When the muse calls...

Sometimes a muse calls and you don't see it coming. It's a story worth telling as a New Year opens.

I am often self-conscious about my geeky-nerdy interests in things like old railroads, airplanes, wonderful foods, and craft beers. I certainly post less about the scale modeling experience on open media like Facebook and share those thoughts more often with like-minded folks through other avenues like modeling clubs, e-mail blasts, on-line forums, and, more recently, this blog.

Fall 2017 Railroad Heritage
Cover Art
I came to a better understanding of my urge to write about my experiences when I read an article last fall, published in the Center for Railroad Photography & Art's Railroad Heritage magazine by fellow academic Richard Koenig. He wrote:

But photographs, regardless of the subject matter, are inert by themselves - they need to be viewed and interrogated by an audience to take on and impart their meaning 

Koenig wrote about his engagement with a railroad enthusiast group in Bloomington, Indiana in the mid 1970's, but I recognized that the phenomenon he described extends beyond photography into other representations of reality, in narrow niches like scale models, and broader explorations of beauty and the human condition in the arts.

British Spitfire fighters adapted for
photographic reconnaissance
in 1 inch = 6 feet (1/72) scale
My completed airplane models sit on a shelf for visitors to see, but they are inert in their places. Oh, sure, I look at them and remember the big challenges and little victories that I experienced as I built them. I think about the historical context they represent and how I might better illustrate those stories by arranging the models and display bases a bit differently. (And, as every modeler knows, I think about how buying one more kit - just one more - will make that story clearer). But those stories are silent. They run in my head, but no one knows them except me unless a visitor in my home asks about a model. And, again as every modeler knows, launching into the stories behind a model for a visitor who doesn't ask more often leads to uncomfortable silence than a conversation. The stories can come to life when I bring the completed kits to a show, or a club meeting, or when I write about them.

Whose muse?

Scale modelers come in a lot of flavors. Some are exhilarated by winning at competition. When they build a model, they build it to win. Others are artists. Their work is beautiful; I marvel at their artistry and technical skills and aspire to render a model that so perfectly captures the feel of the real thing. The story I want to hear from these modelers is technical: how did they achieve the perfect paint finish? How did they make solid plastic look so much like translucent canvas that I want to put my hand behind it and see my fingers move.

Other modelers are encyclopedias of technical data on one or more variations on a theme, they are fluent in every detail of every variation of Russian armored vehicles or German fighter planes and will mix and match kits to get exactly what they want. I marvel at their knowledge and ingenuity, but the detail in their stories often exceeds my ever-shrinking attention span, and unless I'm careful my part of the conversation would usually sound something like, "Umm.. nice tanks.. ?" While I lack that kind of knowledge about tanks, airplanes, and railroad locomotives, I know all about mismatches between my enthusiasm and the capacity of my listeners from watching the eyes of generations of medical students as I wax poetic about the wonders of human cognition and its failures. So, like my learners, I nod politely, and say, "How cool..."

I find myself in one of the "historian" subcategories of modelers. There are several of these subcategories, including modelers who might focus on famous personalities, military campaigns, or a specific armed force (say..., the Canadian military) and build their models to tell their interpretation of those stories. I identify myself among the "museum curator" subtype of historian. I collect, and then construct, artifacts that I use to tell the story behind a specific set of events, like reconnaissance aircraft in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, or how aviation designers and engineers addressed a technical challenge over time, such as intercepting and destroying an attacking Soviet Bomber force during the Cold War, or across national boundaries like maritime patrol in World War 2.

I better understood this muse when I saw that the 2016 International Plastic Modelers Society's* US National Championship competition in Columbia, SC was organized around the theme of "Every Model Tells a Story." I hadn't been able to put so succinct a voice to my modeling muse before that. I tried a new type of storytelling for that show, a diorama showing a specific moment in time as an Air Force crew tries to solve the mystery of the YB-49 experimental bomber's 1949 unwitnessed mid-air disintegration over the Mojave desert. This model took third place at that show. Placing at Nationals was a double-edged sword for sure. It reinforced the storytelling aspect of my modeling but hooked me on the diorama as a modeling medium. I've probably designed a half-dozen more dioramas to tell stories since then. Dialogues on diorama design are also good for engaging an audience, and I've crowd sourced composition ideas for these, not always with great success...
A less successful crowd sourced design of the YB-49 diorama 

So, maybe as this New Year moves forward I'll be a little less shy about engaging audiences to view and interrogate my hobby products to, as Richard Koenig said, "take on and impart their meaning." Perhaps, in that process, I'll learn a little more about myself and the world around me

*Yes, there is an international scale modeling organization


  1. Have you seen the 72nd scale aircraft dioramas of Steve Huestad? Each is modeled from a particular photo or series of photos. His dioramas have gotten me interested in the art.

  2. I've seen that work, but didn't know whose it was. Very impressive.


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