You don’t often see sculptors in the library at work on invisible projects, but Justin Poe is an exception.
“When I started out, I did these 2″ x 3″ wide sculptures, and I carried everything around in my backpack,” said the Charlottesville-based artist. “I worked in public, in libraries and restaurants, and got a lot of real-time feedback. I just started working smaller and smaller, and it got to the point where people stopped asking because they couldn’t see it.”
The Florida native and 2012 graduate of Guilford College in North Carolina creates “detailed small-scale architectural landscapes.” His miniature houses, apartment buildings, and cabins anchor to natural surfaces and found objects like moss-capped stones and hermit crab shells.
“The smallest house I ever made was a size of a grain of salt,” Poe said. To display that piece, he mounted the house to a quarter-inch nail head and created a little forest around it.
He framed the work with a magnifying lens for viewers, though he didn’t use one himself. “I wanted to reach the epitome of working without a microscope or magnifying glass,” he explained.
So how the hell does he make such tiny, intricate objects?
Practice, apparently. Poe said he’s gotten to the point “where I don’t need tweezers, even. I shave a toothpick to a small point, touch it to glue, dab most of the glue off, and use that to adhere pieces together. That way I get no friction from tweezers.”
Patience is another key. To make his smallest houses, Poe applies a layer of paint to a surface, carves off the edges with an X-acto knife, applies another layer, carves again, and so on. It’s a process he described as “kind of like 3D printing, but manual.”
He’s always liked to look at things in fine detail. “Like moss on a rock, I’m instantly drawn into that,” he said. “It’s a little self-contained world.”
Poe got his start as a technical theater major with a focus in set design. His interest in miniature structures piqued when he began making small-scale models of sets.
“I kind of realized that if I’d been doing something larger, people would be less inclined to buy it as rapidly,” he said.
His forays into small sculpture confirmed his belief that people tended to value small-scale intricacy more than large-scale intricacy. In other words, it’s easier to identify (and therefore applaud) time-consuming techniques over complicated concepts.
“I hate when people look at my work and think they can do the same things, though I fall prey to that too,” he said. “Working really small-scale blows that notion out of the water. That’s a huge benefit to working smaller and smaller over time.”
After graduation, Poe went back to Guilford for a fourth year in sculpture. Inspired by Willard Wigan, a micro-sculptor whose work is small enough to pass through the eye of a needle, Poe pursued the theme of detailed small-scale architectural landscapes in his thesis. In Charlottesville he works with sculptor and contractor Jason Roberson and plans to apply to UVA’s graduate School of Architecture.
Working with toothpicks, cardboard from boxes, and “whatever is free and immediately available,” Poe encourages viewers to reframe their understanding of what it means to be “life-sized.” As a personal practice, this shift in perception has greatly colored the artist’s worldview.
“When you focus in on this really small scale your eyes have to adjust,” he said. “They become so adjusted everything else looks blurry. It enters you into this Zen-like state. When you’re focused on this one small spot, the rest of the world disappears.”