Earlier this year I discovered that action figure photography is a thing.
Like, a huge thing. There are all these groups on Instagram of guys – it’s only guys, as far as I can tell – taking serious photos of their 6″ (dollhouse) scale action figures. As the toy photography culture has grown, props for it have also become a thing. And a company called Extreme-Sets (which tells you a lot about the dudebro culture of the toy photo groups) has emerged, creating pop-up cardboard sets for your action figure photo shoots.
When they came out with a subway station that had a NYC subway map and a subway car that looked like a classic NY car, I knew I had to have them.
Look at this, you can practically hear Electro saying “Ayy, whaddaya whaddaya?”
But shipping was ruinously expensive. Lucky for me, some friend-muse-patrons were coming to Berlin for Thanksgiving!
Once I opened my new sets, I set about kitbashing them. Kitbashing is a term from the model car world, I believe, that I learned after it found its way into dollhouse culture.
My dollhouse, for example, is a radical kitbash of a standard dollhouse kit.
I trimmed down some elements of the Extreme-Sets station and changed their proportions so it would feel truer to an 80s’-era station.
I customized my station by cutting the panels apart and melding them back together in new forms. That way I could feature the subway map and have the parts of the panels I liked best clearly displayed.
I added a poster for the original Terminator movie. It’s 1984 in my subway station.
I mounted the panels on the deconstructed interior of the IKEA door modules on the bottom center cubbies of my dollhouse, using carpet tape. I spackled the grooves where the panels met and colored the spackle to match.
Then I tagged the station and the train car with the tags of my 80s graffiti writer boyfriends and people I knew back in the day, and my own tag, with my crew, Acid Writers. I posted what I was working on Instagram, with the hashtag “AcidWriters”. It showed up as an official hashtag, so I browsed through the images, and saw people I recognized.
That’s when I found out another one of my boyfriends from the 80s was dead.
We had a high-risk lifestyle. I don’t know why I had expected he’d be alive. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about what he was doing in many years. There’s so much grief and loss from those days; I don’t borrow trouble. Matt was drinking hard by the time he was twelve.
Making art, and my dollhouse in particular, is a way of processing grief and turning it into tribute.
Berlin is a recursive, palimpsest city, drilled down deep into the underworld, like New York.It seems completely right to build a tunnel to the past under my dollhouse here, a secret shrine with coded messages.
Stories are the immortality of love, and telling my stories are my tribute to the dead.
I’ve been working on several bug bricolage projects this month. Here are two finished ones!
The copper paperart cricket seen here was a birthday gift in my forties from the incredible artist and sculptor Aimee Baldwin. I made him this carriage to ride in out of a gilt carriage I got on eBay. Then I made a harness for a metal grasshopper I ordered from some online discounter.
I had this vision before we left the US of an insect-based version of the classic Golden Jubilee or coronation coach models. In my mind’s eye I saw it in our new home, one of the lamps that guided me through the terrors and trials of the move.
I don’t know why it felt so important to me to make this weird thing; I never do.
I had a lot of miniature horse saddlery supplies and thin metallic leather left over from my Snow Queen project.
I had little buckles, silver leather straps and silver cord. It could not go to waste! I covered the side panels of the coach, which were white, with a variety of fine silver leathers and cording trim. Silver rhinestuds added detail. I used antique silver color filigree jewelry findings to tip the ends of the carriage shafts so they fit the grasshopper better. (They still look a little dark, Imma brush them with silver paint to blend them in better just took my silver Sharpie and fixed ’em.)
I made a little silver leather seat pillow with cord trim and scrapbooking brads for the upholstery button-tufting, and filled it with microbeads which work better than any fluffy filling on dollhouse or mini scale.
I made the harness out of silver leather straps. Some of them were silver on the tops but white on the sides, so I colored the sides with a fine-point silver Sharpie. It worked great!
When you have all your tools readily to hand it’s so easy to take care of the details!
The new jewel bug shadowbox is lined with green dragonfly brocade scraps left over from a corset made years ago by Mina LaFleur.
I buy the jewelled insect brooches on eBay using a simple system: they have to have free shipping and I will bid up to $2.00. If the bidding goes over $2, too bad. So it takes a while to accumulate a batch for a shadow box but after all it’s not like I’m in a hurry.
I’m working on slowly increasing the pink accents in the Gothic Rococo salon, so I searched specifically for pink bug brooches this time.
If the bug brooch arrives with any colors that don’t coordinate well, I tint the enamel or rhinestones with a colored Sharpie. Since they’re going to be in a box, it won’t rub off. I turned white areas pink and yellows to pale green for this one.
