It's An Incredibly Small World, After All

The “Public Art / Moving Site” project has put on a kind of traveling show across three New England cities this spring—taking a sculpture, a restaurant, and a series of miniatures on a journey from New Haven, Conn. to Bellows Falls, Vt., and right here to Cambridge.

Each work in the project is meant to reexamine some aspect of the cities it visits, and in Cambridge, it commenced with a massive monument honoring the city’s crooked spaces—DeWitt Godfrey’s massive steel rings, which stood next to Café Pamplona for over a month.

The next segment takes a different approach, one more concerned with the mental rather than physical landscape. Architecture professor and artist Michael Oatman has curated an exhibit about one of the most peculiar manifestations of locals’ imaginations: the practice of making miniatures.

While model-making is often known as a cultish or clubby habit, most of these works were produced by individuals in private, and these tiny sculptures are projects which many of the creators had kept hidden until now.

The exhibit opened last week at the Cambridge Arts Council, and it profiles art made on an almost preposterously small scale by 11 artists from the New York and Cambridge areas.

Small boats made from coffee spoons and matchsticks, unfinished model cars, vintage erector sets, little glass boxes full of tiny girls playing cat’s cradle—the exhibit takes intimate and treasured objects, often the outgrowth of childhood obsessions, and places them in the public eye.

The gallery literally provides magnifying glasses for the viewers, allowing visitors to examine the most precise details of the artists’ miniatures.

“HOW TO BE A GIANT”

Oatman found the 11 modelers mostly by advertising in the Cambridge and Boston areas. His posters encouraged “people who spend part of their day as giants,” to submit their work. He says that about 25 people responded, and from that pool he was able to select what he considered to be the most exciting or original work for display.

“In the end, doing this project is really just a good excuse to meet interesting people,” says Oatman, in his opening speech at the opening. “I don’t know if I am a pervert or something, but I get to go into people’s basements, if the conversation is going really well they’ll take out the box of stuff they haven’t shown anyone in years.”

To make the scene even more public, Oatman has filmed all of his encounters with the model makers—“The camera was rolling from the moment we went to the door,” he says—and is creating a documentary out of the footage. The documentary will be shown in Cambridge this June.

Oatman, who is both an artist and a professor, normally works on the opposite of miniatures. He creates large-scale collages and “room-sized dioramas,” but he says that he became fascinated by the idea of miniaturists when he was fleshing out the minute details of his pieces.

He found the small-scale tasks “maddening,” and he wanted to know more about the people who do it obsessively.

“There is a lot of humor in making models. I think that there is a popular conception that the people who make models and dollhouses are kind of crackpots,” Oatman says. “But you know, modeling really is the biggest hobby in the United States. There are people who snicker at them, and the modelers themselves are aware that they are engaging in an activity that’s kind of goofy.”

“But there’s a kind of poetry in that—in doing something that is slightly absurd, but you take it really seriously,” he added.

THE MINIATURISTS

For some, this publicity of this exhibit won’t be such a shock.

George Bossarte has been well-known among some Cantabrigians for his semi-annual Erector set parties, which he has held since 1976, and which were once advertised as opportunities for “food, frolic, and the chance to act like a child with impunity.” So his submission to the exhibition—a display including his Erector blimp, ferris wheel and carousel—was not necessarily made in private chambers.

But for others, the exhibit presented both an exciting and somewhat frightening opportunity.

“I realized today that all these people had seen my stuff. It was very sobering; it’s a very personal thing,” says Daniel Fokine, a 24-year-old Jamaica Plains resident who has been painting toy models since he was 13. About a year ago, he started making them from scratch, as well as painting them. Nine of his pieces were on display, including two surreal spirit figures, all white, throwing what appeared to be little red balls.

Next to Fokine’s sculptures sits a folding table—on which a series of miniature folding chairs and tables have been arranged. Roger Bisbing, a sculpture technician from Saugerties, New York, says that he found himself at least once a week in some meeting with folding chairs, and so they began to carve a special place in his imagination.

The miniatures are made on three-quarters-of-an-inch-to-a-foot scale, and they are arranged into three empty scenes—one called “Games,” in which four grey chairs sit around five tables, placed on a yellow and white floor; one called “Meeting,” in which ten blue chairs are arranged in a circle; and one called “Council,” in which eight rows of chairs face a table with six chairs around it.

He decided not to sculpt people in these little rooms because he says he wanted each viewer to identify with them personally.

“I would like to be familiar,” he says. “It could be an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it could be a group of teachers discussing curricular reform…I’ve never wanted the narrative in my work to be very specific.”

“It’s like a town meeting where no one has shown up yet, it’s like a picture of nothing,” Oatman says of Bisbing’s piece. “But that’s really captivating, because everyone has a relationship to the chairs.”

“CARTOONY” CAMBRIDGE

Though the act of sharing such intimate pieces might have been frightening, the atmosphere at the opening was full of quirky Cambridge locals who found the miniatures intriguing.

“I think that this is really unique,” says City Councillor Henrietta Davis of the exhibition. “I’ve never seen an exhibit that focused on the small world. It gives you a completely different perspective…I think that we’re all ‘Mc-Mansioned’ out, and it’s good to be brought back to a human scale. It makes it very personal, something you can really interact with.”

For Oatman, it’s also a good chance to return to Cambridge and explore it in greater depth—he worked for a Harvard drawing professor in the mid-eighties, and says that he found life within the Harvard bubble to be a bit “cartoony.”

“Cambridge to me seemed more miniature when I lived here before, but now it seems more like the scale of real life,” he says.

—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at atiya@fas.harvard.edu