Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Miniature

Here's a picture of some amulaic stuff of mine. Not all the
bottles feel like amulets to me, but the smallest ones do.
No, M is not for Museum. Of course museums are an inspiration for the Museum of Joy, but I'll be getting to those when we hit W (which is for Wunderkammer, obviously). See, don't get me wrong; talking about alternate landscapes and dream worlds and mystical inner universes gets me fired up and all. But I can't in all honesty discuss the evolution of the most magical scenery in my mind without going all the way back to early childhood and my abiding, obsessive, frantic love of miniatures. Tiny things do something to most of us (who doesn't have at the very least a secret meltdown over a kitten in a teacup? and I mean a lot of people seem programmed to like babies, which I genuinely cannot understand at all) but there seems to be especially a power associated with miniature things - by which I mean scaled-down versions of life-size stuff, not things that are naturally diminutive - that I can only call amulaic.

Amulaic is a word that I apparently made up. As proof of this, I submit that the first four google search results for it are 1) a review of a 438-page book called The Ends of the Earth, 2) an Etsy listing for a hippy bag with a felted spiral patch on it, 3) a record of an email chain about the shape of the fingers during a certain Jewish blessing, and 4) a post on this blog that vanished when I revamped it. It has a very simple meaning, which is functioning as an amulet. Something that has amulaic powers serves as an amulet, whether it's a tiny china seal (the first amulaic item I remember) or your lucky rabbit's foot (does anyone even have those any more? I feel everyone I know would despise me for even acknowledging that that's a thing.)

What makes a miniature amulaic, and how does it work, and why should you care? Well, I'm glad you asked...
Assorted milagros. Via Zanzibar Trading Co. (Click for
some neat info on the use and meanings of milagros!)
What's an amulet for? As far as I'm concerned, an amulet is a small iconic thing that keeps you safe against harm. It is a talisman, a reassurance. It may be religiously affiliated, like a milagro charm or Zuni fetish, and it is often understood to have powers of both protection against evil and of healing (in case the evil gets through, I guess.) Amulets are pretty universal things - people all over the world and throughout history seem to like to have things they can keep close to them to keep them out of trouble - and the smallness of them is important. Although I don't think there's a technical definition that specifies size, we have an instinctive grasp of the word as having an intrinsic, well, graspability. It needs to be something you can have on your person, something you can easily touch. So the smallness is important for that, but also for another reason: density.

A medieval Jewish hamsa.
Via Zev Radovan's Bible Land Pictures.
A very high number of the things we think of and use as amulets derive from the natural world: milagros are mostly in the shapes of animals and parts of the body, and Zuni fetishes were originally just rocks that kinda looked vaguely like animals until people started getting fancy with the carving tools; the hamsa (aka the hand of Fatima, Mary, or Miriam, depending on who you ask), one of my own favorite amulaic charms, is in the shape of a hand; evil eye charms are usually, well, eye-shaped. Plenty of other cultures, both ancient and modern, make use of amulets in animal shapes, and who isn't totally sick of dopey gimcrack "ancient Egyptian" crap in the shape of eyes, beetles, and hybrid human-animal gods? Materials also often derive from nature - stone, bone, wood, and precious gems, usually at least a little altered by human hands, whether carved or wrapped or written upon. (Of course, amulets also come in the shape of houses, deities, musical instruments, and so on; even a word, written correctly, can have an amulaic power.) Why would this be? Well, I'm sure there are plenty of mystical reasons I could speculate upon, but one of them seems very simple: when you take a piece of something connected with the natural world, that is to say something with a vital force, and you shrink it down, somehow the amount of vital essence doesn't seem to shrink too. Rather, we often feel that it concentrates. So a tiny silver heart has all the power of a full-sized, living, beating heart, but when it's the size of your fingernail, whammo! suddenly it's not only just as potent but somehow more so, because there's this itty bitty thing containing an disproportionate amount of energy.

Now, before you roll your eyes at me for getting all New Age on ya, let's be honest: certain objects have a weird, compelling power to them. I don't mean charms, in the sense of cute things you hang on a bracelet or your grandpa's war medals or the adorable little bits of inlaid stone you can buy alongside a ten-dollar pouch of blue corn "spirit food" at upscale Santa Fe galleries. (Seriously, the reason this post isn't chock full of pictures of Zuni fetishes is because the only pictures I can find are of overpriced bears and owls that certainly do not serve any spiritual purpose other than coddling the longing for totemistic earth connections of a bunch of white ladies with overdone hair. Sorry bout that.) I don't mean objects we attach our own superstitions to, like our lucky unicorn eraser or special baseball cap. And I don't mean religious items like crosses or rosaries or Wiccan pentagrams or whatever. I mean objects that seem to hold a kind of deep and resonant story in them, that seem to have a voice and history of their own. Things with amulaic powers conjure up another world for us, one in which we have power over the darkness. They are a species of magical key.

This Persian astrolabe has a deeply amulaic feel for me:
intricate, useful, graspable, but also charged, somehow, with -
what? Via the American Museum of Natural History.
When I said they were iconic objects up above, I meant it: we pray to them. A cross is not like this. The cross is a symbol. You pray to what it stands for. But an amulet is itself the repository of power, and we acts like a small god in our pocket. Even if it invokes another deity in some way - whether it's been blessed, or has a prayer to someone on it - it is its own entity, and it bestows the protection. It's specific to each of us - what may be amulaic for me may not be so for you - but generally speaking, I would say that it would be tough to feel something as really amulaic if it was mass-produced, seemed cheap, or used shoddy materials. Somehow, it is important that there be a sense of labor involved, a feeling of the hands that were used to carve or shape or hammer out the thing we treat as the home of something unseen.Things that fit the bill emulate an aura, an indefinable quality I can't express more lucidly than by saying that movement, vitality, a spark of life, is awake and moving in it; it seems to know, to dream, to see.

