Karen Collins of Compton, California, has made a name for herself in the last twenty years as a miniatures artist and educator. But the stories Collins foregrounds in her work date back much earlier: to her childhood, coming of age, and political awakening in the 1950s on Indiana Avenue, the center of Black life in Indianapolis.
Collins remembers strolling the sidewalk with her siblings every Saturday—the tang of barbecue in the air, the live music from the tavern, and the hubbub from the countless other Black-owned businesses that made the avenue such a vibrant place to live.
Across the street from Collins’s home in Lockefield Gardens, one of the nation’s first public housing projects—and largely agreed to be one of the most effective—was the four-story manufacturing plant and multiuse building belonging to Black hair mogul Madam C.J. Walker, the most successful female entrepreneur of her time. Collins remembers wandering the Walker building’s commercial floors, which included a beauty salon, an architecturally magnificent auditorium, a drugstore, and a restaurant.
“It was all open inside,” Collins recalls. “You could see inside the salon. You could watch the women with their shampoo bowls tending to their clients. It was an opportunity to see Black professionals at work, contributing to the neighborhood.”
These dynamic scenes of Black life resemble the dioramas that comprise Collins’s mobile African American Miniature Museum, and which have earned Collins recognition across Los Angeles and Indianapolis, including features by AARP and the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. Her dioramas—each one carefully curated within a rectangular wooden shadow box—capture pivotal moments in history. Most of these three-dimensional scenes contain miniature clay renderings of influential Black activists, entrepreneurs, and political leaders, as well as Black and brown families enjoying everyday victories or suffering from abuses that include enslavement, hate crimes, and stereotyping.
In one of Collins’s more joyful pieces, three women in elaborate outfits lounge in armchairs around a mahogany coffee table, sipping martinis with tiny green olives and gesturing animatedly at one another, surrounded by contemporary art and literature. A framed portrait of Barack Obama gazes out at us from the mantle. The women’s expressions are both delighted and scandalized, as if in response to a delicious bit of gossip. The scene is both documentary and celebratory, offering a marked contrast to scenes like that of the Middle Passage, in which a slave ship prepares to dock below an austere white building on a steep, imposing bluff.
Collins collaborates with schools, libraries, and museums across the L.A. area to utilize these displays as teaching tools. She aims to equip students to celebrate traditionally underrepresented triumphs, grieve historical violence, and resist white supremacy.
“I want these students to know their history, because if you don’t know that, you don’t know yourself.”
Collins’s work also inverts what we think we know about the miniature, the shrunken, the condensed. What might be perceived as cute, dainty, or cursory becomes even more potent when distilled and compressed, when we are asked to lean in, to look closer.
“I’m just scratching the surface of our history,” Collins says with a wave of her hand. “What I want to do is endless.”
A Public Shadow Box
Collins was born in 1952 to a large family of artists and musicians, many of whom played an integral part in the cultural milieu of Indianapolis. Her grandfather was a professional saxophonist, her mother a singer, and she remembers jazz greats like Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery hanging around her grandmother’s house on the city’s north side. They had been one of the first Black families to move to the neighborhood. This house, with its deep, welcoming front porch and gable roof, was the first dwelling Collins called home. Her grandmother ran a tight ship. Collins cultivated her attention to detail while meticulously dusting underneath the dining room table, its four legs enclosing her like the walls of a shadow box.
Upon moving to Lockefield Gardens on Indiana Avenue, Collins found herself at the epicenter of culture and commerce for the city’s Black residents. “Times were tough, very tough,” Collins says, “but those projects were beautiful.” She looks back fondly on the view of the immense courtyard from her window, and on the community’s annual basketball tournaments and frequent fish fries. It’s this type of nuanced, often quotidian joy and activity that Collins hopes to celebrate in her work.
Yet she was always aware of the restriction, segregation, and erasure that would similarly inform her approach to composition and storytelling. “You couldn’t go past the speedway,” she says. “And when we went to the movies, we had to sit up in the balcony.” One day, a white girl invited her over to play with her dollhouse. “I just thought I’d died and went to heaven. But in the meantime, the girl’s mother came home and saw she had somebody Black in the house, so I could never go down there again.” Indiana was widely considered to be the stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, and Indianapolis remained one of the country’s top ten most segregated cities based on housing data until 2010.
Collins would go on to participate in much of the history she now teaches to the young patrons of her museum. She attended meetings at the Black Panther headquarters, and when she protested her high school’s restrictions against cultural expression, she was jailed with a crowd of other students, then banned from school for months. She eventually was elected the president of the NAACP Youth Council in Indianapolis, which gave her the opportunity to travel and meet Black and brown people from other walks of life.
“That gave me a sense of us as a people, of where we’d been, of how far we had come, and how far we had yet to go.”
Collins’s love of miniatures and storytelling through dioramas flourished under constraint. “My mother couldn’t afford a dollhouse, so I would build them out of cardboard boxes for me and my sisters,” she says. “I would repurpose White Castle carrying cases for the furniture and tear off squares of toilet paper to make the beds.” Dolls, too, were expensive—especially Black dolls—so she cut them out of paper along with clothing she herself designed.
In 1971, Collins followed her family to Compton, where she soon met her future husband and collaborator, Eddie Lewis. But she didn’t begin to translate her affection for miniatures into artmaking and storytelling until two decades later. In the 1990s, her son was arrested just before his high school graduation.
