Historical perspective


October 9, 2005


In the work of Chicago artist Sheperd Paine, history springs to life. Dramatic battles are captured in all of their sweeping complexities, and small moments of humbling humanity, poignant sadness and unexpected humor are rendered with the eye of a master storyteller.

The twist: Paine's largest creations have seldom been bigger than a breadbox, and the faces of the men and women he has portrayed are usually the size of your thumbnail.

Although his name is hardly as familiar as some of this city's most celebrated painters or architects, Shep Paine is the most accomplished and best known miniaturist in America, if not the world: He is the venerated grandfather of the art of military miniatures, a hobby that includes elements of painting, sculpting, modeling and, in Paine's case, incredibly detailed storytelling.


When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 15; 9 a.m.-noon Oct. 16
Where: Doubletree Hotel, 1909 Spring Rd., Oakbrook
Tickets: $3-$5
Phone: (815) 678-6678; www.mmsichicago.com


Like many hobbyists, I first became enthralled with Paine's work as a teen in the '70s, clumsily using tubes of foul-smelling plastic cement and small bottles of enamel paint to build the 1/32nd scale plastic tanks (roughly a third the size of the real thing) manufactured by the Morton Grove-based Monogram Co. Already one of the most skilled modelers in America, Paine was hired by Monogram to write four-page "how-to" brochures included with many of the company's kits. Illustrated with color photos of his work, written in a sharp, clear and humorous style, and full of helpful hints, these booklets inspired hobbyists to set their models in detailed scenes or dioramas, capturing a slice of life and elevating them into something more than static lumps of plastic that would sit on a shelf.

"Monogram was reissuing the kits they made in the '50s, and they were looking for something new to give them some oomph," Paine recalled. "So they contacted me about doing those tip sheets, and I thought it was a pretty good idea. There was always a time restraint on those dioramas, and most were done in a week. [A less accomplished modeler could spend six months on such a project.] But I got some satisfaction out of doing something halfway decent.

"When you get into dioramas, you are creating a work of art. I don't use the word with a capital 'A' but you are creating a 3-D painting, and the satisfaction you get is much the same. In some ways, dioramas are so interesting because they combine so many elements in different forms: You are basically telling a story without words. It's like silent movies, except you don't have anybody moving."

The first American born to a soldier in Berlin after World War II, Paine grew up in New England, but he has called Chicago home since he came here in the 1960s to attend college. Still a bachelor at age 59, he lives in a house that doubles as a veritable museum full of military memorabilia, including an amazing collection of uniforms from the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of several eras that have long held a special fascination for him.

As a kid, Paine collected tiny 20mm tanks and dabbled with model railroading, and he built model tanks during his spare time while serving as an Army sergeant in Germany. "I had a small collection of the vehicles that were actually in our company, and I discovered that if I put these things out on display in my room, inspecting officers would come over and look at them and never notice the dust bunnies under the bed," he said, laughing.

While earning his degree in humanities at the University of Chicago, Paine discovered a now-defunct store called the Hobby Chest in Skokie, and he began building and painting the elaborate 1/32nd scale Napoleonic soldiers and cavalrymen manufactured by the French company Historex.

He put some of his finished pieces on display at the store, and collectors began buying them, helping to fund his way through school. From that point on, he progressed to building figures from scratch using putty, and he sold every piece he created.

"I like to say that I've never really had a real job," Paine said. "But I never looked at modeling from a business standpoint: I'd simply work on things that I wanted to do and sell them when I was done. It was basically a way to pay for my hobby. The purpose wasn't to make money; the purpose was to pay the rent so I could do it full-time."

Paine has since had a hand in every phase of the hobby. He was a partner in Valiant Miniatures, a Chicago company now based in Madison, Wis., and he sculpted the models for many of the white metal figures the company still produces. He also sculpted pieces for the Franklin Mint and built dioramas for several museums, including one portraying the sinking of John Paul Jones' ship the Bonhomme Richard at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Always generous in sharing his skills, Paine still teaches the occasional class under the aegis of the Military Miniatures Society of Illinois, one of the longest-running and most respected groups of its kind. With these classes, he popularized what hobbyists call "the Chicago school" of figure painting, using artists' oils instead of acrylics or enamels.

And after writing the Monogram pamphlets, he shared more of his expertise via four books for Waukesha, Wis.-based Kalmbach Publishing. First issued in 1980, How to Build Dioramas has become a bible for two generations of hobbyists: It's gone through two editions and dozens of printings, and it's been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Spanish.

"When I think back on just what an enormous influence Shep was on people that he never met, it's amazing to me," said Californian Bill Horan, himself a world-class modeler and author of two books cataloging his work. "Once I saw pictures of his dioramas, I had to know who did them. I looked at what he did and I saw the model in the box and I thought, 'My God, how was that possible?'"

Through it all, Paine's figures, vignettes and boxed dioramas (elaborate scenes set in enclosed and illuminated cases the size of a breadbox) became ever more sought after by collectors of art and militaria. The artist sometimes sold pieces before he even started working on them, but he always limited his output to subjects that interested him. "People always asked me if I took commissions, but I told them, 'No, I take suggestions,'" he said.

Several of Paine's one-of-a-kind creations were purchased by the late military history buff and multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes (and are still on display at the Forbes Gallery in New York), while others were acquired by the renowned painter Andrew Wyeth. Whatever the subject -- the action in the turret of the Civil War ironclad the Monitor, Napoleon visiting the tomb of Frederick the Great, or a crew escaping a downed fighter plane during the Battle of Midway -- Paine's works were as eagerly sought as the paintings of a fine artist such as Wyeth himself.

"I've known Shep and been collecting his work now for somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years," said 92-year-old Rockford resident Ralph Koebberman, whose collection includes nine of Paine's boxed dioramas purchased for a few thousand dollars apiece. "I've always been interested in miniatures, and to me, these shadow boxes are true art. They were just so wonderful, and Shep was such a splendid artist. It really aggravates me that some people wouldn't consider these 'art' just because they don't get shown in a gallery."

After four decades of modeling, Paine is no longer consumed with building dioramas; he describes himself as "semi-retired," and he now focuses on selling vintage military uniforms and medals on eBay, though he adds that he'd return to modeling "if I got an idea that I really wanted to do." Nevertheless, his influence continues to loom large: Out-of-print copies of some of his books sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay, and on the rare occasions when his dioramas change hands between collectors, it's often for 10 times their original price.

While he no longer enters his own work -- "and I was never very competitive about that sort of thing, anyway" -- Paine also remains a fixture at modeling shows. He was a key organizer at the World Expo held in Boston last July, the first time in a decade that the biggest of these events came to to the United States, and he will once again take part in the judging at the annual show sponsored by MMSI next weekend in Oak Brook, which draws hundreds of artists and enthusiasts from around the world.

In fact, of all of Paine's accomplishments in the world of modeling, he is proudest of developing what's called "the open system" of judging now favored by many modeling shows, which is typical of his selfless and inspiring attitude. "If you are doing gold medal work, you get a gold medal, no matter what anyone else is doing," Paine said. "If you want to compete, take up tennis. This type of thing is just not something you need to compete with. It's about having fun."