Wedding cake made by Christina Beam, from our Etsy shop
Not all amulets are miniatures, and not all miniatures are amulets. When it comes to dollhouse miniatures, in fact, I would say that almost none of them have amulaic properties, for a variety of reasons - we don't ascribe much power to a chair or a stove, for example, even when it's very small, and somehow food (even the cutest or most delicious-looking) does seem to lose its vitality when we shrink it down (perhaps because it seems like not enough then, and there is nothing magical about that.) Dollhouse miniatures are simply small versions of ordinary things. Of course, sometimes they're wonderfully fancy; there have been a number of notable dollhouse castles, including this one being built by a friend of mine. But even so, a tiny working chandelier is still not much more than exactly that, no matter how many crystals you stick to it. Beautiful, delightful - but not an amulet. That's because it doesn't really do anything by itself. A tiny hatstand doesn't talk to us. A tiny hatstand complete with tiny hats and miniature umbrella bucket in a minute mudroom with a working door - that, though, that is doing something.

See? I'm not making this up.
Via Cotton Ridge Designs.
I fell in love with miniatures long before I can remember, and I had a massive collection of tiny things. When I was nine or ten I would await my monthly dollhouse catalog with bated breath and save my allowance and agonize for hours over what to buy - a single end table or a whole set of glass jars with real lids no larger than my thumbnail? Miniature mice for the kitchen or a set of toothbrushes the size of toothpick tips? Etcetera - and I spent more hours throughout my childhood playing with my dollhouse than probably anything else but sleeping. (Okay, maybe reading. But then again, quite possibly not.) Of course, miniatures are a huge hobby for adults as well as children, and for many of us, the crazy hunger for the tiny never dies. I have a theory about this, and yes, it relates to museums, and to amulets, too. It's pretty simple:

We need to feel that there is a magical order to the universe.

One of Christina's dollhouses.
Amulets help assure us of this. How, exactly? I'm not exactly sure, actually. I just feel it. In a universe where there is a kind of harmony and resonance among things, amulets just fit. Maybe it's the sense of honoring matter, of seeing bone and stone as carriers of power, and in a way giving them worship by shaping them into special sacred objects. I've actually never thought about this before. But museums definitely do this for us: they give a sense of shape and order to the cosmos by placing things side by side, by inverting the alchemical maxim as above, so below to be as below (here in the careful choreography of the collection), so above (out there in the world). Well, that's precisely what dollhouses do, too. When we play with miniatures, at whatever age, we're not being world-builders (the way I certainly was with, say, Legos or blocks) - we're being world-orderers. We're creating a kind of picture of the world that we can hold onto. Amulets do it in a super-concentrated way (a condensation of the world into a single talisman); dollhouses in a slightly less intense, more careful way, museums in a grand and sweeping way, but they're all doing it - saying, this is the world as I wish it to work. Any time you scale the world down, whether into a singular piece (the Jorge Luis Borges short stories The Aleph and The Zahir both touch on this) or a collection of small parts, you are intensifying it, making it more potent and more alive - for each piece is not just a part of a coherent whole but also carrying the implied presence of all the things that don't  fit. Thus, the more perfectly detailed your dollhouse kitchen becomes, the more it takes on not the aura of a single kitchen, but of a thousand imagined kitchens and all the feelings that the word kitchen evokes, in a way that no real kitchen ever could; the more full your museum, the more cultures open out in their enormity from within it like a huge cluster of evanescent blossoms, their density drenching us as no trip around the world could begin to; and as for amulets, well, they are not rational things; they are tiny fragments of the universe that are, somehow, complete reflections of it also. (Ask Borges if you don't believe me; he knows.) 

We want so much for the world to be harmonious, to make sense, to be beautifully crafted and dense with meaning and run according to some delicate cosmic order too grand for us to see. Now, I'm pretty sure it does - I just think things would fly apart otherwise - but there are things we do to reassure ourselves. I'm guessing my first understanding of the way that the order of things meets the graceful chaos of experience came through mighty fast the first time I saw a real miniature. (And that, dear friends, happened before I can remember.) In these concentrations of matter, we string together the strange perfection of the laws of nature with the peculiar disorder of our lives. So, growing up as I did with amulets under the pillow and a dollhouse at my elbow, it's no wonder I just want to make what I do. Bbecause that's all a museum is, really - a dollhouse of the soul, a house of amulets, the home of a secret, sacred, potent, poetic history.


  1. I don't have anything to say about amulets, really. I like the idea of them, but I don't really believe in the power of them.
    However, I do paint miniatures. Not in a few years (for various reasons), but I love doing it. I have a few pics on my blog (and a lot on FB).

    1. I don't really believe in the power of them either, exactly. It's more do I describe it? a spiritual placebo. The thing about placebos is that even when you KNOW it's a placebo, it still has an effect. That's how I feel about amulaic things - I don't think of them as actually having some kind of crazy power, but because they feel powerful to me on a gut or instinctive level, I feel protected and assured, even if I don't actually honestly feel like they can defeat demons or whatever. Does that make any sense?

      And I'd love to see those paintings.

    2. Yeah, that makes sense. The things people believe can be very powerful.

      Did you check the ones on my blog? Under the Crafty tab. I think there's a link there to my FB pics, too. I don't -think- you have to have me friended to see them, but you can always send a request if you want to :)

  2. This is a wonderful post. I'm going to send a link to my friend who makes and furnishes dollhouses.

    Stopping by from the Challenge.

    1. Thank you! I'm happy to hear it's being shared! If your friends has links of his/her own work, I'd love to see them - I'm always delighted to learn about people who are making their own marvelous miniature things. Thanks for stopping by!


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