Seems all things small are capturing a big audience among artists, collectors

November 15, 1992|By Daniel Grant | Daniel Grant,Contributing Writer

Long before "less is more" and "small is beautiful" made littleness an acceptable and even attractive quality, small had the reputation of something that is cute but perhaps inconsequential.

Miniature art, for example, in which the image size of a two-dimensional work can be no greater than 25 square inches and the largest dimension of a sculpture 8 inches, traditionally has been viewed as an attractive novelty -- especially after the development of photography in 1839, when the camera began to produce the portraits that had been the miniature artist's major activity for more than a thousand years.

Miniature art, however, has survived and, in fact, is a growing area of interest for artists, craftspeople and collectors. (There are six major societies of miniature artists in the United States.) The 59th annual international exhibition of the Miniature Painters, Sculptors, and Gravers Society of Washington, on view through Nov. 29 at the Arts Club of Washington, offers a glimpse at how small is thriving.

Although they began as book illustrations in the seventh century A.D., miniatures now come in all media -- painting (oil, acrylics, watercolors), sculpture (wood, bronze), ceramics and porcelain, collages, prints, batik, needlework and scrimshaw. Realism is the basic stylistic commodity, with the subject matter ranging from animals to landscapes to portraits to still-lifes

The prices for miniatures by top artists may reach as much as a few thousand dollars, but the average price falls between $35 and $100. These low prices and the fact that many miniature paintings are sold with little brass easels for display on coffee tables have been among the reasons that the larger art world has traditionally not taken miniatures more seriously.

However, many supporters and creators of miniatures look to elevate the status of these objects as real art. Museums helping the cause by creating permanent exhibitions include the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C., and the Miniature Museum of Kansas City in Missouri as well as in the Louvre in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

To Laura Schofer of Clearwater, Fla., a past president of the Miniature Art Society of America, "Miniatures are a young person's activity."

"It's very tough on the back," says painter Jane Mihalik of Basyne, Va., one of the artists in the Arts Club of Washington exhibition. "You have to be very still, sort of scrunched over. After a little while of this, I need a heating pad, or my husband will have to give me a back massage."

Ms. Mihalik notes that she holds the 4-by-5-inch piece of Masonite on which she paints in her hand while working; however, most artists prefer to use drafting tables or even regular easels. Some of them use jeweler's caps to enable them to see what they are doing.

It is an unwritten rule of miniature societies that the object must look as highly detailed under a microscope as to the naked eye, so the ability to work with great precision is essential.

With other media, artists must simply be careful or inventive. Bob Best of Great Falls, Va., whose miniature collages are 3 inches by 5 inches, has a "drawerful of tiny scissors" and otherwise makes use of tweezers to hold the image he is cutting out or pasting down.

Margaret Wisdom of Bethesda, who fashions miniature animal motif sculptures in ceramics and wood, has used dental tools or whittled twigs to fashion her own tools for carving and shaping.

The differences between novelty items and artwork, hobbyist and professional artist, are not always obvious. With the one, the beholder makes the decision; with the other, it may be a matter of self-definition. The field and market of miniature art is one that tests definitions.

"It's a challenge," says Connie Ward Woolard of Silver Spring. "It's a whole different approach than what I otherwise do, which is very large. It appealed to me to try something very, very tiny."

MINIATURE ART EXHIBITION

Where: The Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I St., N.W.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. Through Nov. 29.

Call: (301) 229-2463.

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