To attach the backing fabric to the board in the shadowbox I use UHU “Extra Allekleber”, my Germany dupe for my beloved Quik Grip (formerly Quik Grab). It’s an excellent adhesive for fabric to fabric or fabric to anything; it really lets you stretch and shape your fabric to a surface.
The brocade was wrinkled from years of storage but I didn’t bother to press it, just stretched it taut with my UHU. To attach the bugs to the backing board I always use a glue gun. I make little balls of tin foil and attach them to the backs of the bug pins to keep them level. They hide neatly behind wings and keep the brooches stable.
I am amazing, and amazed by myself! Jadis, The White Witch, The Snow Queen, the Ice Queen, as I always imagined her. She, her reindeer and her sledge, all done! Isn’t she lovely and evil?
I’d been wanting to make a doll like the White Witch since the early 90s in St. Paul. When I lived there I saw a teacup fairy by Stephanie Blythe and Susan Snodgrass at fancy shop in Summit Hill.
The delicacy, the precision, the tiny, tiny crystals- there was something about it that moved me deeply.
I had no idea you could get such tiny materials. The thought of handling such tiny things was exhilarating to me. I imagined I could make tiny dolls of characters I loved. I could make a tiny world.
I was still waiting to start my dollhouse back then, still holding a space for that project open in my future.
I didn’t want to open the door to even more collecting and supply hoarding madness, I didn’t dare try such things myself, but I bought some porcelain doll parts and kept them.
I held my love for the teacup fairy in my heart, held the space for those tiny crystals dotting her bodice in my mind, setting the image gently in my mental room for miniature art.
Every time I moved, I packed my craft materials. My porcelain doll heads and limbs, my ever-growing collection of wired ribbon and metallic organza and silver cord and microbeads and glitter, traveled from St. Paul to Hartford to DC to Arlington to Alameda to Albany to Berkeley to North Berkeley to Albany to Glenview to West O to Oakland.
In Berkeley in 2000 I began building my dollhouse at last and collecting 1/12th scale action figures.
I subscribed to miniature magazines and went to miniature shows.
my first polymer clay OOAK doll by Suzanne Forbes 2011
I scoured the internet for methods, materials and supplies. And at our little Craftsman flat in Oakland in 2011, I finished my dollhouse and startedmaking dolls.
I started my Snow Queen project in 2013.
I had been home to New York for holidays with my husband’s family and I had just seen snow for the first time in fifteen years. On a magical Christmas Eve we went to church in Freehold, New Jersey and when we came out delicate flakes were falling.
The night before In the city I’d stood at the rail of the skating rink in Bryant Park; a tween wiped out on the ice and came up laughing, clapping his cold hands over mine.
I fell in love with the cold again, the way the stars get lean in a winter sky and the way everything is so sharp.
I remembered the way I loved the cold in WInter’s Tale, the way fresh snow muffled my footsteps when I walked through a silent Chinatown morning to buy heroin on New Year’s Day in 1989, the sparkling lavender twilight of an April snowfall at the treatment center in St. Paul.
In the dark California January I drove to Michael’s and JoAnn Fabrics and Beverlys and bought bags full of 90% off Christmas decor. Icicles and glitter snow and white fur and pale iridescent sequins.
I ordered Swarovski crystals in colors like Silver Shadow, Moonlight and Opal. I discovered the amazing doll supplier MorezMore. I ordered nail decals of flocked snowflakes from China and Ball-jointed Doll clothing buckles from Taiwan. I bought pearlescent microbeads and fusible fairy films.
I learned the sizes Swarovski crystals come in, and where to get the very tiniest.
I made the sledge first. The sledge is made of three different plastic Christmas ornament sleighs, some pvc holiday ornament pieces, polystyrene sheets and strips, clear polythene sheeting, crazy glue and balsa wood.
It’s all stuck together with epoxy clay, polished and sanded smooth. The shafts are the bow pieces of dollar sunglasses!
I got so many materials in the basement of Ace Hardware in Berkeley, in the huge model and railroad hobby section. I’d lean on the counter and talk techniques with the guys there for hours.
I primed the sledge with Krylon Primer for Plastics. You can read about my adventures with priming mixed plastics here and here. Then I spray-painted it with four shades of Tamiya pearl and flake model car paints, one of the most fascinating rabbit holes of materials I went down.
I spent a lot of time on model car boards, reading about how to avoid the dread “orange peel effect” and how to clear coat.
Our back steps were my spray room, and the California drought of those years was a huge asset, I gotta admit.
