Small Stuff

Jam-packed with everything from aircraft models to mastodon teeth, the Miniature Museum is another Houston monument to outsider art.

April 2002By Comments

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 one hundred identical stamps, then stacked in perfect rows filling more than a dozen cigar boxes. We’re torn between morbid fascination at the anal-retentive excess of it all and a real sense of magic, as if little elves had made treasure from the dross of the dawning junk mail age.

Most truly interesting outsider art similarly explores the border between extreme originality and psychiatric disorder. But Smalley was a particularly rare bird; despite his lack of formal education (beyond high school, he took only some correspondence courses in art and architecture), he was a competent amateur scientist and a sophisticated technology buff who chatted via Morse code and voice signal with a global network of radio stations like his own, a sort of proto-Internet, over which his daughter met her future husband. In many ways a cyberspace mind in a Model-T world, Smalley pursued his interests as if he were surfing the Web, impulsively leaping from one to the next, furiously burrowing in until he had exhausted the subject, then moving to another site. The difference was that Smalley’s wanderings took a lifetime, and the information he gathered exists in a real rather than a virtual world. Yet in another sense Smalley was a throwback to the age of the copyist and the illuminated manuscript, when numbing manual repetition was required to transmit knowledge and each page, even each letter, could become an obsessively crafted work of art. Smalley’s repetitive projects have nothing of the postmodern irony mandatory for similar works today; instead, they seem to have been personal meditations. Ultimately his packaged stamps and folded tobacco tins reflect a wry, Zen-like transcendence, as though impishly sacrificing time to the most pointless pursuit could be the most significant step toward enlightenment. Perhaps it was a faith Smalley arrived at while confined to the body cast for more than a year in the mid-twenties; as he told a bedside interviewer, “A person who stays in a hospital a long time learns a lot of philosophy.”

Whatever its source, Smalley’s idiosyncratic vision reflects a state of mind peculiar to Houston. “It’s because of this kind of cultural gumbo we’re in,” says bookseller and Brazos Projects director Karl Kilian, who had seen the Miniature Museum in its original location back in the mid-seventies and persuaded Frank Davis to bring it out of storage for the current exhibit (having gathered dust after Davis closed it, the museum was packed up when Smalley’s house was sold, in 1994). “The city’s not really tied into one culture.” Take a pungent mix of Latino, African American, and Cajun influences, combine with a surprisingly resilient blue-collar ethic, wildcatter individualism, and Southern eccentricity, and stir it all up with Houston’s storied absence of zoning regulations; the recipe has encouraged exuberant public displays of art rarely seen elsewhere. The tradition is a living one as well, maintained by local legends like Cleveland “The Flower Man” Turner, who after nearly dying of alcohol poisoning found redemption by transforming his Third Ward house (at the corner of Sampson and Francis streets) into a tropical fantasy that looks something like a Mardi Gras float stranded in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Producing outsider art is one thing; preserving it is the true test of civic commitment. The key ingredient here has been Houston’s historically inclusive art establishment. “There’s always been an openness here about what constitutes art and how to show art,” says Susanne Theis, the director of the nonprofit Orange Show Foundation, which in addition to maintaining McKissack’s 23-year-old monument also sponsors Houston’s most uninhibited art event, the annual Art Car Weekend in April, and has lately undertaken the preservation of Houston’s outsider heritage. Last fall, armed with a grant from the Brown Foundation, the Orange Show Foundation bought the deteriorating Beer Can House, taking it off the market one step ahead of the developers and recyclers (Orange Show Foundation volunteers also helped rescue the Miniature Museum in 1994). Houston’s late arts doyenne Dominique de Menil led the way in the fifties, introducing the city to the quirky Surrealists and an unusually broad spectrum of modern and primitive art. In the mid-seventies the Contemporary Arts Museum was a hotbed of anything-goes heterodoxy; then-CAM board president Marilyn Oshman went on to establish the Orange Show Foundation in 1980, and then-director James Harithas and his wife, Ann, opened what may be Houston’s most outré exhibition space, the Art Car Museum, in 1998. During the eighties egalitarian alternative exhibition spaces like the Lawndale Annex (now the Lawndale Art and Performance Center) and DiverseWorks became powerful forces, channeling unknown, often wildly unorthodox artists into the city’s cultural mainstream.

It’s tempting to draw a connection between Houston’s fondness for unrestrained artistic vision and its susceptibility to corporate delusions (before Enron there was Frank Lorenzo’s equally fantastical empire of profitless airlines). But Houston’s panoply of oddball shrines actually represents a restive cultural populism that seems particularly instructive at a time when other Texas cities are struggling to establish similarly vibrant cultural identities. The traditional approach has been trickle-down, an expectation that big-ticket items favored by the patron class will not only attract relocating corporations and prestige events but also stimulate the efforts of local artists. Many Dallas civic leaders, for example, stung last year when the city was rejected in short order by Boeing and the United States Olympic Committee, have championed a proposal to span the Trinity River with a series of “signature bridges” by Spanish modernist Santiago Calatrava as the symbol of the city’s cultural arrival. Houston, however, seems to have built the state’s most thriving and sophisticated arts community on a largely chaotic, trickle-up principle, with much of the energy and even the informal planning coming from working-class creatives, joined by patrons and foundations that haven’t been reluctant to sow their largesse on the grass roots. In that respect David David Smalley’s Miniature Museum continues to teach a valuable lesson: Take care of the little things, indulge those seemingly insignificant, even anarchic whims, and culture will take care of itself.

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