On Monday, January 6th, my husband Tony started a newish role in a brand new office at a company he’d been at for over six years. He and his entire team at CH Media (formerly CollegeHumor) had been relocated from New York to Los Angeles to work on live video and event production—a shift that his bosses had promised would be well-resourced, exciting, fulfilling, and definitely worth moving your entire life across the country for.
Two days later, on Wednesday, January 8th, Tony and his team were all laid off and the company as they knew it ceased to exist.
It was sometime after that, and after he had exhausted himself on coffee dates and days spent prowling job boards, that Tony started making miniatures—small scale, artfully rendered reproductions of larger environments, like the ones you might see at a museum. And it was sometime after that that the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world started to crumble around us in a whole new way.
Not that the world crumbling was entirely the point. Tony’s foray into miniature building wasn’t a totally random impulse. He is an endlessly creative person who can throw himself into a project like no one else I’ve ever met and, from what I can tell, he has some amount of artistic talent in pretty much every medium. It’s pretty annoying if I’m being honest. He is also someone who constantly stops to appreciate the aesthetic value of everything—from a store sign, to the curve of a soda bottle, to the colors of a cat’s eyes, or how the mountains look against the sky. This is also annoying sometimes, if I’m being honest. More specifically, he’s been interested in miniatures since he was a kid. His early favorites were the miniature house in Beetlejuice and the work of artist Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the stop motion model animation in movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.
So I wasn’t necessarily all that surprised when Tony started making miniatures from the land of unemployment. But I have been surprised—and delighted, and comforted, and okay yes sometimes annoyed!—at what his hobby has become.
He began by painting figurines, specifically D&D miniatures, and then transitioned to a store-bought kit before starting to create environments from the ground up.
His first creation was a scene of a phone booth in the desert, modeled both literally and spiritually on the Mojave Phone Booth.
Then he moved on to an abandoned Taco Bell, a product of his own mind. (The intersection of industrial decay and fast food is extremely Tony’s shit.)
Then he made an oil horse, a longtime point of fascination for him as a kid from Southern California, which was further bolstered by the discovery of an ode to them in the Los Angeles Times.
Then came a creepy, wintry creek scene he more commonly refers to as “creek mouth.” I’ve avoided asking a lot of questions about the inspiration here.
Despite seeing and hearing about the process of these builds as they happen, I would be lying if I said I actually understood how he makes them. I’ve seen him shape foam, cut shapes out of cereal boxes, paint and texture surfaces, apply layer after layer of “Realistic Water,” and carefully place greenery, and it all still seems like a magic trick to me. I’ve gone with him to our lovely local art store, and walked down the aisles of wooden dowels, glue, precision tweezer, and figurines called “GRANDFATHER” and “WAITRESS.” I’ve observed other artists there carefully comparing tiny model furniture. It all still feels like a mystery.
On the subject of my (minor) annoyances: When Tony finished reading part of the very piece you are reading now, he looked up at me and said, “Wow, this is very sweet. I worry sometimes that you hate my miniatures.” This is because the very small house we are renting—essentially a one-and-a-half bedroom space—has quickly become a one-bedroom with another room for all of Tony’s artwork and art supplies. The floor is littered with boxes and other small containers, as well as finished pieces and works in progress. Every weekend, unprompted, he says “I’m going to spend some time cleaning up that room today” or “I’m going to look into storage solutions,” and he does, but the room remains a tornado. All of this is actually fine with me—it’s not like we have another purpose for that space—but it definitely isn’t what I’d envisioned when we moved in. That said, at this point in 2020, I’ve become quite accustomed to things not turning out as I’d planned. If we’re going to be stuck inside, we might as well try to make something of it.
Though Tony’s hobby predated the quarantine age, the two have become inextricably linked. It’s one of the many activities we’re doing during this weird-but-increasingly-“normal” time that we probably would have done anyway, but now have unlimited hours with which to devote our energies. Along with miniatures, our household is making lists (of birds we see, recipes we’ve made, things we might buy someday if consumerism ever makes any logical sense again) and fermenting like our guts depend on it: kombucha, sourdough starter, two kinds of pickles, cordials, radishes. We’re jar people now. We water plants at regular intervals, move our bodies at regular intervals, obsess over the cat always. We clean the same things over, and over, and over, and over again. We turn the calendar over. We exert control where we can.
We try not to complain too loudly, or at all. We are safe and our families are safe. We have no kids and we are (now, somewhat unbelievably) both employed. We count our blessings and practice gratitude and hope that doing so earns us some sort of cosmic kindness. (The Catholic priests of our childhoods would be very proud.)
It’s not lost on Tony that he is focused, almost obsessively, on building small worlds as we are separated from the one we actually live in and are watching it dissolve through screens. But he says that the abandoned, ruinous nature of his first few works—an aesthetic he’s always loved—has soured for him now. Simply put, a dilapidated Taco Bell just hits different as we watch beloved restaurants, and life as we once knew it, shutter.
So now he’s making an office atrium. There isn’t a single, direct inspiration for it, though he says it’s a bit of a nod to both the Huntington Beach Central Library and his childhood dentist’s office. It has a polished stone floor, concrete walls, and plants, and he says he wants it to feel “meditative” and nostalgia-driven (like all of his pieces), but not overgrown or forgotten. He wants it to feel like a place that exists in some kind of harmony. He also told me not to make him sound like an asshole. Still, it’s sad and nostalgic in a different way, as I don’t expect either of us to go to an office again this year, or maybe ever again.
Next, Tony will build a lifeguard tower and after that, who knows (follow him to find out!). Sometimes he tells me in great detail about the world he’s building before he starts—the materials, the process, the things he’s worried about screwing up. Sometimes he doesn’t, and I don’t ask because I like the mystery and the surprise. We go off into our separate corners, never more than 15 feet from each other, and he toils away while watching a dad show like Bosch or Hannibal.
Then a few hours go by and he calls me in, and shows me the world he’s created.
Images: Tony Wilson. You can see more of his work at https://www.instagram.com/friendsofthemuseum/