Little houses, big dreams

Fans of miniatures to mark dollhouse month

October 05, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the Sun

Sara Cross Douglas creates dream homes.

Her creations are decorated with the finest furnishings, and some have walls that contain hand-painted murals. On the outside are gazebos, elaborate gardens and fully stocked sheds.

"My own house might be in disarray, but these houses don't have one item out of place," said the 78-year-old Timonium resident. "People would love to live in any of them."

If they weren't less than 2 feet tall.

The houses are miniature structures that Douglas creates and collects. This month, to mark International Dollhouse and Miniature Month, Douglas and other miniature enthusiasts will hold an exhibit of about 100 pieces of their work at the Historical Society of Baltimore County.

Carol Ann Frost, a retired programmer for the Social Security Administration who has been making miniatures of some sort for most of her life, will display her work at the exhibition.

"Creating miniatures is about creating an environment or a setting," she said. "It involves a lot of different skills ... woodworking, working with clay, sewing, and a lot of others."

The exhibition is scheduled for noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 27 at the historical society, 9811 Van Buren Lane in Cockeysville.

Douglas, president of the Maryland Miniatures Unlimited, a chapter of the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts, started building houses when she was 6, she said. She was ill, and as she recovered she built a cardboard house to pass the time, she said. Then she took art classes and visited museums in the Baltimore area.

About 30 years ago, a friend took her to a shop in Annapolis that was packed with items for dollhouses, she said. She found the items to be very expensive -- a small Christmas tree cost $25 -- and she decided to try her hand at making trees, she said.

Using chenille stems and other decorative items, she created a tree that she sold for $10. She was hooked. She made the trees, and had more orders than she could handle. she said.

"I retired from my job," said Douglas who worked as a radiologic technologist. "And I worked full time to create the miniature trees."

Once her children went to college, she traveled to Chicago with her husband, Paul. While he worked, she spent her days perusing the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, she said. The visits became a tradition when she went to Chicago. During each trip, she would spend a day studying the detail of the rooms.

She joined the Guild of Miniature Artisans, and later was a charter member of the Maryland-based group, she said.

About that same time, she attended workshops in Castine, Maine, and Williamsburg, Va. In Maine, she spent a week attending workshops and creating miniatures. In Williamsburg, she met with curators of the museums and spent a weekend making a replica of an antique, she said.

"I developed an appreciation of architecture, folk art and the way things are made," she said.

She was also drawn to the craft because of the detail of the houses and the small size of the items that are used to complete them, she said. The items are made in scale sizes: one-quarter, one-half and 1 inch can represent a foot, she said.

On a recent morning, she showed some of her most prized creations.

A desk that Douglas hand-painted depicts the Washington Monument on the top, and the Hampton Mansion and the Chesapeake Bay on the sides. Other items include flower pots and decoy carvings. Over the years, she created several types of houses, including rowhouses in East Baltimore, she said. The idea to create the rowhouses came from William Octavec, a Baltimore miniaturist who discovered the process for screen painting, she said.

"Only a few Baltimoreans have learned the technique from Octavec," she said. "I could never be in the same league that he was in. ... His work was just wonderful."

Miniatures are featured on local and regional television shows, workshops, and conventions, she said. Also there are museums with rooms dedicated to the art form, as well as a large number of shops around the world that sell items for the houses. And in past years, working-class people used miniatures to teach their children trades and skills using miniature settings, Douglas said.

"Miniatures are representational of an era or a certain house," she said. "As we make our pieces, we learn things such as history, and how furniture and houses are constructed.

"Making miniatures captivates you. For me, it's the smallness of it. ... and the challenges that are involved with working with small items."

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