SALT LAKE CITY — For McKay Lenker, hanging small-scale art outside a Provo restaurant was a gateway into another — or perhaps, many — tiny worlds.
“I took an art and business class, and our professor gave us an assignment to curate and install our art somewhere in public,” Lenker, an art teacher and passionate exhibitionist of tiny art, told the Deseret News. “People in the class went to galleries and coffee shops to hang their work, … but since I had been painting some tiny paintings on tiny canvases, I thought, 'What if I just hung these really low to the ground and gave them tiny labels and tiny titles, and I put little magnifying glasses by them?'”
Well, what if?
Lenker's first exhibit went so well that she decided to host and curate more bitty shows, inspiring her to create Tiny Art Show, a "community art project bringing teeny tiny art shows to unexpected places," the group's Instagram account states.
Tiny Art Show’s next exhibit — Rachel Crockett Smith’s 16-piece “Here and There,” an abstract show that explores the connection between heaven and earth — runs March 15-23 at Provo's Heirloom Art and Co.
But there’s more to these "little” shows than one might expect. While Lenker ultimately aims to showcase the artists she invites, her display style is tiny art in its own right.
Tiny food, tiny forks, tiny lights, tiny stanchions, a “tiny mop — so I can clean” — and many other magical small-scale artifacts can be found at each show. Most importantly, all pieces — no more than 3 inches by 3 inches — are hung “12 inches above the ground — I’m very serious about that,” Lenker said.
“The idea is, imagine you were shrunk down to be a tiny person,” Lenker continued. “And this is your universe.”
Additionally, Lenker is “building a periscope,” she said, so that elderly or otherwise non-floorgoing visitors can see the paintings without having to get on the ground.
While Lenker’s magical displays move far from miniature art tradition — miniatures initially served as pragmatic, portable images before photography was invented, tiny art historian Wes Siegrist told the Deseret News — modern miniatures have provided artists with the opportunity to play with the creative aspects inherent in the small-scale format.
“I love the idea that people will be up close, on their knees viewing the paintings in order to get the whole picture,” said Smith, who will be presenting her first tiny art show in Lenker’s upcoming exhibit. “You can’t see all the details from far away, and it takes that extra insight to sort of get it. I really like that idea. I felt like that applied really well to the theme I was working in.”
Siegrist, an artist himself, agreed that “intimacy” is a major creative draw for modern artists working in the small-scale format.
“It’s an intimate object, it draws you close, it keeps your attention. … This is something that you pick up and look at, and you might say fondle — something you really admire compared to something that's hanging on a wall, or that you're observing from across the room,” he said.
And the magnifying glasses at Lenker’s first exhibit, she said, draw viewers farther in.
“I ask kids what their favorite piece was, and they can tell me straight away without having to look back at the show,” Lenker explained.
From a consumer standpoint, there are quite a few pragmatic advantages. Low price points — in Lenker’s shows, pieces that range from about $30-$100 — make art curation less intimidating. “Anyone is welcome. … Plus, I really like the idea that a tiny show can make collecting art more affordable,” Lenker said.
Additionally, space — or, wall space — is a major benefit for those collecting or exhibiting small pieces. Michael Dandley, the manager of the traveling "Enormous Tiny Art" exhibit base at Nahcotta Gallery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has found that tiny art is the ideal fit for old buildings and tight spaces.
“In New England … we have a lot of old constructed houses in this area and they don't often have huge open wall spaces — often walls are at strange angles under staircases,” Dandley said. “We also have a lot of brick in this region which can be challenging for hanging in a residential. So, all our work allows us to fit in those nooks and crannies.”
Unfortunately, lower earning potential, obscurity and limited exhibition opportunities tend to deter artists from focusing on miniatures — Siegrist encourages artists interested in this area to “look for ways to make it more lucrative.”
“The amount of time and effort it takes to put into a miniature, you can put that same thing into a larger scale work and make a lot more money,” Siegrist said. “You have to do it because you love it.”
As an exhibitioner, Lenker seems to be on the same page.Comment on this story
“My goal is to have people feel the wonder and childhood excitement that we forget about sometimes," she said. "Especially for people who see them, and they’re not planning to see them — if they’re just going to try on some clothes in a clothing store and there’s one in a dressing room. It’s something that brings magic into people’s lives.”
If you go …
What: Tiny Art Show featuring Rachel Crockett Smith
When: March 15-23, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Opening reception Friday, March 15, 6 p.m.
Where: Heirloom Art & Co., 4801 N. University Ave, Suite 350, Provo