The little things
Local artists create miniature masterpieces.
In this big world, it’s easy to become captivated by large-scale art. Statues that shoot into the sky, murals that cover entire buildings and art installations that take up city blocks seem to be the norm. But bigger isn’t always better. There are many Tulsa artists whose interests take a more microscopic view of the world, delving into the details of everyday life with whimsy and flair; with poignancy and proficiency. Here are just a few of the artists who prove that the little things really do matter.
When Terra Tyler took a knitting class over a decade ago, it was just a hobby, something to keep her hands busy while pregnant with her second daughter. Today, she’s a certified knitting and crochet instructor who has discovered a tiny niche of her own.
“As my daughters got older, I wanted to teach them what I had learned,” Tyler says. “And because I have two girls, everything in our house is cuter if it’s miniature. That’s when I noticed amigurumi.”
Amigurumi is an art form originating in Japan in which tiny creatures and characters are crocheted or knitted into 3-D characters, then stuffed with polyfill to give them girth. Tyler created her first one as a gift for a family friend, and soon realized the art form had endless applications.
“I also tutor and teach, so when my kids were learning about fungi, of course I had to knit a mushroom and then tell them really corny mushroom jokes,” Tyler says. The diminutive fungus is no more than 2 inches tall, with a white stalk, bright red head, and tiny eyes to give it life. This was only the beginning for Tyler. Her collection now includes tiny pickles, cacti, telephones, rainbows, pencils, mermaids, honeybees and pizza slices.
“I started designing my own projects,” she says. “I’m inspired by those weird, crazy holidays. Like for National Popcorn Day, I made little buckets of popcorn for my girls. Each kernel has eyes, of course. They have to have a personality.”
The miniature creatures have become Tyler’s gift-giving goldmine, providing a sea of silly yet sentimental inspiration for every occasion.
“Because we’re a little bit corny in our house, I will draw a little picture or a note of encouragement to go along with the character,” Tyler says. “On Valentine’s Day I made my girls little gifts. I found some cute vintage Valentine’s Day cards, so I knitted creatures to match. I made one that said, ‘You’re a-maize-ing,’ with a little knitted corn cob with eyes. Another once said, ‘I lava you very much,’ with a tiny volcano. My husband was really getting tired of it ... He was like, ‘That’s enough, Terra. We get it. Just stop with the puns.’”
But the puns continue unabated in the homeschool group she tutors and instructs. “My students always give me gifts and say things like, ‘You’re a yarn good teacher.’ They’re really silly about it because they know I like to do this stuff.”
To make these tiny textiles takes a little patience, though Tyler tries not to time herself. This particular art form has its own set of difficulties compared to knitting or crocheting a scarf or blanket.
“Because it’s on a smaller scale, it can sometimes be harder for people; but if you can knit socks, you can knit something like this,” Tyler says. “However, if all you know how to knit is a scarf or hat, then this may be a bit different. Some people are not comfortable using multiple needles. And some people have trouble with the smaller needles because it’s difficult to see the stitches.”
Tyler also designs and knits more common projects, like scarves and gloves, but she has found that her work with tiny items can be very gratifying.
“It amazes me that something so tiny can have a lot of depth and meaning, even though it’s small,” Tyler says. “The smaller things really get your attention sometimes.”
To find patterns or learn about Tyler’s other creations, visit knittingwithterra.com.
Sarah Bowen took her first tiny steps toward her big idea in December 2013. She has always been artistically inclined and attracted to whimsical, offbeat subjects.
“I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, and I remember I’d draw pizzas obsessively,” Bowen says. “I would show them to my parents like, ‘Mom, look! This is a pepperoni pizza, this is sausage.’ They still talk about it.”
The dainty treasures of the world have always captured Bowen’s imagination, and she notices the extraordinary among the ordinary.
“I was one of those kids who gravitated to anything tiny,” she says. “Ridiculous little things that others probably thought were trash, like a tiny acorn or something. I just thought it was so cool.”
Throughout high school, she continued to try new mediums — charcoal, pencil, pastel, painting, screen printing — but working with polymer clay “just stuck.”
Her first time to play with polymer clay, or oven-bake clay, led her to her first muse: tiny gnomes. The prototype was meant to be a gift for a friend, but the character took on a life of its own.
“The medium (polymer clay) really suits the size,” Bowen says. “The first one I did turned out squishy, but I got better at them. Friends and family loved them and encouraged me to show and sell my art at the 2014 Blue Dome Arts Festival. That’s when Tiny Things by Bowen was born.
Bowen began showing in more festivals, but it was Tulsa’s 2015 Wizard World Comic Con — an extravaganza where fans can meet and dress up like their favorite comic book or video game heroes — that expanded her purview to include “nerdier” subject matter. Using neodymium magnets — strong, rare-earth magnets — she created tiny replicas that resonated with Comic Con fans.
“I started out doing a lot of nerdy stuff, recreating pictures, cartoon characters and video games because it played to the Comic Con crowd,” she says. “It’s really great to bond with the kids who know all the characters — likely because their parents are nerds, too.”
