This piece was originally published February 9, 2009
I’m fairly certain that no dictionary definition is needed here for exactly what a diorama is.
Well, just in case there is one person who isn’t quite sure, or isn’t familiar with The Simpsons episode, Lisa’s Rival, here are two simple ones:
1) A three-dimensional miniature or life-size scene in which figures, stuffed wildlife, or other objects are arranged in a naturalistic setting against a painted background.
2) A miniature, three-dimensional scene, often depicting a historical event.
From childhood on, we have all seen and experienced firsthand the modern day examples of dioramas. Be it via the often creepy and slightly upsetting versions, at least that’s what comes to my mind whenever I am viewing say, a taxidermist fueled fest such as the kind of wildlife diorama found in a museum of science or natural history setting – teachers, scientists and tourists just love ’em – or the ones created with ever so cool toys that you want to touch, covet, take home and place into your very own fake grass and plaster over chicken wire creation.
I have always been obsessed with dioramas. I find them to be both extremely fun and deliriously mysterious. They are the crossroads at which the many lifelong obsessions can easily intersect: from the all powerful pull of the toy collecting bug, to the intricate detailing and agonizing perfectionist tendencies that seep into model building; from an inclination towards sharing (but at a distance, don’t touch!) our delightfully hoarded possessions, to a human urge to pass down a story or teach others, emanating from the all important spark that is to show another person WHAT I KNOW AND LIKE, SO TOO SHALL YOU.
One of my earliest attempts at creating THE diorama to end all dioramas was in my bedroom when I was around 7 or 8 years old. There was a wooden cabinet with a door that was fixed to the wall and attached high up onto the ceiling. I had to stand on my bed in order to open the door to it, and inside were two shelves. At this time my toy interest was in WWII military figures and vehicles. Namely, the exquisitely detailed 1/35th scale primo ones I had saved for, bought and built that were manufactured by the kings of the historical military model, Japan’s Tamiya (even to this day, a powerhouse of a model company that sends me into a shaky cold sweat if I dare venture into a hobby shop or look at their web site).
My school pal, Rob and I had loads of these gems that we’d painstakingly glued and lovingly painted to detail, often only to play with them in the muddy swamp of his backyard where they would get lost in a stream, or set fire to with gas stolen from his dad’s lawnmower (his dad loved that) while rolling them over the makeshift mini-roads and hand dug soil bunkers on the side of his house, which I believe was also a flower garden (his mother loved that) – yep, we lived it exactly like the Michael Richard’s Battle Boy sketches on the late night Fridays show.
Thankfully, neither of us grew up to be pyromaniacs.
After the destruction phase, I still had enough of these models to create what was to be this miniature masterpiece in my bedroom. It would always be available for my private viewing and, since there was a door to this museum of the small, secretly known only to myself and a few of my closest confidants.
Sadly, I only got as far as emptying out the cabinet of its comic books and bored-in-the-classroom space war drawings, pouring a large quantity of Elmers glue onto the flat shelf surfaces, and then dumping some fine old fashioned backyard dirt onto the whole thing, which solidified into a nice exquisite “mess a l’orange.”
Added to this disaster, were a few strategically positioned figures and my proudest motorcycle w/sidecar that took me FOREVER to build and paint (all were later blown up with firecrackers at friend’s same side of house, theater of the suburbs – see above).
Shortly after, said cabinet was parentally yanked down, destroyed, and wall / ceiling both repaired and painted. No more cabinet and the realization that I would never make FineScale Modeler magazine with this unhappy conclusion.
By the way, the picture at right is an amazing diorama of a Tamiya store depicting all you’d need to create an amazing diorama – does your head hurt as much as mine does pondering this??
It wasn’t just me with the diorama fixation – throughout my school days I had pals that always quested and plotted to build the ultimate diorama.
Often there were less than glorious results: the friend who used egg cartons and milk containers to fashion a huge groovy Space 1999 set within a crawlspace that ran behind the walls connecting closets in his house – that ended badly.
Another kid who had the father with the massive room sized N gauge scale model railroad world on HIS side of the basement that we each swore we would replicate soon enough on OUR side of the basement. Unfortunately, his dad also kept the family’s homemade wine collection on that side, and when we weren’t too busy sneaking sniffs off the corks (I swear we were too scared to ever drink the stuff) we were busy pretending that we were both wrestling managers ala the Grand Wizard and Lou Albano.
Much later, in my twenties, during another bout with the diorama fiend, I had two friends who had scrapped up enough money to rent a trash heap, first floor mess that went under the name of “an apartment.” There was an extremely large hole that had been smashed into one 2 foot wide skinny wall of the kitchen between the entrance doorway and next to the bathroom. If you looked in the hole you saw what was a decent sized tiny chamber space, 2 foot wide that stretched back about 4 feet and was empty from floor to ceiling. On my initial visit, my friend exclaimed, “See this space! We’re all going to build a great DIORAMA in there!” Shortly after, when a drunken, sleeping bag with space heater incident, torched the no furnishings living room, this grand plan was unfortunately squashed. My two friends did escape completely unharmed and skipped out on paying for the place, much to the chagrin of their thuggish landlord who I believe, did not have the same sensitivity for dioramas that we all maintained.
So I have yet to really ever fulfill my diorama fixation of creating the GREAT ONE, and I so easily could at this point. Over the years, I have continued to build models, collect toys, and acquire enough Kaiju figures to create one hell of a Destroy All Monsters scenario or perhaps a splendid War of the Gargantuas battle freezeframe.
I’m not quite sure about what keeps me coming back to this obsessive love of the diorama and the tiny – the thought of being a master puppeteer pulling the strings of these little denizens of history?
A godlike compulsion at shaping my own world out of clay, or rather plastic, that can remain forever frozen in time for all to view and then viewers would prostrate themselves upon my greatness?
Or could it possibly be that I secretly treasure the thought that when I make the most SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS diorama the world has ever seen, I would soon after think it was cool to borrow some neighbor’s lawnmower gasoline and torch the freakin’ thing…