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
MINIATURES SOCIETY OF ILLINOIS ANNUAL FIGURES SHOW
a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 15; 9 a.m.-noon Oct. 16
Where: Doubletree Hotel, 1909 Spring Rd., Oakbrook
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
"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
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
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."