Small-Town Girl: Christina Brown Builds the 1:600-Scale Cities of Her Dreams
The following article is from the official Crafty Bastards Events Guide which you can pick up in this week's Washington City Paper on stands now.
By Kieca Mahoney
Just about all of us dream of making ourselves a home, of creating a domestic space that suits exactly who we are. Christina Brown’s dream, however, is a little more ambitious than most. “I’m so obsessed with log cabins, and I’m determined to build one in my lifetime,” she says. “And everyone looks at me like I’m crazy when I tell them I don’t want to use power tools or anything. I want to do it all with hand tools. I’m probably not physically capable, but I’m going to try.”
Until then, the 27-year-old Fredericksburg, Va., native contents herself with building on a somewhat smaller scale. Since 2008, she’s made more than 300 ceramic “shelf cities,” each composed of a dozen model buildings no taller than five-eighths of an inch. Every one is cut and detailed by hand, then glazed dull white and fired. Some are inspired by structures she remembers from childhood. Others are more purely imaginative. In either case, she says, “Coming up with a new house is like, Hmm, what are you? Or Who are you?”
Brown fell into making clay buildings while working on terrariums, hoping simply to create some accessories for her plantings. “I just went to Michaels and bought this cheap clay and was thinking, I hope this doesn’t fall apart in this wet terrarium, which it did. It was urban decay after a while, and people would call me like, ‘My house melted!’” Within a few months, Brown had mastered her materials, and earlier this year she left her job at a plant nursery to work on her craft full time. Her shelf cities have now found their way to Australia, Japan, and Sweden, among other countries.
Brown’s latest planned project, however, is a bit closer to home. It involves Kenmore, the Fredericksburg home of George Washington’s sister Betty Washington Lewis. “It has a brick wall around the outside of it, divoted in spots where the bricks are old and caved in, and I want to set [my houses] up in there,” she says. “Imagine a kid walking by and seeing that, and the mom being like, ‘Not yours!’ But it has this tag that says, ‘Finders keepers.’...I imagine these people quietly taking them and putting them in their pocket and bringing it out later, this exciting little thing.”
“It’s that that makes me like it,” Brown says of her work. “Not the thing itself, but the idea of discovery.”
In her home/studio, a charming house once owned by her grandmother, Brown talks about the importance of childlike wonder, imaginary architecture, and little plastic flagpole finials.
How do you make your buildings? I throw out a big slab and then use an X-Acto knife to cut the rough shapes. And then all my tools are, like, a bobby pin and a needle...The best tool I have is the little plastic finial off one of those little flags, for the window. It makes a perfect square. I used to use it attached to the flag still, but I finally went ahead and broke it off. I’ll probably die if I lose it.
What is it that makes you create these cities over and over? I get bored sometimes making the same ones over and over again, but I’ll make a lot of, you know, more unique ones for myself. Other people don’t tend to get those more interesting ones...Part of it, admittedly, is that I like it when people think I make cool things, so it’s a confidence booster. But yeah, I get lost in daydreaming a lot. I need that time to, I don’t know, think of things that don’t matter...I think about farms a lot. I want a farm more than anything. I plan it...Whichever one [my husband and I have] fallen in love with at the time, I plan every inch of it and where every tree and chicken will go.
Does rearranging the farm in your head help you plan your little cities? Well, that’s why I started making them, doing the terrariums. I was like, Wow, this is a little field; I need to have a house for it. So I tried to make a little farmhouse. And boy, was it terrible!...Because I had never done clay before. I took one class in school, and that was it, and I learned how to make pinch pots and things...I had a lot of trial and error, and I didn’t have a kiln for a long time.
Why are all the buildings white? At first it was just that’s all I had, but then as I added colors to it, I just haven’t been able to find the right mix yet...I’m exploring all different avenues with the colors. I just bought some washes to try to darken in the windows because that’s one thing I don’t like, that the details aren’t as obvious unless you are looking closely at it. But then I have to remind myself that [people looking closely is] what I want.
Do you have a whole mental history for each of these houses?
Basically, yeah. I have the one that I decided to call the Anchor Hold because in one of my favorite books, [Pilgrim at Tinker Creek], [Annie Dillard] talks about the captain having an anchor hold on the side of a cliff by the seashore...It’s not a house. It’s a little tiny hut that’s called an anchor hold, where they anchor themselves when they’re not at sea. And I thought that was the coolest concept...I have way too much fun naming houses. And I want people to know they have names, so recently I started making these little tiny tags and hand-writing the names, and I wrap them in tissue paper and then I wrap this little string with the tag, and I think it adds to it.
You’ve said that a sense of discovery is the most important part of your work. How do you encourage that? I think the best thing is, you didn’t buy it. You got it as a gift, and you don’t know what you are about to open, and now you’re opening all these individual ones. And each one is different, and you’re holding it close and looking at it, and it almost brings out the child in you...[For the Kenmore project], I thought about how do I sit across the street with a video camera and watch people? Because I want to watch people. I wish I could be there when people give them as gifts and see people’s faces, because I’ve never seen anyone unwrap it.
You’ve started making tiny boats as well as houses. Where did that idea come from? My dad doesn’t ever want gifts, but he told me I could gift him things that would be cool for his grandkids, when he gets grandkids...So I had the idea of building a really shallow bowl that has the houses and trees around the outside, and then I would make boats to go in it and they would float in the water...I imagine a kid peering up over the counter and seeing this awesome thing, and [my father would] actually let them touch it, where normally it would be “Don’t touch it. It’s breakable. Look with your eyes.” I really like the idea of appealing to kids, even though they aren’t going to be the ones buying it.
All images courtesy of the Crafty Bastards Vendor Gallery.