Now, art fans are eating up her miniature food magnets. Measuring maybe an inch, these tiny tacos, burgers, pizzas, macarons and breakfast foods have become a popular commodity for all audiences. Constructing these popular magnets requires one-part creative brainstorming, one-part technique.
“I don’t use any molds,” Bowen says. “Everything is individually hand molded. For the prototypes, it usually takes me three tries until I like it. Once I get to that point, I can usually make six to 10 maybe in an hour, depending on how intricate they are.” She uses a tiny toaster oven in her studio to bake the finished pieces.
Bowen spends the majority of her year as a sign language interpreter at Tulsa Public Schools, but during the summer she’s a full-time artist. Perhaps it is her interaction with her students and her fans that keeps her inspired.
“A lot of my ideas come from the stuff I enjoy,” she says. “I love a lot of Japanese cartoons and the cartoon ‘Adventure Time.’ It’s a little weird, I know. But I’m an adult, and I love cartoons.”
Though she still makes tiny food, her latest project hits closer to home. Her “Oklahoma Landmark” series features tiny magnets in the shape of Oklahoma and other Sooner State motifs, like a bison, scissortail flycatcher, downtown Tulsa buildings and the Blue Whale. These special Okie-themed magnets are stocked at the Art Deco Museum and Ida Red. She also has started offering polymer clay parties, where she teaches students how to create two projects.
To find out more, visit tinythingsbybowen.com.
Miniature drawings captured the imagination of a young Merlin Little Thunder in grade school. Always sketching or painting, Little Thunder found his niche in an unlikely location.
“Back when I was a kid drawing pictures, Webster’s Dictionary had all these really intricate illustrations along with the definitions,” he says. “I’d take that dictionary and reproduce all those illustrations to the best of my ability, however close I could get it. It just stuck with me.”
The young Little Thunder was attracted to the small, detailed drawings for their “rhythm” and intricacy. These illustrations informed his understanding of the diminutive medium.
“Miniature art pieces have to flash at you,” he says. “They have to draw you in and hold your attention. Basically, they have to do more than a larger painting.”
He started creating miniature art — some no larger than 2-by-2-inches, up to 4-by-6- inches — in earnest in 1980 and never looked back. When he started doing miniatures in acrylic, they featured mostly stereotypical art and subject matter. But Little Thunder wanted to create a big impact with his tiny portraits.
“People liked what I was doing and it was getting me by,” he says. “Pretty soon, though, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to have more substance in my paintings. I wanted a narrative. I wanted this little painting to say something. I wanted to speak to people and record a piece of history.”
Little Thunder grew up in northwest Oklahoma, steeped in the rich stories and culture of the Southern Cheyenne. In 1975 he began focusing on Native American art especially from the early 19th and 20th centuries.
Listening to the stories of older tribe members talk about their experiences made his imagination go wild. “I wanted to portray what really happened and how people lived,” Little Thunder says.
The men in his community noticed his artistic abilities, too, and wanted to ensure Little Thunder fully understood the lives and culture he was depicting. “They gave me audience and said, ‘Listen here, now. There are a lot of artists doing paintings of Native American subject matter; but it doesn’t have meaning.’ I didn’t want my art to be like that,” Little Thunder says.
So, he researched and learned the deeper meaning behind the symbols and stories of his culture, making sure the images and scenarios he depicted were done with respect and authenticity.
His art has won awards since he began, but really started getting attention in 1986. He found his art in the national spotlight when Southwestern Art magazine profiled him. “I painted under the radar until probably ’86-’87,” he says. “But you take a step backward when you hit the national spotlight. You have to reassess your path and try to figure out what’s next. It takes you by surprise.”
Little Thunder has continued to paint and gain accolades through the years, showing in galleries from coast-to-coast, and selling most of his work to collectors and as commissioned pieces. “The thing with miniatures is that no one can use that excuse that they don’t have any wall space,” he laughs.
Though they are tiny, one painting can take up to eight months to complete. “People oftentimes think that miniatures, because they are small, can be done quickly. But the first couple of weeks are what I characterize as ‘problem solving.’ It needs to have a rhythm, a pattern.”
See and purchase Little Thunder’s art at the upcoming “Small Works, Great Wonders” show Nov. 10-26 at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. For more information, visit merlinlittlethunder.com.
For as long as they can remember, husband and wife Harry and Sammy Wolohon have had an affection for model trains.
“When I was a child, my dad brought a train home for Christmas after the war and put it under the tree,” Harry says. “I guess I was 5 or 6. It was just a toy at first, but it turned into something more later on.”
Sammy’s love for trains also was imparted by her father. “We lived in Oklahoma City, and my dad would drive us and park behind the Borden’s manufacturing plant where the Santa Fe train would pass. We would watch that train every evening.”
When Harry and Sammy married, they both had their own trains, and each year the collection would grow as they bought trains for their children and, later, their grandchildren. These days, they have moved on from simple indoor setups to more elaborate outdoor railroad landscapes.
