare few acquisitions. The lavish appointment of our Beacon Hill’s chambers was not completed that day, but its curation had commenced, expanded annually by visits to Frankenmuth, Michigan, where we squirmed through the famous Glockenspiel, anticipating a pilgrimage to Rau’s magical miniature emporium. Side by side with grandparents and Mother, we scanned the Lilliputian plunder and dreamed tiny dreams.
And then for a time, Sister and I forsook the dollhouse. While we chased boys and practiced algebra, our happy estate became the battlefield of brother’s GI Joes. It remained thus until one Christmas Eve when the holiday spirit moved my hands and heart to create a tiny something for Grandmother’s cottage dollhouse, built by Grandfather. While my family dreamed sugar plum fairies, I sat in the kitchen summoning them with glue and paint. When the clock struck early, I realized that the single miniature I set out to make had multiplied into a whole box of miniatures! What delight it brought my tired eyes to watch my grandparents discover their gifts on Christmas day: Grandmother’s wedding gown in the palm of Grandfather’s hand, shrunken portraits of family members, and a quilt replica that would warm your big toe but not its fellows. Before Christmas ended, I was already planning next year’s miniature gifts. This late-night Christmas Eve workshop became tradition for me, observed yearly but contained to the season. Though my late Christmas Eve hours initially left Santa Claus vexed---for they made his stealthy gift delivery a challenge---before we knew it, I would be one of his top-producing elves, overseeing the North Pole’s dollhouse division. But here I am getting ahead of myself.
The Christmases flew, depositing me at life’s mysterious and inscrutable interlude, that chapter entitled, “time to get a J-O-B, young and clueless college graduate.” When people asked me, “What do you do?” I was stumped. What did I do? Not, as of yet, anything particularly useful. With an undergraduate degree and several (many) job applications awaiting review (and subsequent unanimous rejection), my identity was pinned to past and future. But what to do with the present odd hours? To distract my mind and engage idle hands, I trounced out the miniature-making supplies. Thus began what was surely a most curious chapter of my parents’ life, in which they woke daily to discover new miniature objects arrayed across their kitchen counter, submitted for inspection by the lunatic, in-residence daughter feverishly creating them while they slept. While these nights were an antidote to listlessness, they were also turning the screws of my fate in ways I could not have imagined.
“Maybe it’s time to put away the dolls and find a fellow?” one relative helpfully quipped. As it turned out, both the fellows and the miniatures would have to wait. I had discovered a safe harbor for idling, not-quite adults who enjoy incurring debt: graduate school. And so I set off for New York City to embark on a 15-year program in theatrical costume design. But there again keened the tiny Siren’s wail, for in New York and beyond, miniatures occupied time-honored employment in stage design, charming even the cleverest of my clever, Broadway-festooning teachers. Suddenly the objects I created could be gossamer strung into a scene, a story, a world, in service to Shakespeare, Shaw, and Chekov. As I followed their characters onto stages, trailing silks and velvet, I discovered a hunger for power: to write the rules of those worlds and to hold them in the palm of my hand.
I’ve struggled to say how exactly I arrived to New Orleans from that place. But how does anyone reach a New Orleans? Perhaps the same will-o'-the-wisp leading Phineas T. Barnum down the Mississippi---and seducing Houdini to leap into it---brought me here. In crossing some rigged stage set, did I fall through a trap door onto its moss-bearded avenues? Or, tangling myself in curtain scrims, emerge tumbling through the darklit back room of some shady Bourbon Street establishment? I couldn’t say. I remember waking on my feet in a French Quarter courtyard murmuring an incantation which today remains on my lips: How could anyone live anywhere else? How could anyone live anywhere else? In New Orleans, I discovered that the place of my childhood dreaming had existed all along, and that its ghosts, vampires, and bow tie-wearing cats had been waiting here for me. Was it by waking from a dream---or waking into a dream that I arrived? How-so-ever it happened---by time travel or un-guessed-at magical conveyance---I now resided in that city of earthy temptations & “jass.”
