Iis Sunday in a typical Venezuelan village. Mass in the cathedral is over and the market square is packed. There are fishmongers, vendors of queso frescoes, a newspaper peddler, children playing hide and seek and other games, and in the center of the commotion is a cow that has parked near the church door.
The characters are as small as the eyeballs of Jorge Flores who looks out of the window of the hairdressing salon, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput. It shows an inch-tall man shaving next to another short customer who is reading a newspaper. Then his eyes turn to the crowd, where he points to a girl in a circle around the rose that falls to the ground after losing its grip on the chain of hands.
“It’s a very funny moment that the artist brought to life,” Flores says with a mischievous smile. “That’s what miniatures are – the detail, the craftsmanship and the charm. This is art. It doesn’t have to be a Raphael to deliver a message of joy and pleasure.
The elaborate and exuberant set of nearly 200 pieces, molded from clay and hand-painted in vibrant colors, was made by a woman in a craft shop in Caracas more than 50 years ago. It’s one of thousands of such miniatures from around the world on display in Maryland, US, the home of 74-year-old Flores, who has spent half a century amassing her collection.
There are roosters strutting from Portugal; a pearl of China handwritten with poetry; Navajo Kachinas dancing in feathered ceremonial dress; trolls from Norway; a group of marimba from Mexico carved out of toothpicks; bronze gods and corncob dolls from Nepal; model ships from Vietnam; a Noah’s Ark in ebony from Malawi; a half-inch Don Quixote twisted from a single strand of yarn; tiny Thai dishes; a German spotted cow licking its side with a tongue from a Tex Avery cartoon; an Indian sandalwood figurine of a Rajasthani woman wearing traditional dress, with hidden pocket drawers that reveal famous royal maharajahs and epic battle scenes with warriors and elephants; and a street vendor from the Salvadoran town of Ilobasco (when you lift the lids of her pottery, there are also “living” armadillos for sale).
The vast mini-world of Flores occupies 16 rooms. It is a staggering display of visually striking objects that can be an overwhelming experience when taking the host-guided tour. Just when you think you’ve seen it all – or perhaps hallucinated – Flores ushers you into another room with shelves of smaller wonders waiting their turn under the spotlight. According to his own estimate, there are between 80,000 and 100,000 figures in approximately 4,000 sets.
As incredible as it may seem after seeing his reserve, Flores is a demanding and picky connoisseur who rejects most of what he encounters in his endless quest. He has strict criteria for what makes the cut: the piece must be handmade and meet his standards of creativity and craftsmanship. More importantly, it must bring a smile to his face.
Most of the sets come with a story about the artist and how Flores found the piece in a distant part of the globe. Take one of his favorites, a set of carved wooden figurines from Mozambique. It depicts a real-life event during a deadly flood in 2000 when a pregnant woman escaped rising waters by climbing a tree, where she gave birth. The set features the dramatic scene where she and her baby girl, Rosita, are rescued by helicopter. “Every year on her birthday, Rosita is in the papers with a new photo and a story about her life,” he tells me. “They still remember her in Mozambique.”
As with many countries represented in the collection, Mozambique is not just a place on a map for Flores. He worked on malaria vaccines with a clinic based there during his time as an infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Over the past decade his collection has more than doubled and he has become a patron as well as a collector. He and his partner, Elizabeth, who accompanies him on research expeditions, befriended many miniature artists. One is the Jangid family of Jaipur, India, who come from a long line of traditional woodcarvers. The beautifully crafted figurine of the Rajasthani woman is one of many pieces he commissioned from the family. For Flores, it’s a way not only to increase his stash, but also to help financially support practitioners of a dying art.
“They are poets,” Flores says of the artists. “They love the work they do. It brings out their soul and comes through in every piece they make. They have a lot of originality and know-how, and they deserve to be known outside their villages.
He’s a welcoming frog prince, as small as a thumbnail, who first helped spark Flores’ obsession. He bought the German-made painted wooden piece for 70 cents at a store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was a clinical researcher at Harvard Medical School in the early 1970s. His collection grew rapidly after trips to Mexico , a destination for folk art miniatures, including fleas in traditional dress performing a hat dance.
It wasn’t long before the completeness streak of his miniature mania set in. “I think you have to have a passion for collecting which is kind of an unnatural genetic flaw,” he tells me. “Collectors collect because they are curious and want to collect and watch together. Let’s say I had the New York Yankees in small handmade figurines by a rural artist, and if I didn’t have Mickey Mantle, it wouldn’t be complete, would it? You must have everyone on the team.
Its collection now includes 120 countries, with miniature homes like India, Mexico, Vietnam, Germany, Indonesia and Japan well represented. Recently, he was able to fill in the gaps by acquiring hand-stitched figurines of a grumpy old couple from Montenegro and a set from early Christian churches in Armenia.
A friend and colleague, Dave Keuler, has seen the collection twice. “It’s an absolutely stunning display of craftsmanship with pieces that reflect so many traditional cultures,” says Keuler, a clinical psychologist at Silver Spring. “It captures so much of what’s great about what it means to be a human being – that creativity, that perseverance, that passion, and that desire to commemorate cultures.”
An avid antique collector, Keuler believes the pieces deserve a wider audience. “It feels like a national treasure,” he says, “and I hope it finds a place where it can be enjoyed by people. I hope it won’t end up in boxes. Indeed, with his recent retirement after 32 years at the NIH, Flores says he now wants to find space to open a miniatures museum in Montgomery County.
Recently, Flores acquired several valuable sets that were custom made for him by a Peruvian couple in Lima. The painstaking work took two years, from commissioning to completion, and Flores says it was worth the wait.
One is an ensemble from the National Children’s Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The craftsman mistakenly put two batons in Dudamel’s hands instead of one. When Flores saw the pair of batons, he was thrilled. “I would never dare to change that,” he says, noting that it will give him a teachable moment if school groups ever visit his future museum: it will test children’s knowledge of classical music by asking them what is different in this conductor. – in addition to being very small.
The Washington Post