In April I took my 87 year old amazing mother on a trip to Kentucky… Yes, we did get to see a serious horse race at Keenland—including some of the horses that raced in the Derby, but that was not the reason for the trip! Ever since she was a small girl, she has been obsessed with miniature rooms—I’m talking museum quality miniature rooms—the kind that sweep you into a life you know nothing about and if you took a photo of one, you wouldn’t know which reality you were looking at—life-size or tiny. During mom’s life she created about 59 “room boxes” (as they are called in mini-circle groups and clubs). Fortunately I am the recipient of three of them and unfortunately she has macular degeneration, that she swears is genetic, but I know exactly how it manifested: staring for hours and hours at teeny tiny objects. Since I happen to love all things that are ethnic, she made me this Spanish-style casa. Note the concho belt hanging down from the chair near the hat and sandals? Mom made it out of aluminum foil. And the ristra (strand of red chili peppers) on the wall? The red peppers are tiny bits of paper painted with nail polish.
The art of making and collecting miniatures has been around for several hundred years but the fad swept through the US in the early 70’s. People were crazed with it and dollhouses and museums cropped up everywhere. One collector, Kaye Browning, started her collection some 40 years ago and it’s now housed at the Kentucky Gateway Museum in Maysville, KY—just south of the Ohio River, in what is supposedly THE most charming town in the whole US! (And indeed it is)!
I had never been on a trip with my mom—not since she was changing my diapers or driving me to school or some extra-curricular activity. And since it was her 87th birthday, and Mother’s Day, I decided to treat her to a short trip that focused on her interests. It was fun and truly fascinating—to learn more about her love of miniatures and being one of the few surviving women in her age group, I loved hearing her thoughts on family and life in general. I wish we had done more traveling together.
In some ways, this trip was a “thank you” for initiating one of my biggest passions, music. The first music assembly I had ever been to was hers. She sparked my interest, love and quest for musicality in everything I do. To this day, one of my most prized possessions and favorite guitars is the one she played at that assembly! Though it took me three summers of work to “pay it off,” I strum it with pride and fond memories of songs she once played, including our favorite- I Ride In Old Paint
Anyway, off we went to KY. We drove from Louisville through horse country and arrived in Maysville and the Gateway Museum to see the miniature collection. It was housed in it’s own wing. The focal point was an exact replica of The Spencer House in London, where Princess Diana grew up. Apparently Ms. Browning was so inspired after seeing it in person, that she commissioned two renowned miniature artists to recreate every room. If there was a huge gold gilded mirror on a wall of the Spencer House in London, you can be sure that the exact same mirror was reproduced perfectly only 3 inches in size– yet also gilded in real gold. If the chairs were hand-carved out of birch wood, inlaid with ivory, with needlepointed seats, they were that way in miniature! Tiny cabinets with tinier hinges and handles made from real brass opened and closed– and even locked with an even tinier key!
Have a look at the images above, and I will bet that you can’t tell the difference between the real Spencer House and the miniatures. The collection Kaye Browning has amassed over the years is simply mind-boggling. Each piece is one-of-a-kind and many miniature artists throughout the world have created these incredible replicas of inlaid wood, tile, ceramic pieces and even silver– all in miniature. We marveled as we stared through a magnifying glass at an “ugly Christmas sweater someone had knitted using surgical wire for needles! And we were both stunned and amazed. I knew nothing of this small magnificent world. Yet Kaye Browning often purchases her miniatures at auctions, and guess who often bets against her? The Emir of Qatar!
It’s hard to understand how anyone could have the patience, eyesight and ability to create such treasures and works of art—especially since few people ever see them. And naturally, just like other art forms, the houses and room boxes we saw were made by true masters in their field.
We fell in love with one master’s works: a woman named LaVerne Sullivan. Her room boxes were titled and full of humor. The one below was called “Time Out for the Soaps” (as in Soap Operas Pre TV). Note the pink radio on the kitchen table and if only you could see the pared potatoes in the kitchen sink, you might start obsessing about miniatures too.
Her other one was called “Bed Bath and Breakfast” and it’s a room box full of teeny tiny birdhouses- complete with a fountain, robin’s nest with eggs and minute butterflies hanging by a spider’s web!