When people encounter Karen Collins' intimate depictions of Black history through miniatures, they tend to go silent and stare in awe — a fact the folk artist feels embarrassed to admit, even after more than 25 years of running her mobile African American Miniature Museum. But it's easy to be mesmerized by the intricate detail in her handcrafted dioramas, placed inside shadowboxes built by her husband Eddie Lewis.
Made in 1998, one diorama brings to life a scene with Martin Luther King Jr. inside of a church. Standing at about five inches tall, a clay King delivers a passionate sermon to about a dozen clay churchgoers dressed in suits and ornate hats with Bibles in their laps and teeny fans in hand. Other details help paint the vibrant picture of an electric church service — the collection plate with overflowing tiny coins, colorful windows, a choir in resplendent robes. Although the viewer does not know the exact message King is delivering, the earnest faces in the group conveys the importance of the moment.
Collins' shadowboxes fill the living room of her Compton home. Next to King is a scene depicting Malcolm X teaching inside a Harlem mosque. "Unite and Do For Self," reads a miniature sign on his podium. In another shadowbox, Collins displays a collection of anti-Black symbols that represent the violent racism and stereotyping Black people have faced in the U.S., including mammy figurines and a "picaninny" sign popular in the 1920s. Another chronicles the history of entrepreneur and activist Madam C.J. Walker, from her days as a laundress in St. Louis, to the success of her cosmetics and haircare business.
Collins estimates that her collection spans some 60 works, including shadowboxes and other exhibition pieces. Since the 1990s, she has used her collection to teach people Black history — from the horrors of the Middle Passage to America to the triumphs of Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. She especially hopes to reach Black children, whose culture is often flattened or erased in history books. "The children have to know the whole truth, that they belonged to some of the strongest people in the world," the 70-year-old says.
The children have to know the whole truth, that they belonged to some of the strongest people in the world.Karen Collins
Raised in Indianapolis, Collins' love of small things began at a young age. Although she wanted a dollhouse growing up, her mother, a single parent raising five children, could never afford one. "When I became an adult and had my children, it just came to me. I have to have a doll house," she recalls. At 40, she purchased her first — a pink and white, four room Tudor with light wooden shingles. "I started buying furniture for it, tea services and decorated it. It was just wonderful."
But a personal tragedy, the devastating incarceration of her son, the eldest of two children, in the early 1990s, drove Collins to use her newfound art form for justice. She wanted to teach Black children about their lineage. "For me, the museum was a way to turn the negativity into something positive and share the stories of our ancestors' strength and perseverance through hardship," said Collins in a Google blog post. (In 2020, the tech company commissioned the artist to create a diorama paying homage to the Greensboro sit-in). "I want young people to learn about those that came before them who sacrificed to help make the lives they live today possible."
She quit her job as a preschool teacher. "I'm sure I had a breakdown," she says. "But that saved my life, working on all these little, small things. When I was doing that, I wasn't worried about him."
In 1995, she launched the African American Miniature Museum and began showing her work across L.A. at Leimert Park's California Jazz and Blues Museum, the Museum of Tolerance, Oran Z's Pan-African Black Facts & Wax, and other cities, including Indianapolis' Madam Walker Legacy Center. She also took her project to schools, libraries, churches and community centers.
Collins remembers her first school visit to George Washington Elementary in 1999. "I was ecstatic and so were they," she says. "They were so receptive and observant." Collins cried when the students, inspired by her work, later presented their own dioramas showcasing their culture and history.
As a self-taught folk artist, Collins learned her craft through trial and error. She spends about four to five hours on each doll, connecting the parts using pipe cleaners. She also found that Black miniature dolls were difficult to come by and would often be much more expensive so, to learn how specific items were built, she reverse-engineered other miniature pieces. She printed itsy-bitsy Jet and Ebony magazines at photo labs. And her husband helps her make the items she can't find in stores such as bookshelves, tables and chairs.
To create a scene for a diorama, Collins first dives into research, spending as much time as she can to learn about specific moments in history. The goal is to make the work believable. One of her most powerful is a large shadowbox depicting the European slave trading post, Elmina Castle, in modern-day Ghana. Inside a smaller box made to look like a dirt dungeon clay figures are bound in chains. Their faces are pained. "I had to rebuild the Elmina castle where they were captured and just imagine how scared those people were under those conditions," she says.
After years of self-financing and toiling away on the museum with her husband, Collins felt on the verge of giving up. "Artists need recognition," she says.
But recent awareness and appreciation of her work has given Collins a bigger platform. In 2018, she was included in the Library Foundation of Los Angeles' exhibition, "21 Collections: Every Object Has a Story," and commissioned to make dioramas she had been brainstorming, including one on homelessness in L.A. and another paying tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. The exhibition at the downtown Central Library is where Joshua Garrett-Davis, an associate curator at the Autry Museum of the American West, first encountered Collins' art.
Garrett-Davis thought Collins would be a perfect fit for an upcoming project — renovating a long-term gallery dedicated to popular culture depictions of the West at the Autry. Although miniatures are a common medium showcased at the museum, "we didn't have anything telling African American stories in that form," he says. The curator was struck by the narrative nature of Collins' art and dedication to her community. "We wanted to bring more voices and different types of stories that are rooted in the American West," Garrett-Davis says. "Hollywood movies are very important, but a lot of people didn't have access to telling their stories through Hollywood."
The Autry commissioned Collins to make new dioramas depicting Black stories from the West. Her work will be included in the museum's updated "Imagined Wests" exhibition which is scheduled to open spring 2022.
One of Collins' dioramas depicts Exodusters, the African Americans who migrated westward to Kansas and other states in search of a better life after Reconstruction in the late 1800s. Under blue skies, the clay families seem to rejoice as they unload their wagons. In another Exoduster shadowbox, a group takes a break from their travels, celebrating with music around a campfire. Collins wanted to portray the elation the Exodusters must have felt. "It was hard work getting from the South to wherever they went," she says. "They were together as families and they all looked after each other … that was joyful coming from bondage."
Another diorama focuses on Bass Reeves, a former slave and one of the first Black U.S. deputy marshals west of the Mississippi. "He was a bounty hunter, excellent shot, just really a character that was known all over the West," Collins says. Black cowboy Bill Pickett, who created rodeo steer wrestling, or bulldogging, and the Compton Cowboys, a group that fights stereotypes through horseback riding, are spotlighted in other dioramas.
Garrett hopes visitors will get a new perspective through Collins' work. "It's amazing and powerful and draws you in," he says.
The craft of miniatures continues to fade though — L.A.'s Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures, once one of the largest contemporary miniature collections in the world, closed in 2000 and Collins says most miniature shops have closed across the city. Collins and her husband are also growing older, making it more difficult to move the collection of dioramas to various events and exhibitions. The artist longs more and more for her own community space, where she can display her works permanently.
"That's my dream, to have a museum where the kids can come and maybe have a little library in there and an art room where I work with them."