I used crazy glue and Zap-A-Gap to bond the styrene, plastic and balsa elements.
I used a Japanese product called Sakura 3D Crystal Lacquer, which is used by Lolis and Harajuki girls to adhere bling, aka “decoden”, to their phones, to attach a lot of the sledge decor.
The sledge is decorated with hundreds of the very, very tiniest Swarovski crystals, some smaller than the head of a pin, laboriously applied while watching all seven (at the time) seasons of Supernatural (twice!) and tiny, tiny flocked and glittered snowflake nail art decals. And upholstered with silver velvet, button-tufted using pretty antique silver scrapbook art brads and quilt batting over cardstock. I glued the velvet to the cardstock with my beloved Quick Grip/Quick Grab, which is my absolute favorite for small textile work.
As any burner or steampunk can tell you, assemblage art lives or dies by its adhesives.
The reindeer is made of a cellulose acetate reindeer from the ’50s, legs sawed off and replaced with new sculpts, and head, body and neck heavily re-sculpted.
This kind of Frankensteining is a classic action figure customizing technique; the materials and techniques for creating the miniature harness come from the model horse customizing community, and the handling of the mohair mane from the dollmaking world.
(I’m allergic to mohair, like wool, it turns out.)
I also used the 3D Crystal to get a clear dome over the reindeer’s eyes and a gloss of mucus in his nostrils. The flocking on his ears is nail artist’s flock- much cheaper than the art store!
The tiny silver leather strips for the harness came mostly from a handbag making supply company in Los Angeles; I found it on etsy. I bought many different silver cords and strings at a passementarie shop in the New York Garment district during my second trip back East for the holidays. And for four years I saved every single piece of silver stuff I got, from silver elastic on dress tags to silver pvc on packaging.
Then I had to make a Snow Queen figure!
I was totally ok with customizing an existing figure; my many hundred hours on action figure boards has made me very comfortable with the idea of remixing sculpture.
I would never, ever, ever copy another artist’s drawing or painting- or even their style- or use elements of someone else’s drawing or photograph in one of my drawings or paintings. I just don’t do that.
But sculpture is play to me, something I do for pleasure. I like the idea that assemblage art incorporates existing elements. And dollmakers commonly use finished porcelains from well-known sculptor to paint and dress. It’s a medium where collaboration is normal.
So ultimately I decided to use the top of a commercial resin mermaid and the legs of a resin fairy to build my Snow Queen.
I sawed and sanded as needed, then fit the two halves together, and then I used epoxy clay to bulk out her body. Because I love muscle on women’s shoulders, and a big butt, aesthetically! I left her ribcage and waist slim because they would have layers of tiny fabric corseting on them.
And she needed boobs too, sculpted to fit in a square Elizabethan type bodice. Then I had to completely resculpt her face, to give her the strength and archness she needed.
And I needed to bulk up her thighs and sculpt boots on her feet. And lengthen her fingers. And sand off and resculpt her ears. I think she was resculpted, primed and sanded about ten times altogether. Her final finish was partly achieved with Mr. Surfacer priming medium, which i learned about from Daria’s dollmaking. Daria is streets more advanced than my crazy haphazardness!
By December of this year, my Jadis was close to finished at last.
I got the project box I brought over in the shipping container out, intending to paint and dress her.
But I got nervous about working on the project suddenly and instead I used up some of the extra materials in the project box making Fearless Pink Gay Santa and his Jolly Ally Reindeer. Which came out great! And I used the fusible fairy film and it was super cool!
Yes, she was. Because even though it was now April, and she was no longer seasonal, I had just finished my leafy green beaded Swamp Thing corset (reveal soon!), the second to last of the projects I brought from Oakland.
I really wanted to knock out the last unfinished thing and get rid of the last “project box”. So I can start all my new Berlin projects!
With that thought in mind, I nerved myself up and just went for it. I used nail art brushes I bought for 1€ to paint her face because I didn’t want to buy expensive tiny brushes. I’d never painted anything tiny before and didn’t know if I’d like it. But it went great! And I love her snotty smug 80s made-up face! She looks like Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth and Mia Sara in Legend, right?
Wigging and dressing her was easy, after that; Daria gave me a personal doll-wigging workshop last year and I have made so manytinycorsets now it’s NBD. And then she was, done, suddenly, after four years. In the green and glowing Spring, but so what? There will always be another Winter. She will look beautiful in the dark winter nights.
I’ve learned to trust the process with making art; I finish most things when it’s time for them to be finished.
What I’m saying here is, it’s okay to have a long game as an artist. In fact, the long game is pretty much the only game in town for most of us.