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The world in miniature

How playing with scale can help us see.

During the Christmas season many of us are drawn into the world of miniatures, though we might not call it that. Ornaments hang on our trees depicting, at a hand-held scale, Jesus nestled in a manger or the wise men visiting a stable. Each year we carefully unwrap the figures of our nativity scenes – a lamb, a shepherd and a humble mother each passing through our fingers – and set them on a bookcase or on top of a piano. What makes these tiny scenes so appealing?

Several years ago, I visited an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario entitled Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures. It centred on remarkable 16th century carvings that are astonishingly small, impossibly intricate and religiously inspired. Fitting within the palm of the hand, the wooden carvings are spherical wonders portraying the Annunciation, the Visit of the Magi or the Passion of Christ. They were created to support practices of prayer, and created with carving and layering techniques that have only recently been fully understood.

Seeing these creations left me both amazed and perplexed. Amazed at the ingenuity and skill that led to their existence, but also asking myself: Why go to such lengths to create these intricate designs? Why on such a small scale? Aren’t there other less time-consuming and intensive ways to support practices of prayer? The more I’ve thought about it, however, the more I’ve realized that my “why” questions might not be as helpful as starting with simple appreciative inquisitiveness.

‘It looks so real!’

Susan Mattinson is a friend and colleague who is perhaps best known for her humorous Pastor Shep comic strip. But over the past few years she has been making a transition from drawing to miniatures. Her Facebook and Instagram feeds provide a steady stream of smaller than life creations. There is a bottle-cap-sized pumpkin pie, a three-inch crocheted blanket, a finger-length macrame wall hanging and so much more. I think my favorite is the eight-inch, rusted dumpster full of the usual detritus: a rolled carpet, discarded packaging, and an old stuffed animal among other things. Creativity in a mini dumpster!

Susan has always been interested in a variety of crafts – knitting, sewing, tie dye, quilting. Creating miniatures seemed a great way to bring all of her creative interests together. In addition to crafting skills, though, the forming of pint-sized purses or plants or furnishings also involves mathematical and material challenges: How to make things precisely to scale, and what materials to use to make items look authentic? In the world of miniatures, whether that of boxwood carvings in 16th century Europe or of tiny baked goods in contemporary Nova Scotia, there is, I think, an aspiration to virtuosity. The right response is: “Oh my goodness, how did you do that? It looks so real!”

The uncanny

Working at such a small scale also gives the creator a definite appreciation for the delicacy and detail in God’s creation. Reproducing the world in miniature means you invariably begin to see details that would otherwise escape attention – it means attending to colours and proportions and textures with greater care. The unevenness of the floorboards, the shape of those flower petals, that shade of orange, the way the hairs lie down on the back of someone’s hand.

Attention to detail and realism go hand in hand. Susan suggests that the challenge of realism is sometimes put like this: If you took a close-up photograph of a small-scale room or scene you created, would the casual viewer think it showed a normal room? Would the viewer not realize it was a mini version? If you can achieve this level of realism, I’d say you have achieved the rank of master miniaturist – though I’m not sure that’s an actual thing!

Just here the Rev. Mattinson (yes, she’s also a Presbyterian minister!) gives me a concept that I am searching for as I reflect on our perception of the almost-real: the concept of “the uncanny.” There can be something profoundly unsettling about an encounter (visual, spatial, psychological) with a world that looks and seems so real, yet isn’t what we perceive it to be. As our initial confident perception gives way to a feeling that our eyes and mind are being tricked, it can leave us rattled. Another miniaturist, Carmen Mazarrassa, puts it like this: “Things taken out of their natural scale make your brain leap a little.”

Rev. Susan Mattinson working on a tiny bookshelf.

More than meets the eye

We sometimes try to draw clear lines between “arts and crafts” and “the arts” – as if miniature making isn’t art – but that line is a fuzzy one. The gift of artists is that they challenge our perceptions of the world. When they do more than simply express beauty or portray reality (which is challenging in its own right), artists have a gift for setting us in the place of the uncanny. Perhaps the world is not quite what we thought. Have we looked closely enough? Is there something we have simply missed or misunderstood?

A gift of artists is also that they put in question the values of our shared life. As we talked finally about this question, Susan pointed me to the work of Slinkachu, whose Instagram account describes him as a “London-based artist, leaving miniature figures on the streets since 2006.” Much of his work is wonderfully whimsical, but some of it has a harder edge.

Consider this scene (particularly apt in this season): A miniature person, in plastic, carries miniature shopping bags down the street. But the shopper also drags, behind her, full-size garment tags from Yves Saint-Lauren, Dior and Luis Vuitton. They dwarf her. The viewer is left to wonder whether the shopper has taken possession of her packages or whether they have taken possession of her. The world of miniatures, it turns out, leaves you wonderfully intrigued and curious, but always also just a little unsettled.

Slinkachu’s mini shopper weighed down by her purchases

  • Roland De Vries is Director of Pastoral Studies at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. He also has a keen interest in explorations at the point of intersection between church and culture. Roland and his wife Rebecca live in Montreal with their three children.

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