Mini Paradise: Mole’s Perfect World
I moved to Village Homes when I was in the third grade. Y was in my class at school. We had become fast friends and lived in the same neighborhood, a passive solar planned community built in the late 1970’s. When I first came to play with Y and her sister D (who was 18 months older), the miniature world of Maple Town occupied just two shelves of a bookcase in the sisters’ shared bedroom. Over the next five years, Y, D and I would develop the settlement into a utopian civilization populated by families of miniature, anthropomorphized Sylvanian animal figurines made of felted plastic. There were rabbits, mice, bears, one hippo, one elephant, a family of pigs and one mole.
Some families were interspecies, and efforts were made to approximate logical genetic outcomes. For example, Mole’s wife was a rabbit and their daughter, Sarah, was a mouse. This realistic mixing of features pleased us greatly. It also mirrored Y and D’s interracial identity. These factors placed the Sage family at the moral apex of Maple Town.
Our interest in developing and improving Maple Town revolutionized our view of every type of scrap material. Each piece of trash or ball of lint had a potential use as a miniature version of something else: the aluminum liner tray from an eye shadow compact could be removed, cleaned, and stacked as a baking pan with the other pots in the Parsley’s simple but utilitarian kitchen; one half of the closure of a manila envelope could be a pair of scissors in Rosemary Gordon’s school; broken electronic devices were mined for useful bits of wire, tiny screws and other representational fragments. We were always on the lookout.
In its final stages, Maple Town occupied the entire loft above Y and D’s bedroom on Bucklebury Lane. Most houses in Maple Town were delineated by a simple footprint. Walls and roofs were imagined, leaving the interior of the home completely visible and subject to arrangement. Mole’s house was a shelf board with a broken doll sleigh set at the south end. The runnerless sleigh was split-level and served as a bedroom for the family, one level for the parents, and the other for Sarah and baby Arthur, a tiny plastic bear who had been gleaned from a Christmas ornament. Arthur wore diapers made from a scrap of flannel expertly wrapped with masking tape to form a stiff but lasting garment. Mousy, their beast of burden, was a flesh-toned pincushion whose simple appearance relegated him or her to a life pulling plough and wagon on the family’s farm.
Y was a master of masking tape construction. Among her greatest triumphs was the public bus. Exposed film from a 35mm camera served as windshield and passenger windows, the rest of the vehicle, including interior seating, was entirely made from extra-wide tape sculpted sticky-sides in, forming a leathery and durable vehicle. Mr. Pigley drove the bus before he was injured in a drunk driving accident. Forever after, he wore a neck brace and a cast on his arm. After a lawsuit and a string of scandals involving sex abuse and other indiscretions, the Pigleys met a bad end. The young daughter was sealed in a Ziploc bag and buried in the backyard along with her parents.
Each phase of Maple Town became a clearer articulation of our child-values. Maple town exhibited a confluence of the future and the past. Progressive values and scientific knowledge were paired with rough fabrics, earthen floors, and hand-made pottery. Over time, the Maples’ spiritual beliefs went from Christianity, to Judaism, to a Pagan earth religion. There was a trend toward making all furnishings and objects appear more and more handcrafted. Cardboard and factory-made furniture was replaced with balsa wood, which eventually gave way to expertly bent and fitted twigs. The Maples gave up premade items not because they hadn’t invented factories, but because, like the early 20th century champions of the Arts and Crafts movement, they had moved beyond sooty industrialization. Enlightenment lay in this elective return to nature. Like sober and well-organized Flower Children, they were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.
These values had been handed down to us and we had borne witness to their tattered application. I come from a long line of seekers. My grandmother, daughter of a muckraking journalist and a Swiss intellectual, spent her early childhood in the Little Landers commune near San Diego before her mother’s suicide. My mother, a former member of Students for a Democratic Society, weaves world-explaining narratives with the efficiency of a totalitarian information bureau, and my father designed several of the houses in this full-scale, passive solar neighborhood where my family now lived without him. Y and D’s dad is a Haitian-Cuban dissident who fled the dictatorship on a shrimp-boat. He had gone from being a good partisan, studying Mathematics and Russian to questioning too much and being relegated to offshore labor. An atheist, he nevertheless refused to disclose what it was that his Haitian grandmother, a Vodou priestess, had bequeathed to him to keep him safe and invisible during his escape to Florida. He swears that the searchlights shone directly on him that night, but that his boat traveled unseen.
