Creating dioramas from debris

Art: A Columbia man gives an Ellicott City restaurant four of his three-dimensional landscapes made entirely of material collected outside.

May 03, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For years, George Sunderland, 89, collected bits of debris from the sides of the road and near the Intracoastal Waterway in Maryland. He used his stockpile of found items to create stunning three-dimensional works of art.

His intricate scenes depict a Maryland of long ago. He created farm scenes of Western Maryland in the late 1800s and boating scenes from the early 1900s. He can't estimate how many hours he has spent on these labors of love, but he knows it's a lot.

Recently, Sunderland moved from an apartment in Columbia to the Harmony Hall retirement community near the Hickory Ridge Village Center. He no longer had space to display his six dioramas, which were about 3 feet long, 3 feet tall and 1 foot across. He hated the thought of putting them into storage, where nobody would be able to see or enjoy them.

The solution turned out to be remarkably simple. Sunderland donated four pieces to the Crab Shanty, a seafood restaurant on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. He gave the fifth to a friend, and the sixth, for now, is in storage. The dioramas are now on prominent display, getting more attention than ever.

"I kind of feel that they're my children and they're being taken care of," said Sunderland, a soft-spoken man with a neat white beard and black-rimmed glasses.

"Of course, they have a lot of traffic at the restaurant, so they have many people seeing them," he said.

The restaurant benefits, too. Bill King, owner of the 26-year-old eatery, said customers constantly comment on the dioramas. The seafood restaurant already has a rustic, seafaring feel, with wood-paneled walls and artwork of ducks, boats and water scenes. The dioramas fit in perfectly.

King heard of Sunderland's artwork through a friend. "I had no idea what they were," King said, "but when I did visit him and I saw them, they were beautiful. I couldn't believe it." He eagerly agreed to accept the works.

"There's so much detail in them and so much work. We're not talking a couple of hours, we're talking hundreds of hours per each one," King said.

The restaurateur created lighting and Plexiglas display cases for the dioramas, and is making plaques that tell about Sunderland and his work.

"He's gone to quite a bit of effort," Sunderland said.

Sunderland used driftwood, twigs, rocks, bits of shell and tiny wires or scraps of tin to create his scenes. "Everything is debris," he said. "The only thing I bought is the glue."

He worked on each project for years, without drawing the scenes first or looking at photographs. "It takes a lot of patience," he said. "It's a tedious operation; it can't be done very quickly."

Sunderland donated the dioramas in January, and King since had the curved-top Plexiglas cases built to protect the delicate works. The curved tops prevent reflective glare from the lights, King said.

Two of the scenes are near the Crab Shanty's front door, and two are near the bathrooms. A farmhouse scene up front shows a weathered building with a stone wall, brick driveway and tiny telephone poles carefully strung together with bits of wire. The other farmhouse scene, near the bathroom, has a wishing well complete with a small bucket and handle, a rusted tin roof and details such as a miniature ax embedded in a thumbnail-sized tree stump.

Sunderland said the two agricultural scenes show the fading family farms of western Maryland. "The children, the young ones, moved out for employment and other opportunities," he said.

The other two scenes are of the water. One is a shrimp boat and the other, appropriately enough, is a crab shanty.

"I can't tell you how much we love these things," said Donna Gozik, a manager at the restaurant. "They found a happy home here."

Sunderland was born in East Baltimore in 1915 and joined the Marine Corps at age 18, he said. He became an officer in the Coast Guard and served overseas in World War II. When he returned to the United States from the South Pacific, he became captain of the White House police force, providing security during the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Asked if he had met each president, he said, "When you live in his house, you pretty much had to."

Sunderland moved from the Washington suburbs to Columbia about five years ago, he said. He has a daughter who lives in New Mexico.

As a young man, Sunderland used to build model airplanes. At about age 60, he switched to homemade dioramas. "I'm not trying to deliver any message," he said. "It's just something I like to do."

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