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Cecil County Life

The small worlds of Deb Mackie

Oct 30, 2017 01:34PM ● By J. Chambless

Artist Deb Mackie at her workbench, where she crafts tiny leather purses and saddles, dolls and dioramas.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Most young people go through a phase of model-making, dollhouses and miniatures. Deb Mackie is happy to say she never grew out of it.

For her, meticulously crafting a tiny treasure is a way of making her own little world. Working out of a trailer studio at her 14-acre Elkton farm, Mackie said she was first inspired by her family. “My mom was an elementary school teacher and she always had all kinds of fun projects to do,” she said. “We lived in upstate New York, and we didn't grow up in front of the TV, that's for sure.”

Mackie's father was a model train enthusiast, her mother made terrariums, her grandmother crafted leather, and young Deb had a passion for horses and gardening. “I think all kids are wildly creative, but somewhere along the line someone tells them what they did wasn't good, so they never create another thing,” she said.

When Mackie was 12, her grandmother agreed to buy her a leather crafting kit that she'd been admiring. She still has the miniature leather saddle she tooled back then. “She loaned me her tools to do it,” Mackie said. “The Tandy company still makes the kit, too, so I had to buy another one, just for fun.

“My parents never gave me grief about going to art school,” Mackie said. She went to Rochester Institute of Technology and spent 30 years as a graphic designer and a web designer. Jobs came and went, but she kept working at her art. Now she's at the Delaware Museum of Natural History as the membership coordinator and occasional graphic designer.

Scattered around her tightly packed studio are examples of Mackie's fanciful work. There's a sinuous mermaid on her work table, larger dolls posed on a higher shelf, and a diorama box across the room that was a winner at the Philadelphia Flower Show, where she regularly competes. The miniature scenes are built on a yearly theme, and must incorporate at least eight species of appropriately scaled living plants. It's a challenge Mackie welcomes.

She has recently focused more on miniature leather work, turning large hides into purses that are only a couple of inches high, with working buckles and straps. She has made saddles for scale model horses, putting the same kind of attention into each strap and stirrup.

She's a regular exhibitor at miniature shows, which draw collectors whose interests divide them into broad categories. Some of those who collect horse models insist on microscopic detail and even pedigrees of the horse being depicted. There are doll collectors and dollhouse enthusiasts as well. Mackie likes to use toy Breyer horses that are detailed enough for her saddles and figural work, without getting too obsessive.

“I buy them in lots on Ebay,” she said, adding that she paints and embellishes them before displaying and selling them, complete with her handmade saddles. “There's something kind of fun about taking a beat-up old Breyer model and giving it a new life.”

The world of miniaturists can extend to extreme examples. “Some artists create whole scenes on a grain of rice,” she said. “That's not really our world. There's a slew of artists who do scenic things in miniature, photograph them and destroy the scene. Their finished product is the photograph itself. To them, it's a stage set.”

Other artists work so small that their work can be seen only through a magnifier. Prices can range into the thousands of dollars.

Mackie works mostly in 1:12 scale, sometimes referred to as “dollhouse scale.” There's also 1:24, “a half-inch equals a foot,” she said. “The model railroad people have a whole different range of scales. The biggest thing they do is what we call half-scale, 1:24. Then the model horse people are a whole other thing. I sometimes work in half-scale, but only if I have to, and it's enough to make me lose my mind,” Mackie said.

For her dioramas, she uses curved backgrounds in the boxes to create the sense of depth, and paints the scenes. Each part is carefully scaled. “If there's one little thing that's out of scale, it blows the whole scene,” she said, laughing. “I show them to my husband, Jim, because he's brutally honest. He'll say, 'It's really cool, but that thing in the corner is just wrong.' I have a friend who also does the Flower Show every year, and at some point we'll each say, 'This looks awful! I'm going to take it apart!' And I'll come over and look at hers and be able to see what's wrong. And she does the same for me. Sometimes you look at something so long that you can't see what's wrong with it.”

Mackie's leather work – including leather journal covers and flask covers – is carried at the Palette and the Page in Elkton, and she sells at shows and through her website. While working full-time as an office administrator, her hours at home can easily be swallowed up by her miniatures, or in tending to the animals that live on the couple's farm. There are currently five cats that have arrived and decided to stay, along with two rescue horses and a rescue donkey. They were all down on their luck when Mackie opened her heart to them. Doogie, a three-legged black cat, now occupies her studio most days, contentedly curled up in an armchair.

Mackie's schedule was dominated for about the past 10 months by a film project that will be unveiled in November. “With the help of a friend, I worked with Something's Awry Productions in Landenberg on a set of 12 stop-motion commercials for action figures in association with Warner Brothers,” she said. There were 12 miniature sets to build, ranging from a forest to a swamp to a kitchen, in various scales. She doesn't want to reveal what the action figures are until the films are released, but said the project was a big one.

She will exhibit in November at the largest miniatures show on the East Coast, Philadelphia Miniaturia, and she's putting together items to sell. One of her big sellers is a miniature Ouija board that collectors use in their dollhouses.

The issue of copyright is one that model makers have to tread carefully around, Mackie said. “I've never had copyright problems – but you don't want to mess with Disney,” she said of the comnpany that fiercely protects its products from any competitors or copies. “So many people have made Harry Potter dolls, but they make one. It's an art piece. But if you start mass-producing them, then you're going to get in trouble.”

Mackie works with a table-mounted magnifying glass, but her tools are simple. There's an awl, an X-acto knife that belonged to her father, and an Osborne round knife from the 1800s that she uses to cut leather. It works just fine.

For several years, Mackie was involved with community theaters in the area, designing and building sets and costumes, as well as appearing on stage. The work gave her satisfaction that she was creating worlds in a large scale, she said, “but doing these miniatures is still theater, in a way. But you can do this at your workbench, instead of up on a rickety scaffold.”

Mackie's work has even taken her to Singapore after she took “Best in Show” at the Philadelphia Flower Show with her Pegasus miniature horse scene. “The people from the Singapoe Garden Festival came over to Philadelphia and asked three of us to come over and set up their own miniature settings event at their show,” she said. “We managed to ship six full Flower Show sets over there. They paid for everything, flew us over there, and we were there for two weeks. We taught classes on miniatures. It was an adventure,” she said. “The Prime Minister made a special trip to the show to see our work.”

Mackie is open and honest about her work, and she gladly shares tips in classes she presents. That openness is a trait of most miniature makers she knows, with a few exceptions. “Some of them get a niche in a certain medium, and they're mad if someone else steps in,” she said. “But most are willing to share. I seem to have become the miniature leather person, so I'm focusing more on that now. So far, nobody else is doing it the way I do it. When I start getting cross-eyed from doing the miniatures, I do something full-scale.”

Her work has been featured in magazines including American Miniaturist, for which she wrote several articles and how-to pieces. She has also been featured in Miniature Collector, Dollhouse Miniatures and Dolls House World. She was curator of the Delaware Art Museum’s “Masterpieces in Miniature” exhibition for several years. She is also on the board of trustees of the International Guild of Miniature Artisans.

“I'm always learning, you can always do better the next time,” she said. She regularly takes apart her dioramas and reworks the elements into new pieces, sometimes to the consternation of her buyers. “People tell me, 'I can't believe you took that apart!' But I like to take parts and move on to the next thing,” she said with a smile.

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To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected].

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