“I began creating these scenes because I wanted another chance to teach children about their worth as human beings,” she says. In some ways, her son’s incarceration was also an emotional echo of her own, back in that terrible gray holding cell in Indianapolis. She began to craft her own rooms, boxes, and confined spaces that represented whole lives, histories, and futures.
“We started out putting little scenes in wooden cigar boxes—just furniture, then, no people. Maybe somebody played cards, and the cards were laying on the table,” she describes. “I’ve seen miniatures that are exquisite, but they don’t have people in them. If I’d studied interior design, maybe I’d feel differently. But for me, they need to have people to tell the story.”
Revising a Miniature Tradition
Collins’s work builds upon a long tradition of miniature art and representation. Some of the first recorded miniatures were unearthed in the tombs of ancient Egypt and likely served a religious and spiritual function. Early dollhouses in sixteenth-century Europe, like Collins’s miniatures, provided both entertainment and education: so-called “cabinet houses”—close cousins of the Wunderkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities”—allowed adults to display their wealth and status through expensive miniature objects. By the eighteenth century, scaled-down representations of owners’ houses and estates were used to teach women and servants, many of them illiterate, how to run a household.
Dollhouses and miniatures proliferated further after the Industrial Revolution when manufacturers began to work with standardized scales. Wealthy miniatures collectors like Narcissa Niblack Thorne, who designed and commissioned the sixty-eight Thorne Rooms currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, prioritized celebrating design history, providing viewers with a sense of escape from the Great Depression, and romanticizing America’s colonial past, before the “scourge” of urbanism that shaped cities like Collins’s Indianapolis.
Collins has visited a few miniature museums, but even when their scenes did include human figures, she never found Black history represented there. “So I said to myself, ‘you have to make your own. You can’t go looking to other people to tell your story, because they aren’t going to tell it right.’”
Collins’s dioramas do more than simply reconstruct a physical space—they inject that space with a sense of collective or historical memory. Her craft is inextricable from her purpose; each decision she makes is in service of the story, of the life she’s representing. Anthropologist and artist Louise Krasniewicz argues, “What miniaturists are doing is making worlds, not just scaled objects.” Contemporary miniatures are “not an escape from the real world but a way to engage, confront, question, critique, or consider it.”
One of the first dioramas Collins created depicts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering an impassioned sermon to an enraptured congregation. “That was when I knew I simply had to learn how to make dolls, because this required a whole crowd,” Collins says.
She used the materials she could find in her house after years as a preschool teacher: polymer clay, pipe cleaners, and tacky glue. The dozen or so churchgoers are seated on wooden pews, all sharply dressed: the men in textured suits, the women in elaborate hats, the babies perched on their laps in white lace bonnets. Some have silver strands glinting among the black yarn Collins uses for hair. Their facial expressions range from plaintive to peaceful to exuberant, while Dr. King gestures authoritatively from behind a red podium. A choir in purple robes looks on in the background before a faux stained-glass window, achieved through slick washes of paint. Although these figures are posed, each doll has the capacity to move their limbs, and the scene itself feels lively and kinetic.
When Collins ran out of cigar boxes, her husband taught himself to build the wooden shadow boxes that have become a staple in her practice. Collins sketches out each composition, and Lewis designs the size and shape of its container.
At first, each scene was contained within four opaque borders of wood. Then a friend suggested inserting a strip of glass along the top to allow light to enter. “That made all the difference,” she says. “Everything just took off from there.” In recent years, Collins’s arsenal of materials has swelled as her engaged followers donate from their own collections, including miniature wallpaper and squares of linoleum.
Other dioramas include a triptych of scenes from the Black Lives Matter movement, an Egyptian pyramid depicting the reign of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut, and the Greensboro sit-in, complete with a jukebox and a tiny “WHITE ONLY” sign above the restaurant counter.
“My aim is to teach children the whole story,” she says. Collins visits local classrooms and leads discussions centered around her shadow boxes. “History teaches them to be ashamed, but it’s an education that happens by omission. It’s the shame of, ‘everybody else helped build the nation,’ and there’s no mention of you.”
Collins continues to investigate the places and spaces that have shaped her consciousness and given her a sense of community. She has created two dioramas commemorating the life of Madam C.J. Walker, whose factory and theater made such an impression on her as a young girl on Indiana Avenue. These dioramas stand in the Walker Legacy Center now housed in the building. She hopes to use this power of representation in miniature to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and help students feel seen and understood.
Her scope continues to grow: “When I go into the schools in my area, which is majority Hispanic, the kids always say, ‘Miss Karen, where’s ours?’” she says. She plans to create more dioramas that celebrate Latinx and Chicanx culture in California.
Collins dreams of a brick-and-mortar location in which to house the African American Miniature Museum, a space for children and community members to engage with the past and imagine a safer, more unified, more joyous future. Among the shadow boxes stacked in her living room is one that features a U-shaped courtyard with a steepled church on one side and, at the courtyard’s short edge, a miniature African American Miniature Museum with six small black windows and a proud sign just below the roof.
Karen Collins’s work centers Black and brown professionalism, independence, and community, revising the narratives from a time when those stories were systematically erased or were confined within specific geographical areas. We can’t help but imagine what falls beyond the margins of the shadow box, but what has been included takes on the glow and weight of the sacred.
Lena Crown is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University.
This article was co-produced by the Smithsonian’s African American Craft Initiative and the American Craft Council. An abbreviated version appears in the winter 2022 print issue of American Craft magazine.