BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Joe Berton and Gloria Groom shine as Chicago’s most creative couple, lighting up Summer 2017 with their distinct exhibitions. With Gloria’s “Gauguin as Alchemist” at the Art Institute, where she serves as Chair of European Painting and Sculpture, lining up attendees for blocks down Michigan Avenue, Joe has been hard at work on the leadership committee for the World Model Expo, opening this July 7-9 at the Chicago Hilton, the largest gathering of miniature artists and enthusiasts from around the world.
With its roots in the toy soldiers collected by children for hundreds of years, and the plastic versions dating back to the 1930s, the hobby of miniature figures has become an international craze.
Today, sculpting and painting these incredibly realistic miniature versions of historical subjects or fantasy creations have risen to the level of fine art among enthusiasts and collectors throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia.
The World Model Expo will feature the best examples of miniature figure work done today. Over 300 of the world’s leading miniaturists, both artists and modelers, will soon be arriving in Chicago to show the very best examples of their work.
Among the 1000 pieces on display at the Expo will be Joe’s incredibly detailed miniature depicting Ernest Hemingway and the award-winning photographer Robert Capa—the two met during the Spanish Civil War.
Of this and other subject matter, Joe explained:
“Like Hemingway, we live in Oak Park, and I did extensive research on their friendship. I have several other versions of Hemingway at war and in peace.
“Many of my subjects are from the Middle East. I will be lecturing again at Oxford in the fall on Lawrence of Arabia and have been a lender and advisor on two museum shows on Lawrence in Germany and England. I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia when it was re-released in 1967. What a story!
“He was an amazing man, a friend of the artist Augustus John (who painted him in 1919), an archeologist, and an author. I loved seeing Lawrence’s very modest home in a remote part of Dorset. I was fortunate to meet the movie’s star, Peter O’Toole, before he died. He had one of my models.”
Joe’s book, T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, was published in 2011, and he collects vintage military uniforms, artifacts, and an occasional camel saddle, possibly not Gloria’s favorite home accessory, he admitted.
He is currently researching the Victorian explorer Gertrude Bell, a friend of Lawrence’s, and will begin that model in October, following the annual group show that month of the Military Miniature Society of Illinois, a group of 100 modelers founded in the 1950s. Joe serves as Vice President.
Winner of numerous awards at miniature shows across the world, Joe’s incredibly realistic miniatures are in private collections here in the United States, and far afield in England, France, Italy, and Egypt. The King of Bahrain, who was then the Crown Prince, requested a model of a chieftain holding a sacred falcon.
Joe designs for private collectors (not all kings) as well as toy companies, though he keeps a few of his one-of-a-kind pieces for his own personal collection. Executed in epoxy-based putty, the extreme detail and historical research make his works stand out among miniaturists.
Famous miniature collectors have included Malcolm Forbes; who had his own toy soldier museum in Tangiers; the late actor Robin Williams; and Andrew Wyeth, whom Joe visited at his home in Chadd’s Ford. Game of Thrones author, George R.R. Martin, has a vast collection of medieval knights and fantasy pieces. There are many Chicago collectors as well.
WBEZ’s “Sound Opinions” host, Jim DeRogatis, is known for his box dioramas, similar to the Thorne Rooms, though his include human figures. His wide-ranging subjects include Napoleon and his staff at the Louvre, and the action at the 1968 Democratic Convention in front of the Hilton Hotel, which will be on view at Expo. Jim is an active member of the Military Miniature Society of Illinois and a coordinator of the Expo.
The hobby typically consists of people who collect antique and currently produced toy soldiers, modelers who paint kits to incredibly accurate detail, and sculptors who make one-of-a-kind pieces, thoroughly researched and finely painted. The result is a great combination of historical research and artistic ability.
At the Expo, guests can attend a variety of seminars and demonstrations. The artists get feedback from one another on their miniatures—noting when legs appear too short or arms are different, for example—and bronze, silver, and gold medals are awarded at the end.
“Modelers first began doing home casting with lead, often out of old car batteries, which would be boiled up on a stove. This, of course, proved to be a health hazard. The metal used now is of a much better quality, composed of more pewter and is more like tin.
“There were actually toy soldiers found in Egyptian tombs. By 1870 in England, there were many for sale, and there are some of those still around.
“Most of my original, one-of-a-kind pieces are based on a plastic and wire armature. The armature itself will sometimes feature existing components like hands and heads that I can take from other kits.
“The material I use to sculpt over that basic armature is an epoxy-based putty. I mix up two equal-size parts about the size of a pea, and it has the consistency of modeling clay. This putty has about a half-hour of working time before it starts to harden up. Once it dries, it can be filed or sanded down. While it is soft, I can work in folds and wrinkles. I also use wire and paper for details and belting. Many of the kits sold to modelers today are of a resin that captures the most precise detail.
“I love the research but the actual sculpting can be frustrating at times. Then you reach a turning point and things begin to click. In my miniature of the Egyptian rug seller, I was stumped because all photos of camels are from the front end—I had to get one from the other to make it accurate. The rug is made out of Kleenex.”
Joe describes how he got started:
“I began at the age of 13 with Fort Apache plastic figures. At that time, you could get about 100 World War II soldiers for about $4 to $5. My mother was somewhat artistic, and she encouraged my brothers and me to become interested in art. She could be my harshest critic, but she really urged me to pursue this.
“I would take a train into Chicago from St. Charles, where we lived, and go to Kroch’s and Brentano’s to buy reference books. I purchased my first toy soldiers at Marshall Field’s, which once had a wonderful display of soldiers from England, France, and Germany.
“The Hobby Chest, first in Evanston and then in Skokie, featured kits and painted miniatures. Unfortunately, it closed in the early 1990s. In New York, there was the Soldier Shop, right on Madison Avenue. Today, one of the best-known shops is located at the Palais Royal in Paris. Not only is the owner tops in his field, but he also knows a lot about impressionist artists—both Gloria and I enjoy visiting there.
“Once, I decided that Gloria and I should go to the Ritz Hotel bar in Paris to research another Hemingway miniature showing him having a martini at that same spot, one of his favorite watering holes.”
Both Joe and Gloria, along with Jonathan Tavares, Curator of Arms and Armor, will be guiding 100 guests from the Model Expo through the Art Institute.
“I like to show miniaturists the way John Singer Sargent and others understand highlights and shadows, and how they portray skin tones. We will view several artists who excel as he does, and I know they will love the arms and armor in the Deering Family Galleries, which Jonathan will show us.”
Joe has done models of artists at work including Monet and his water lilies.
“When Gloria and I visited Monet’s home at Giverny, I looked at the bulrushes there to make sure I was getting them right. I may do a miniature of Gauguin in honor of Gloria’s latest show.”
To Joe, modeling—whether painting an existing figure or sculpting one from scratch at his desk in his basement—is both fun and relaxing. Projects begin with casual research, and the entire process can take up to 60 hours for a one-of-a-kind piece. He is currently capturing the Cubs versus the Cardinals in a soon-to-be painted work, with two players caught in the baseline drama.
The couple’s two grown sons, Alexander and Philip, have inherited this unique hobby, favoring science fiction fantasy kits when they were little.
“Their dad might have been a gold medal-winner, but they first went to the local hobby shop to get advice. I had to prove myself to them.”
To the crowds who will see his work at the World Model Expo this weekend, Joe has more than proved himself as one of the world’s most talented miniature artists.
To learn more about the World Model Expo July 7-9 at the Chicago Hilton, 720 South Michigan, visit we2017chicago.com. Information about the Military Miniature Society of Illinois can be found at military-miniature-society-of-illinois.com.