Humble giant for a cherished tiny world

Mass. man’s models win wide following

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By Cristela Guerra GLOBE STAFF NOVEMBER 23, 2015
The tiny community rises out of a dreamy haze of handcrafted 1950s suburban bliss.

It’s a small world of 1/24 scale dioramas built by a 65-year-old wistful model maker perpetually recording the past. This model town, which he calls Elgin Park, has expanded along the shelves of Michael Paul Smith’s Winchester home office for two decades. He works in silence, using an X-Acto knife to carve childhood memories out of basswood.
“I never showed [my models] to anybody from 1998 to 2008,” Smith said. “I figured ‘who was going to like this?’ It seemed odd. I collect toys like a 10-year-old. There’s a 10-year-old right below the surface.”

Smith, a self-deprecating recluse with a trim silver beard, is Elgin’s “Gulliver” and gatekeeper, its mayor and creator. He is also an international celebrity among model makers.

On the photo-sharing website Flickr, Smith has had almost 85 million views, with 13,000 followers. Comments pour in from around the world. His second book, which came out in June, is titled “Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th Scale.” It’s a retrospective and behind-the-scenes look at how Elgin Park is built.

Michael Paul Smith worked in his home studio in Winchester in September.
CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Michael Paul Smith worked in his home studio in Winchester in September.

People routinely share personal anecdotes evoked by Elgin Park: about going to the record store or loading bags of salt into their trucks in winter. A doctor who treats people with Alzheimer’s disease e-mailed to let Smith know he used photos of Elgin Park with patients because the images triggered a response. A father wrote Smith and said his autistic child wouldn’t go to bed unless he got to visit Elgin Park. A young man in India wrote Smith begging to be his apprentice.

With a new piece debuted last month in Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum’s exhibit “Sizing It Up: Scale in Nature and Art,” and a short film “Elgin Park,” released in February, more visitors are discovering his tiny town. In the film, Smith compares his life to a classic black-and-white clip in the cartoon “Popeye.” Olive Oyl walks perilously over the construction site of a building wearing a blindfold.

“Every time she was about to [fall off the building], a girder came,” Smith said on camera. “That’s my life.”

He grew up outside Pittsburgh in a small town called Sewickley, near the railroad tracks. One of five kids in an Italian family, he was the shy boy. The kitchen was so small that the family had to eat dinner in shifts.

He had a rough time. At school, he was bullied and beaten up. A guidance counselor once told him “he had no discernible talent.” One teacher let him leave class 15 minutes early because she knew he was getting walloped by classmates.

His childhood wasn’t dysfunctional, Smith says. There was a lot of beauty. But some things were just not talked about. He’s battled depression most of his life. He struggled with being gay and, as a young man, attempted suicide.

“There was concern of what are people going to think, especially for someone who’s been ridiculed and bullied and through the trenches,” said Danny Yourd, 32, who directed and produced the short film. “The vulnerability he put out there engaged people to connect with him.”

And engaged they are. He once had to convince a woman that Elgin Park didn’t actually exist and that she couldn’t visit. Though Smith’s photos read like vintage snapshots, it’s a trick of the eye. To make his pictures, he arranges his small handcrafted houses and die-cast cars on a folding table, shooting the vignettes in front of real trees and buildings and other backdrops. With just the right perspective and light, the scenes appear life-size.

A model of Michael Paul Smith’s childhood home featured in his most recent book.
MICHAEL PAUL SMITH

A model of Michael Paul Smith’s childhood home featured in his most recent book.

Some fans have gone so far as to Photoshop themselves into pictures of Elgin Park. Theresa Thompson, 49, of Fort Wayne, Ind., has never met Smith in person, but they’ve dressed up in period clothing and digitally added themselves to pictures together, creating new story lines and captions to go with them.

“It’s longing for a simpler time . . . it’s the opposite of Instagram or Snapchat,” said Gail Ellison, coauthor of two books on Elgin Park and a friend of Smith’s for 30 years. “I’ve been surprised at the number of young people drawn to the work, who weren’t born in the era he’s focusing on.”

Tucker cars in a 1957 car wash.)
CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Tucker cars in a 1957 car wash.

She calls Smith meticulous. He once made a mistake while crafting a vintage milk crate at 1/24 scale in one of his dioramas. A fan informed him that type of crate didn’t fit the time period.

He apologized and fixed it.

“He’s like the postman heading out through any weather,” Ellison said. “He has it in his mind what he’s trying to convey, and he goes pulling his suitcase through the neighborhood and working endless hours.”

All of Smith’s experiences contribute to Elgin Park. He has been a wallpaper hanger and a house painter. He worked in advertising and had a heart attack at 33. When he worked as a mailman, a dog bit him on his first day. He has designed museum displays and architectural models. He got fired from a job as a bartender in Worcester because he refused to wear hot pants. He has turned down opportunities to build models for movies because they want them immediately, and he takes his time.

He is something of a hermit. Weeks can go by when the model maker doesn’t leave his house, a pumpkin-colored Victorian with a workshop on the third floor. But Smith is not alone. He has a partner of 35 years he met in a dance class.

In his studio, he passes the hours among his miniatures. On this day, Smith’s vision narrows down to 26 tiny pieces. His hands fashion a miniature Adirondack chair. As he looks up, his eyes adjust. For a moment, the world around him looks enormous.

Tucked away among his collection of memorabilia is a perfect dollhouse replica of the house he grew up in. It’s detailed down to the wallpaper, a pink pastiche of roses pulled from an old Sears catalog. It brought back good and bad memories. It brought closure.

“[W]hat I call my quirky hobby that I was afraid to show anybody is out there now,” he said. “It’s affecting people. It has changed people’s lives on some level.”

Projects in his studio included the interior of a 1927 bungalow.
CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF

Projects in his studio included the interior of a 1927 bungalow.

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.