But even a time traveler has to eat. Barnum, spiritual father to the wayward and fabulist, once described the heart of me to myself: “possessing a disposition which ever revolted at laboring for a fixed salary,” I began peddling miniature wares in earnest as an actual, rent-paying livelihood. Did the graduate school prefects forsake me? Absolutely. Did my parents worry? Likely. Did letters from the sweetly named but ill-tempered Sallie Mae abate? Not a chance. But to the tattered scraps of my theater school days, I applied obsession, hot glue, and a bit of madness, fashioning more and more ambitious delights, as some other magic began turning.
As my hands sculpted miniatures of a queerer sort: bones, cat mummies, and butterfly collections, I discovered that other strange people were being drawn to the eerie flame I stoked. My tiny book-making kit became best-selling on Etsy. By more magic which I do not understand, my pioneering in vintage paper frockery became a book that someone paid me to write. August institutions took note. My fingerprints and my assistant’s fur infiltrated the legendary NYC Tiffany & Co. windows. The National Building Museum’s curator sent me an empty wooden box to fill with miniature dreaming. Visitors from far and wide began appearing in my “squeakeasy" studio, operated from the back of New Orleans finest vintage clothing boutique, Century Girl.
And then on the heels of these successes came the letter from Uncle Drosselmeyer, delivered to my berth aboard the slumber car train from Chicago. Uncle D had been following my growing reputation as both a miniaturist and sometimes-mystery sleuth. The infamous case of Clare Bellamy and her haunted dollhouse will be known to many of this readership (her case file has been pored over by investigators stationed across the globe, and may still be acquired here). Similarly, news of my role in investigating the mysterious appearance of miniatures scattered across America’s historied corners had reached Uncle’s furry earlobes. Thus accredited, he tasked me with a special project: the establishment of his “Imaginarium” on a main thoroughfare, stocked with marvels collected on his travels. In exchange for management of this place, Uncle would allow me use of the Imaginarium’s rear room for display of my miniature models and whatever other purposes might suit my disposition. Thus today stands the Imaginarium of Magazine Street, visited by the kindred time travelers washing up daily on New Orleans’s swampy shores. Nestled within and awaiting the brave is The Imaginarium’s more obscure chamber, The Museum of Curiosi-tinies. There sits a Lady, flickering between 1924 and 2020, by day receiving visitors who present me with perplexing new cases, and by night holding court with unruly bohemians and being haunted by a surly ghost cat who perturbs my paint and brushes. From this small strange room, the world’s mail handlers convey parcels to the four corners, never imagining that within those envelopes and boxes are entire worlds: libraries, evidence of miniature murder, and secrets bound for a society of miniaturists whose reaches are vast.
I consider this as I stroll across history. And when I have walked myself out on these haunted streets, small dreams still dance across my eyelids. Like a chatty blonde rodent or warbling bird, I ferret away scraps of paper and ribbon to line my nest. My eyes continually train on objects in stores, as the voice in my feverish brain demands, “Would this work in one-inch scale?” Heed this woeful cry of the miniaturist, who will never have a neat or tidy nail! Whose once-fine frocks are now tracked with glue! Who, continually forgetting that she lives in full scale, bumps into things! Whose chores are eternally neglected, and whose housekeeping standards are criminal! Liberated from a steady office job and absentmindedly dipping paintbrushes into her tea, remark the eyebrows raising in her direction! Carousing with her ilk at miniature conventions, she raises her miniac cry to the heavens, “Smaller! Smaller!”
Yet for us fallen people there are consolations. There is the inter-generational delight connecting us to those mutually afflicted, both young and old, who tell their stories through the making, acquiring, and modifying of miniature objects. There are planets, and Pharaoh’s tombs, and Holmesian parlours yet to be plundered with the lockpicks of our imagination. The miniaturist is a peculiar sort, but she follows her joy through these secret doors, encouraged by the people who support and inspire her unconventional path. I, and they, believe in the power of our weirdest dreams. It’s a perilous world in which we sculpt our stories, fraught with pirates, creditors, and art school teachers. We create the escape hatches as we go along; those that would thwart us are less real than the myths we seek.
My debts to that minx Sallie Mae have been settled. But now there is a larger debt to pay. To Uncle Drosselmeyer and his Imaginarium. To those who reminded me of the magic when my faith wavered. To so many of you who have been my customers and assisted with my miniature investigations. Always we have asked---and ask---can those things which defy words be captured on stage, in fiction, in miniature? We aren’t sure. But as we find the way home through the delight of our tiny work, we discover cause for happy tears, indeed.