NOWHERE BUT HOUSTON DOES outsider art enjoy such insider status. Folk art icons like the venerable Orange Show, postman Jeff McKissack’s mini-Disneyland of recycled machinery and salvaged building materials, or upholsterer John Milkovisch’s Beer Can House, a Memorial Park bungalow sheathed in approximately 50,000 flattened empties, are as much a part of the city’s cultural profile as the Rothko Chapel or the Cullen Sculpture Garden. It seems only fitting, then, that amid its current notoriety as the capital of whimsical corporate bookkeeping, Houston is showcasing yet another improbable testament to the common man’s uncommon vision. The Hyde Park Miniature Museum, opened just before the outbreak of World War II by a local railroad company mapmaker with the redundant name David David Smalley, has been a rarely seen but reverently regarded underground sensation in Houston art circles since the seventies. Now open for an extended run, from March 23 to the end of the year, at the nonprofit exhibition space Brazos Projects (2425 Bissonnet), D. D. Smalley’s little museum is a bizarre and utterly beguiling monument to curiosity, obsession, and the flights of fancy that for most of us remain faint sparks of unrealized inspirations.
Originally installed in the attic of Smalley’s comfortable clapboard home in Houston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the Miniature Museum is a cluttered compendium ranging from the relatively rare (an enormous meerschaum pipe given as a gift to an ancestor of Smalley’s wife by the German emperor in 1715) to the eccentrically contrived (model locomotives made from toilet-paper tubes and balsa wood) to the obsessively hoarded (a quarter million canceled stamps meticulously tied in little packets). A compulsive tinkerer, Smalley carved wooden models of seemingly every aircraft extant and filled cigar boxes with Prince Albert tobacco tins flattened and folded into little envelopes containing tiny tin puzzles. A compulsive record keeper, he numbered, labeled, and recorded the provenance of each of his more than 1,500 display items, then shelved them in baffling, stream-of-consciousness sequences (dozens of vintage electronic vacuum tubes segue to fossilized mastodon teeth) or in mordant juxtaposition (heaps of Civil War minié balls and mortar shells are accompanied by a more recent newspaper headlined: “6 children hurt, 2 seriously, as old cannonball explodes”).
“This is the residue of a great number of sequential hobbies,” says Smalley’s grandson, Houston artist Frank Davis. The curator of the current installation, Davis played in the museum as a boy, restored it with the help of Helen Winkler Fosdick, a longtime assistant to John and Dominique de Menil, and opened it on weekends during the mid-seventies. Smalley, who was born in 1889 to an Indiana farmer and his art-teacher wife, immigrated to Texas as a young man, married a Waller County woman in 1911, and by 1918 had begun his career working eight-to-five as a draftsman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Even before Smalley opened the Miniature Museum, in 1941, local newspaper articles touted him as Houston’s King of Hobbies; his serial avocations included astronomy (he ground the mirrors for two twelve-inch reflecting telescopes), running one of Houston’s first amateur radio stations from a backyard shack, hunting fossils and Native American artifacts, and collecting antique gadgets and historical curios. Smalley won awards for his oil paintings, made beaded, art deco-style ladies’ handbags, and drilled floral patterns inside faceted Lucite cubes to create ornate kaleidoscopic effects. No opportunity to make something seems to have escaped him: Confined to a whole-body cast because of persistent spinal problems, Smalley wheedled toothpicks and matchsticks from his nurses and built a lively little rural tableau titled “My Old Kentucky Home” (Pa strums the banjo on the farmhouse porch while Ma chops wood) inside a sixteen-ounce medicine bottle.
Smalley, who died in 1963, clearly conceived the Miniature Museum as a neighborhood attraction (a self-spoofing sign at the door read, “Please bear in mind this is a private museum and we cannot expect too much from the exhibits”); he filled cigar box after cigar box with little brown paper packets, each containing a spare Indian bead or mineral specimen, as parting gifts for visiting kids. The Brazos Projects installation, designed for portability by students in the Rice School of Architecture’s Building Workshop, ingeniously preserves the basic shape and dimensions of Smalley’s peaked-roof attic in an updated gallery setting, with an open, bolted-together modular steel frame supporting the tiers of white shelves and the dangling rows of whittled wooden aircraft. Presented as a museum-within-a-gallery, Smalley’s creation takes on an aesthetic life of its own. Chockablock with fossil trilobites and dinosaur coprolites, stone arrowheads mounted by the hundreds on beautifully lettered display boards, and marvels of antiquarian technology like a working steam engine that could fit in a shoebox and a 1900 portable typewriter roughly the size of a cigarette carton, the Miniature Museum recalls the cabinets of curiosities kept by scholars during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Some of Smalley’s curiosities are also strikingly prophetic of post-World War II art. A few of his exhibit boards, which might group objects as seemingly unrelated as a cucumber seed from the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C., a little jar of Japanese Christmas candy, a tiny “postage stamp” Bible, and an Indiana chauffeur’s license, are as surrealistic in their random associations as the famous boxed assemblages of his younger contemporary, pioneering sculptor Joseph Cornell. Although Smalley was a mediocre realist painter, an elegant eye for abstraction pervades the entire display, from the minimalist beauty of objects like Native American game balls or a fossilized honeycomb to the institutional green he painted every one of his model aircraft.
Many of Smalley’s more obsessive-compulsive projects could have been models for the quirky conceptual sculpture of the past decade. Little bottles stuffed with pencils worn to tiny stubs seem literally to encapsulate Smalley’s professional life; an enormous jar full of milk-colored Lucite shavings—drilled from his faceted floral cubes—looks like something from the X-Files evidence locker. And there’s nothing quite like Smalley’s recycled stamps, soaked from piles of correspondence, sorted by variety, tied with silk thread into little bundles of exactly