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10 Amazing Artists Working With Miniature Models

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We’ve seen how artists can take life-sized landscapes and make them appear to be tiny models through the use of tilt-shift photography, so now let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum: the world of miniature art.

Balsa Wood Manhattan

Michael Chesko was a software engineer at Motorola when he started building skyscraper models in his free time with X-ACTO knives, fingernail files and balsa wood. Eventually, he became so obsessed with his miniatures that he realized they could no longer be just a hobby.

His Manhattan model was based on the pre-9/11 skyline and he relied on blueprints, photos and satellite images to guide him. He didn’t even have any first-hand knowledge of the city because he didn’t visit until his project was completed –a task that took over 2000 hours of work.

When the dust settled, his model was 36” by 30” and used a 1:3200 scale. For those interested in viewing Chesko’s work of art, it’s now on display at the Skyscraper Museum in midtown New York.

Sweetness

Meshac Gaba’s contribution to “Port City” is even sweeter than Chesko’s model and that’s not a subjective claim –Gaba’s work is made entirely of sugar. His work, included in a larger model show in Liverpool that was dedicated to the imaginary Port City, features some of the most famous buildings on earth, including the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Sydney Opera House and more. No word on if it survived after the show ended in 2008, but if it did get destroyed, let’s hope it was by an army of giant (looking) ants.

Image courtesy of Chrys Omori’s Flickr stream.

Urban Sculptures

New York native Alan Wolfson is a big fan of his home town, such a big fan that he bases his main body of work on creating miniature street scenes that look like they’ve been sliced right out of the Big Apple. Interestingly, Wolfson almost never depicts buildings and businesses the way they actually looked. Instead, he combines real buildings and company signs he sees in photos with imaginary ones to help tell a story about the street scene he has created.

For example, “Follies Burlesk” was based on the real Follies Burlesk on 46th and Broadway, but that real business stood on top of a Howard Johnson’s restaurant, and both companies looked decidedly 50’s. Wolfson decided to make the scene look like it existed much later in time and added a classic New York hot dog place, an adult book store and a movie theater screening The Terminator.

What’s truly amazing about his work though is the level of detail he puts into his scenes. For example, in “Canal St. Cross-Section,” you can not only view the subway underground, but explore the buildings and the subway through windows in the side of the creation.

Miniature Manhattan

New York certainly has a lot of fans in the model-making community. What makes Randy Hage’s creations stand apart though is just how amazingly accurate his vintage building faces actually are.

While Wolfson likes to create imaginary scenes from the big city, Hage uses photos of real New York businesses and then sculpts them at 1/12 their size, in an effort to preserve these landmark structures that are becoming increasingly replaced by national chains. His works are so accurate that without a caption, sometimes it can be difficult to tell which photo shows a real building and which shows his model.

Elgin Park

While most model city artists focus on the buildings, Michael Paul Smith seems to be fascinated with the vehicles. In fact, his intricate city scenes, set inside his imaginary town of Elgin Park, serve more as a background to his fantastic die cast car collection. His lovely retro scenes portray an idealized small-town America that is based on the Pennsylvania town Smith grew up in and the backgrounds and vehicles even range throughout the decades.

The Elgin Park series became so popular on Flickr that Smith has since published an entire book of photos showing the beauty of the non-existent town.

The City

From Mad Max to the Fall Out game series to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, humans are obsessed with the idea of life after the apocalypse. Contributing to the many visions of this disastrous world is photographer Lori Nix.

In her quest to show what a world without humans might look like, Nix has taken up the art of model-making. The resulting creations could easily be used as source material for any number of post-apocalyptic movies, games or TV shows.

Distillation

Thomas Doyle’s Distillation series features a variety of sweet family scenes that have been twisted into something darker: a family’s home is destroyed with a huge crater; beautiful parks are enclosed in glass domes revealing destroyed houses below; a family stares in wonder as their home is now upside down and mostly under ground. The result is a series of beautiful, sad and surreal stories that the viewer must create for themself.

Little People

Street artist Slinkachu has made quite a name for himself over the years by creating striking and fascinating scenes right on the city streets with nothing more than tiny figurines placed in strategic locations.

The art installations have become so popular that Slinkachu has even been able to publish four books of his work and maintain a widely-read blog on the creations.

Pothole Gardens

Steve Wheen’s work is similar to that of Slinkachu in that they both place tiny details outside in the huge real world, but Wheen’s focus is on tiny pothole gardens complete with props for tiny, invisible people.

Like many of the others on this list, Wheen has since published a book of his many projects, titled The Little Book of Little Gardens.

Mini Models

While most model artists either focus on the buildings or the people, Joe Fig is unique in that he constructs entire buildings for his tiny artists to live and work in. Here you can see his interpretation of Jackson Pollock’s massive barn-turned-studio and if you look inside the doorways and windows, you’ll see a tiny version of the master flinging paint across canvas. Interestingly, Fig has even done a self-portrait in the same style, showing him inside his home, working on a tiny version of his own house.

For a deeper look into Fig’s world, you can always take a look at his book, Inside the Painter’s Studio.

Have any of you ever worked on your own models? If so, can you give us some insight on just how much time and effort goes into creating these works of art?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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