Small Wonders

Jimmy Landers is a man of mini talents

By Jon Shoulders

Painstaking detail. Inexhaustible patience. Stunningly precise craftsmanship. These are a few phrases that might come to mind with even the briefest exploration into the work of Jimmy Landers.

For 16 years now, Landers has worked as a builder of miniature structures, and his work has been featured at international miniature shows and in miniature publications around the world. Not bad for someone with no previous experience in architecture or design and who is completely self-taught.

Small beginnings

Landers met his wife of 58 years, Sue, in Washington, D.C., and the two stayed on the East Coast for several years before relocating to Indiana. Originally from Alabama, he worked for Illinois-based Safety-Kleen for 19 years starting in 1985, and since retiring he’s immersed himself in the world of architectural miniatures without the tiniest look back.

At the beginning of 2006, after designing a house near Lake Helmerich in Huntingburg — a life-sized house, that is — Landers says retirement-induced boredom started to creep in.

“My wife said, ‘Build me a dollhouse,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’” he says. “She’s a miniature enthusiast. I had zero experience doing anything like it, but I said I’d try.”

After completing his first miniature project, he took the dollhouse to an annual international showcase event in Chicago, wound up selling it, and knew he had a successful and exciting post-career endeavor on his hands.

“I realized I might have something here, something that I could enjoy myself with and something I could sell,” he says. “That started my miniature career.”

Scaling it down

Sixteen years later and Landers is still immersed in the world of miniatures and currently spends between eight and 12 hours per day on his craft. He’s completed 25 miniature projects and has no plans to stop any time soon.

Given the level of detail and accuracy that each of his structures displays, one might assume Landers prepares for each build with blueprints or at least works from photographs. Not so. He doesn’t complete so much as a sketch or rough mock-up before starting on a new miniature project.

“I put nothing on paper, and I work from my mind,” he says. “I’ve always been that way. That challenge is what I enjoy most about this, not knowing anything about the piece I’m going to build. I know what the general dimensions have to be, and there are some standards that miniaturists go by. For example, everything is based on a 1-to-12 [inch] scale, and the structures you build can’t be more than 30 inches deep, or else you can’t get them through doors. They should be no more than 72 inches tall.”

Several of Landers’ works were recently displayed at the Johnson County Museum of History, for what he says is his first public exhibit, “Magnificent Miniatures at the Museum.” The work he chose to showcase includes an 1891 Tudor home that took him a full year to build and which features slate roofing as well as oil paintings completed by his granddaughter. Also included in the exhibit is a hardware store and a wall-mounted home inspired by painted-lady Victorian and Edwardian houses in San Francisco.

“Jimmy’s pieces are incredibly detailed, and patrons will probably not catch everything on their first visit, so they will probably need to come back a second time,” says Emily Spuhler, curator at the Johnson County Museum of History. “His miniatures represent different time periods and architecture styles. This exhibit is special because the museum has never had one like it before. We are so lucky that one of the top miniaturists lives right here in Johnson County, and we can display his artwork at the Johnson County Museum of History. Photos do not do these miniatures justice, so people need to come see them in person.”

Landers’ friend and fellow miniaturist Frank Crescente agreed to loan his replica of the RMS Titanic’s grand staircase and foyer for the museum exhibit as well. The pieces are on display through April of next year.

“I always go to international shows where your pieces are for sale, but this is the first public viewing,” says Landers, who sold his home in Huntingburg last year and relocated with Sue to a condo in Johnson County. “There’s the Tim Bishop international miniature show every year in Chicago when about 3,000 people come to buy our wares, but that’s more of a show where pieces are for sale. It’s nice to have an exhibit here close to home.”

In the details

Landers does all his miniature work in his two-car garage and sources the furniture, fixtures, kitchen wares and other pieces he needs from master miniature makers.

“I build these pieces on spec, expecting to sell them,” Landers says. “I don’t like commissions. It puts the buyer in the driver’s seat, and I like to be my own boss. Everything I build, I design from scratch.”

You won’t find Landers taking shortcuts of any kind throughout his building process. All his structures are stick-built and enclosed with plywood, which he says is a dying form of construction. While many miniatures makers use plywood or gator board and buy flooring by the sheet, he lays all his floors, plank by plank. He only uses real marble and brick, as well.

“I like you to know you’re getting the real deal, so I don’t use any artificial components,” Landers says. “To most miniaturists today, stick-built construction is a waste of time, because after I enclose the stick framing with the plywood, which basically is like drywall, you don’t know what’s inside it. But I do, and that’s the satisfying part for me.”

Landers retains Carl Sahlberg of Bedford-based Creative Reproduction 2 Scale, who specializes in electrical lighting for miniatures, to electrify each piece he builds. The two have been working together since 2006.

“Jimmy pays attention to finding artisans that can create specific features he wants to emphasize in his structures — things like the real brick he buys from England or the real marble and granite flooring he has specially cut,” Sahlberg says. “We work together very well, and he has helped me with my business as much as I have helped keep him out of electrical problems.”

As Landers typically doesn’t work via commission, he lets his own interests guide what type of project to undertake each time he heads into his garage to begin creating his next miniature marvel. He has a particular affinity for Victorian and colonial-style homes, and when deciding on aesthetic direction for a project, sometimes the process is as simple as walking or driving by a structure and letting inspiration take hold.

“Probably the hardest part is when I’m laying brick and stone,” he says. “It’s very time-consuming and very tedious. I have a piece that has 11,000 individual bricks that were put in one brick at a time. It takes time, but I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing. To be honest, I don’t care whether anyone likes it or not. It’s got to please me. If it pleases me, you’ll probably like it. That’s the way I operate.”