What Miniatures Can Reveal

Hoarder’s Porch by Amanda Kelly, 112th scale, 2021




You were expecting fairy houses? Look elsewhere. For her MFA thesis, Amanda Kelly has been miniaturizing hoards. Spinning wee vases on a tiny pottery wheel, carving bevels with tiny woodworking tools, painting minuscule, perfect letters with a two-haired brush. With surgical focus, she creates little worlds that render chaos safe. You can enter imaginatively, without piles and beams falling on you or mice scampering across your feet. You can look and think, appreciate the skill, maybe even empathize.

On Hoarder’s Porch, an ashtray the size of a pea holds tiny banded cigarettes. Others were ground out on the railing, near an empty beer can and what looks to be a not-quite-empty plastic bottle of sweet tea. A throw rug is tossed over the sagging banister. Seasons linger: a bright orange plastic jack o’lantern sits next to some candy canes and clay flowerpots with—peer inside—dried-up plants. The downspout is rotting, and dirt outlines the carved ridges of the spindles, several of which have crumbled under the weight of memory and neglect. Above a faded Astroturf welcome mat, an eviction notice is taped to the door. This is a house you would avert your eyes from, yet in this form, it fascinates.

The same is true of the UHaul truck, oil smudges on the side panel, and touches of rust on the tiny hubcap, license plate, and door hinge. The tire’s manufacturer is stamped into the rubber, and the traction ridges are a miracle of precision. You imagine the truck’s interior jampacked with memories, the stuff of someone’s life. And then you realize that the truck is towing, by a minuscule metal chain, a mahogany coffin. Memento mori. You can’t tow a UHaul to the grave. The treasured hoard, guarded with relentless ferocity, will be dispersed, most likely trashed.


You can’t tow a Uhaul to the grave, by Amanda Kelly, 118th scale, 2023


The coffin’s wood is carved, its decorative rods capped with brass finials. Ominous, grim—but again, fascinating. Pulling back from the near-trance of close examination, I see how brilliant this strategy is. Kelly grew up with a family member who hoarded compulsively, and she remembers panicked clean-ups (never ever really clean) for Christmas, and a recoil so deep she used to go through vats of sanitizer. She and her wife now live in a streamlined, contemporary home that lets her breathe easily. But the past still makes itself heard, washing her with compassion and a sense of urgency. Hoarding is “more than just the visible clutter,” she explains. “It’s a daily negotiation with the emotional layers” beneath the stockpile.

The rest of us just cannot look past the sheer magnitude of the stuff; we never reach those layers. But by miniaturizing, Kelly magnifies the significance of certain small objects, letting us see them as someone else would. By changing scale, she changes context—and the balance of power. Her work shifts our perspective, revealing what we would otherwise miss.

Miniatures can cast a spell, Steven Millhauser notes. Not because they are small; “smallness alone compels no necessary wonder.” But by miniaturizing something, the artist replicates, at a different scale, the original, and that discrepancy in size shocks us into attention. Then, the detail holds us. Without such mind-blowingly tedious work on the artist’s part, crafting all the wee refinements that make the thing feel real, we would glance and look away. But presented with all that rich data, that perfect mimicry of the big thing, we are rapt. Best of all—and this is the genius of using miniatures for this topic: “Unlike the gigantic, the miniature is without dread.”

Sculptor Claes Oldenburg goes big and leaves us grinning. He giantizes a cherry on the tip of a spoon, a badminton birdie, an electrical plug, making colossuses of our everyday objects to let us reflect on our own relationship with them. This work does the opposite, using subtle detail to let us peer into other lives. Kelly does not work with stark, bold, unmissable clarity; instead, she works in ways that are almost textual, so detailed they have to be carefully read. The effect seeps in, disturbing but, unlike the reality it demonstrates, never off-putting.

Her career began conventionally, with oil paintings that never felt like a full self-expression. Then she stumbled, with delight, into the world of miniatures. Here she could make art that was comprehensive for her and for the viewer, tackling a topic that loomed large by shrinking it down to size, ordering, and controlling it. Thus she took the overwhelming, misunderstood, dangerous compulsion of hoarding, something nobody ever quite comprehends, and made it approachable.

She is walking an emotional tightrope, trying not to glorify hoarding, or mock it, or demonize it. Trying not to hurt people she loves yet tells the truth. Every miniature scene is a different story, and they are often subtle, “not what you see on TV.” Goat Paths is a miniature room box inspired by the New York home of Homer and Langley Collyer. Time’s Up, Betty is a car she saw on a supermarket lot, “laden with trash and random purchases.” She started to wonder who lived in that car, imagining, from what she could make out, an elderly woman, piling up stuff as counterweight to her mental burdens. No doubt she feels she is “collecting”….

Kelly has thought hard about the distinction. Any hoard inevitably collects like items, simply by virtue of quantity. But they are not acquired with deliberate desire, to build a collection. Hoarding “is about hiding under all the stuff. You use it to cover up or to feel safe. Depression and lethargy tie in, too. And hoarding limits your life. It doesn’t have anything to do with the passion of collecting. It’s more of a trauma response.”

A lot of our relationship to objects has to do with memory, she continues. I think of those mnemonic tricks that have you associate abstract or random words with objects—our brain remembers objects, makes them repositories for our stories, our pain, our love, our joys. So if people do not trust their memory and are terrified of forgetting and need the past’s reassurance…they hang on to the object.

Will hoarding lessen or morph, I wonder, as younger generations move away from overconsumption, attaching more energy to experiences than to stuff, living in ways that will keep them unencumbered. The brain will need a new safety net. Or is that technology?

For the time being, objects act as extensions of the self. “It’s like ghosts,” Kelly remarks. “Even objects you get rid of linger in your memory.” And things weigh heavier to some people, just as emotions cut more deeply.

Kelly makes other sorts of art and other, more cheerful miniatures, like a birthday cake made from a teeny makeup sponge and painted with spackle, or her bed when she had COVID, littered with phone, food, distractions, totems of the outside world. She jokes with her friends that, though they are not millionaires, they could own a tiny Porsche or Eames chair….

But the hoarding miniatures come from pain, not desire. “My topic is a little heavy: I want to show reality,” she says. “Sometimes reality can be really hard. But by making it miniature, you don’t feel overwhelmed.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.