Inside the box: Artists find inspiration in dioramas

Whether on display in a museum or the shoe-box creations of students, dioramas have sparked imaginations, as well as a debate...

A book that sells for $1,250? Yes, that’s the cost of Walton Ford’s “Pancha Tantra.” It’s a high price, for sure, but “Pancha Tantra,” with a print run of only 1,600, is no run-of-the-mill work.

It’s an homage filled with elaborate, vivid reproductions of Ford’s watercolors, which are themselves elaborately detailed depictions of beasts and birds behaving, at times, in strange and menacing ways.

Ford’s paintings, on display at the San Antonio Museum of Art through January 6, were inspired in part by time Ford spent observing the habitat dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York during childhood visits there.

Those dioramas and others have been particularly evocative for artists. Many, like Ford, have incorporated dioramas, either literally or figuratively, into their work.

When the word “diorama” was coined in 1822, by Louis Daguerre, the father of photography, it referred to theatrical events designed to give viewers an illusion of depth of space.

More recently, definitions have varied. Elementary-school teachers typically think of dioramas as miniature depictions crafted in shoe boxes. College art professors have other ideas.

“A diorama has curved walls,” said Joan Marter, professor of contemporary art at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “It is painted in a mural format that curves.... The spectator can walk into a space and become part of the space.”

Artist Tiffany Calvert was attracted to dioramas during graduate school at Rutgers in 2004. “I became fascinated with the great physical nature of dioramas,” said Calvert, 32, as she thumbed through photographs of America’s best and worst dioramas.

In some of her work, Calvert, a painter, has injected realistic images, like oxen and deer, that might be found in a natural-habitat diorama into unlikely interior spaces such as living rooms and drawing rooms. “A Chicago critic once asked me, ‘Why are you interested in nature?’ ” Calvert said.

“I said, ‘I’m not interested in nature. I’m interested in death. The animals in the diorama are so still and dead and stuffed.’”

While Calvert is interested in the topical and painterly aspects of the great museum dioramas, other artists are interested in the way dioramas dispense information by creating a theatrical space that engages the audience.

Kara Walker’s large-scale pieces, currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, present historical narratives of slavery through black cutout silhouettes that are applied to the gallery walls using wax. Viewers are drawn in, so that in some cases they become silhouettes along with her cutouts.

Some of Walker’s pieces are reminiscent of historical cycloramas-paintings in the round-from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These, like most of her work, engage the viewer in the stories she is telling. “She is creating a space and bringing viewers into her work,” said Whitney docent Todd Gibson.

Like Walker, Brooklyn artist Jesse Farber has been inspired by historical paintings. “History paintings really are set up like a stage,” said Farber, 32. “It’s static. It encapsulates drama in that moment.”

Farber creates three-dimensional pieces that function as dioramas.

“I feel very connected to the idea that the diorama is a miniature stage,” he explained, noting that his work has also been influenced by surrealists like Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy.

“Surreal” is a word often used to describe the miniature boxes of Joseph Cornell. Cornell’s “theatrical boxes” created “an environment for the integration and collision of ideas,” said Lynda Hartigan, chief curator of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., and curator of the Joseph Cornell exhibit on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 6. Hartigan doesn’t consider Cornell’s pieces to be dioramas, since they don’t attempt to replicate historical events.

Rather, she said, Cornell was influenced by Victorian shadow boxes and relied on his own imagination for inspiration.

Whatever Cornell’s work is or isn’t called, some fine artists have no hesitation about labeling their own miniature-box creations dioramas.

Forty of them had work on display in “The Diorama Show,” presented by San Francisco gallery Mission 17 in 2005. The gallery’s description of the show defined a “diorama” as “a three-dimensional miniature in which figures or other objects are arranged in a naturalistic setting in a small container with four sides.”

Miniature (not diorama) artist Liz Hickok posits her theory about dioramas this way: “Maybe there is an art-historical definition and a cultural definition,” she said. Hickok, 32, molds miniature cityscapes in Jell-O. She illuminates them in galleries until they rot and disintegrate.

“I like messing around with scale and what we expect reality to be when you look at something small,” Hickok said. “We can move into a new realm that is different from what reality is.”

Understanding reality may be what attracts some artists to dioramas. Escaping it may attract others. And it’s not just professionals who find an affinity for the medium. At a party she threw last May, Rebecca Gholdston, 28, and friends made their own shoe-box dioramas for the fun of it.

Their habitat dioramas featured something a little quirkier than those at the American Museum of Natural History: plastic-arm farms, flat forests, and cavemen in suburbia-yet another new twist on an old tradition.