It was no accident that Arts and Crafts values permeated the physical and psychic reality of Maple Town. My father is an architect and ecologist who built one of the first modern straw-bale structure in the United States, and prefers to hand-planed furniture from rough-milled black walnut trees that he cuts down from his foothill ranch. My mother, a practitioner of the radical pedagogy of Freire and Loris Malaguzzi, spent the 1970’s unseating the suburban conventions of her 1950’s upbringing. She drew inspiration from her tanta Louisa, aunt Rosemarie and aunty Gladys, who canned, pickled and made braided rugs on their Napa Valley farm. These aunts regularly performed such feats as baking fancy German desserts after killing chickens for dinner. The elderly tanta Louisa would attach a harness to the roof of my mother’s childhood house in the suburbs of San Francisco in order to scrub the attic windows.
Y and D’s mom was a Dutch-born art history librarian and professional seamstress. When her father returned from being a prisoner of war in WWII, he was so malnourished that he was given the one egg of the family’s ration each day until he recovered. We revered these tales of hardship from the perspective of our outwardly privileged children’s lives, full of ballet and piano lessons and school studies of endangered species. For me, Maple Town was a workshop of recuperation, an escape from the glaring fact that my father had abandoned me and that the myth of my coherent family would be no more. In those years, Y, D and my own means for digesting these conflicting levels of awareness was through elaborate fantasies, of which Maple town was the most involved. It expressed our collective obsession with the material world and its stories.
The three of us occupied our imagination and playtime by building this planned community and devising its culture. In many ways, Maple Town mirrored our own neighborhood, with its common backyards, networks of bike paths, urban farms and modestly scaled, passive solar houses. For me, Maple Town was a way to recoup an identity that had exploded when my parents got divorced. Those truths that the grown-up world had abandoned were maintained and perfected in our miniature universe.
The completion of Maple Town’s most architecturally advanced structure also signaled its end as a grounded place. The mixed-use dollhouse had a clinic on the ground floor and the home of the doctor and his family on the upper levels. Framing was accomplished with plastered plywood and the thatched roof was made with real bundles of straw over a twig lattice. Floors were paved with smooth beach pebbles. Doors and shutters were bright red and were operable on tiny hinges. Plans and construction began on a new house for Mole, which was to be carved out of a solid Black Walnut stump.
But by this time, we were well into Jr. High, and Y and D were moving to a house without a loft. I was making new friends at school and conducting Maple Town’s considerable business in half-secret from my other peers. Eventually, the objects and “people” that comprised Maple Town’s physical presence were removed from their shelf-floor delineations and packed carefully into a series of coffee cans and shoeboxes. The bottle-cap pies from Mr. Gordon’s windowsill bakery and general store, along with house linens, furniture, camping gear and tinily written postcards, all fit neatly into a single banker’s box. The footprint of Maple Town’s material culture was minuscule compared to its psychic impact.
Alexandra Hammond (born in California, U.S.A.) is an artist living and working in Brooklyn. Over the past year, her work has been exhibited in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Bangkok. She completed her MFA at the School of Visual arts in 2015, winning the 2015 Thesis Award. She also holds a BS in Studio Art from New York University. Hammond positions her art practice as that of an ambivalent utopian. Her work has also been described as “neoromantic”, embracing ‘aesth-ethics’ and storytelling. Her work investigates the relationship between living beings, images and objects as a key lens through which to examine our relationship with multiple systems on earth: ecological, political, social and economic. Hammond is interested both in how we act upon and distribute objects, as well as how objects act upon us as. Her work fosters interactions among images, people and stories, reflecting a conviction that reality is not a fixed collection of facts but a real-time co-creation. www.alexhammondstudio.com