Garden Trains, sometimes called G-Scale Trains, are the larger of the model trains. The Wolohons’ sets are 1:24 ratio electric or battery powered. By using their own backyard, they combine a passion for railroading with their interest in gardening.
At one point, Harry purchased several trains at a going-out-of-business sale, but they sat in a closet for 15 years. He found a place for them and sought out the Tulsa Garden Railroad Club to learn more about the hobby.
The idea behind these elaborate garden railroads is to mimic not just a particular town or landscape, but also an era. “The garden club typically produces layouts, so they are prototypical, meaning they try to reproduce in miniature what a train and a town would look like,” Harry explains. “It takes into consideration engineering, constructing buildings, putting a water feature in a garden layout. Again, there are a number of skills that you can call on to put into your railroad.”
Each member has a different vision, and when it comes to creating your own layout, the possibilities are endless, he says.
“You can either build a large garden train consisting of 2,000 feet of track or a smaller track that goes around a tree,” Sammy says. “Some people do different eras. Some do the ’50s, some the 1800s; some just Western towns, while others have a mixture.”
The Wolohons’ setup recreates the 1950s, which gives them some flexibility. “A 1950s town can have contemporary buildings and have the older buildings that still exist, so you can have a mixture,” Sammy says.
The Garden Railroad Club regularly hosts speakers and member lectures to demonstrate new tricks of the trade, like how to build life-like adobe houses or find new uses for water features. The club meets once a month and often takes modular model trains to veterans’ centers and children’s hospitals, in addition to contests and events. Each member has their own interests and is drawn to trains for different reasons.
“The club members have all different types of trains: locomotives, steam engines, diesels, contemporary ones,” Sammy says. “One guy has a 50-car military train with all the tanks.”
This July, the National Garden Railway Conference was held at Tulsa’s Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center. It was the first time the convention has been held in Oklahoma. VisitTulsa helped Tulsa Garden Railroad Club bring the convention to town.
As with most creative pursuits, the Wolohols consider theirs a work in progress. “You’re never finished,” Harry says. “You can really create your own world.”
For more on the Tulsa Garden Railroad Club, visit tulsagardenrailroadclub.com.
Carlyn Ritter hasn’t always been a doll artist. Though always fascinated by marionettes and miniature versions of real-life characters, it wasn’t until later in life she started pulling her own strings.
“I loved ‘Pinocchio’ and all the wonderful things that Disney threw out there for us to look at when we were little,” Ritter says. “I’ve always had an interest in marionettes, but it was about 25 years ago while healing from a hip replacement that I made my first doll.”
Later, Ritter’s involvement in the Tulsa Herb Society gave her the opportunity to really let her inner puppeteer come to life. The group put on garden marionette shows for kids. Ritter put five years of work into building her own “troupe” of seven marionettes fashioned from gourds. She even wrote the music.
“Marionettes are pretty complicated to make and I was self-taught,” Ritter says. “But I loved the process.”
Later, she upped the ante and learned how to carve wood, then moved on to working with clay. From there, the sky was the limit. “I made cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, all kinds of animals,” she says. The recent one I made I call ‘Scaredy Girl and the Big Bad Wolf.’ I also have a small Groucho Marx and other movie stars.
“I’m a little weird,” she laughs. “Whatever the occasion is, I can probably come up with a character.”
Because marionette making is more tedious, Ritter has turned her attention to making dolls. “Marionettes are time-consuming and are hard to string,” she says. “I occasionally make a marionette because I really don’t want that art form to die. But, dolls I make more often.”
And these aren’t just your run-of-the-mill cloth dolls. They are constructed more like a sculpture or piece of 3-D art. She uses materials like cloth, paper clay, polymer clay and epoxy clay. One of Ritter’s more striking pieces is a cricket, decked out in a tux and tails, playing a violin. It looks like it danced off a movie screen.
“The cricket was made from paper clay, wire armature and cloth,” Ritter says. It was her entry into a contest put on by Art Doll Quarterly magazine, which challenged doll artists to create a doll with anthropomorphic qualities, meaning human-like traits given to something distinctly non-human. “It came from an artist’s picture I saw, so I asked if he would mind if I made a doll using his work. He was thrilled,” Ritter says.
Ritter is an avid member of the Tulsa Art Doll Association (TADA), a group that meets regularly at the Hardesty Regional Library. The group brings in other dollmakers from all over the country to show them new techniques and styles. It’s an all-ages group, and Ritter hopes it will grow. Ritter also has another wish for a fun addition to the new park being constructed along Riverside, A Gathering Place.
“At New York’s Central Park there is a place called the Swedish Cottage where they perform marionette shows,” she says. “I think it would be so cool if we had some kind of small puppet stage so children could enjoy puppet shows.”
Artistic dolls and some marionettes created by TADA members will be featured in an October show at the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center. In December, some items will be on display and available for purchase at the Tulsa Artery.