Holy Crap Those Look Real! Interview With Modeler, Michael Paul Smith

Michael Paul Smith is the man behind Elgin Park, a miniature town that looks and feels so real, that his gallery has been viewed over 23 million times. What was a simple hobby of photography and modeling, has now become an internet phenomenon. He was even featured in the NY Times! John Spartan from Nerd Reactor chatted with Michael about all things nerdy, being in the limelight, and working as a text book illustrator.

Nerd Reactor: You’re pretty big on Flickr. How do you feel about this whole viral thing that’s happening on the internet?

Michael Paul Smith: The whole Flickr experience took me totally by surprise. When I initially started making my models and photographing them, I never showed anyone, thinking that what I was doing was just too geeky. When I finally decided to post on Flickr, I wasn’t expecting any response at all. Actually, for the first year and a half, I received about 1,100 hits.

It wasn’t until an editor from a sports car magazine, out of London, inquired about doing a short piece on my work. I was extremely flattered and immediately agreed. I can pin point the exact day that article hit the stands because the Flickr counter went off the scale. That was February 3rd of this year. There was one day where the counter reached one million, 6 hundred thousand hits. It was a delirious moment for me. What had been a private past time was now “out there” for the world to see, literally. I could track the path by way of the e-mails that started to come in. First from England and Germany, then Spain and Italy. Then it jumped to South America and Australia. The United States didn’t show up until someone made a slide show from my Flickr site and passed it around.

The e-mails were emotional and loving. I had somehow struck a chord with people and it wasn’t directly related to nostalgia. If anything, they spoke about feeling safe and going home. One person wrote: “As I look at your work, I am crying…. I am crying.” That still gets me emotional when I think about that. Even when I was little, I had this great desire to add something good to this world. I had no idea it would take the form of building models and photographing them.

Six months later, I’m still receiving, on average, about 8,000 hits a day, and the counter is now past 23 million.

You started building scale models when you were 35. What took you so long?

Oddly enough, the thought never occurred to me to construct model buildings for myself. I’m sometimes slow on the uptake. I would build plastic model cars and I did attempt to build a dollhouse a few times, but making detailed and precise buildings seemed out of my league.

I’m laughing as I write this because it shows how we absorb, as children and even as adults, the thoughts and opinions of other people. As an example…My guidance counselor in high school said I had no talent that she could see, so I should consider just becoming a steel mill worker (I grew up in Pittsburgh). And coming from a large family, being practical was always stressed before anything artistic. This was not an oppressive way of living, but a necessary way of putting food on the table and keeping afloat.

By the way, I never did work in the mills. My family moved to Massachusetts when I was 17 and the whole social landscape changed significantly. It’s a long story, but let me say that slowly I let my artistic side develop. By the time I hit 35, I had balanced my strong work ethic with creativity.

Was this something of a hobby, or were you doing scale models professionally?

One of the many jobs that I had over the years was being an Architectural Model maker. I learned to use power tools and how to construct objects efficiently, plus how to read blueprints. The rhyme and reasoning behind buildings became clearer to me which created a series of Ah Ha! moments through out this time period. The architectural models were very different from what I ended up making for myself. Professional models are more about engineering things so they go together well and are structurally sound.

Also learning to suggest, say an exterior curtain wall, without having to make every component? Or even the other way around, how do you construct every component accurately at 100 scale? Architectural models are clean and exacting by nature. They are beautiful objects, yet most often they don’t have “soul”. If you ever see my models in person, they have soul but are not extremely accurate. They hit all the architectural cues plus the emotional marks. Eventually, I found myself working 8 hours a day as a model maker then going home to make models of my own.

For your masterpiece, Elgin Park, when did the project start? And where did the name Elgin Park come from?

Elgin Park started out as a series of random buildings I had built. They weren’t connected in my mind, but occasionally I would place them together on a table as a kind of exercise of “creative play”. At some point an emotional critical mass was reached when it occurred to me I could build a street scene. I started thinking about how towns develop and grow: the early retail sections of a place that would butt up against the manufacturing area. That kind of thing. So the buildings I started to make reflected that kind of thinking.

The name Elgin Park is a total mystery to me. It just popped into my head. If anything, I was looking for a name that conjured up the Mid West. Imagine my surprise when I found out there really is an Elgin Park, in the mid west.

How much of it is actually accurate, and how much is pure fabrication?

If anything Elgin Park is based on my emotional memory of Sewickley Pennsylvania, the town I grew up in. Although my family moved around a lot in the Pittsburgh area, Sewickley always felt like my geographical center. It’s only one square mile in size and touches the Ohio River. There are train tracks on either side of the river and the sound of heavy engines and their whistles echoing off the hillsides gave the place a dreamlike feeling.

I knew I couldn’t capture that by constructing the town verbatim, so it became clear I had to blend fantasy with fact. There are a few buildings in my town that are fairly close to the actual buildings of Sewickley. The flower shop and the barber shop as an example. Just recently, I received an e-mail from a man who grew up in Sewickley who’s father was the barber during that time. It was a wonderful surreal moment.

Do you believe that such a place can still exist somewhere in a forgotten town in America?

That is a very good question. Personally, I think we’ve mentally and physically grown too far from that way of life. But let me contradict myself and say there are aspects of Elgin Park in every town. I think we’ve become so saturated with today’s world that there is a movement to try to balance that with a feeling of community. A place that we can retreat to and feel connected. I think we are spiritually ready for this. And I don’t mean this in a religious sense.

I believed you have purchased the model cars from the Danbury Mint. What decades were used for the car models you’ve chosen?

The Danbury and Franklin Mint models along with West Coast Precision Die cast cars are what constitutes my collection (I used to have over 300 cars, but the ones from the mid 60’s and 70’s just didn’t speak to me).

The eras that fascinate me are the 1930’s, ’40’s, 50’s and the early ’60s. And each era is very distinct in my mind. The ’30s had a huge design arc that went from the Model T Ford look to the Art Deco Chrysler Airflow. Side by side they are like night and day. And when you put that design sense in the context of what was going on socially and economically, you can see a huge disparity. Society was in the throws of an economic depression yet the styles that were being presented to the public were curved, chromed, sleek and jazzy.

The style of the 1940’s, after World War II, was streamlined and modern; big and rounded with a feeling of “here comes the FUTURE”. The economy was picking up along with the emotional state of the world.

The 1950’s were similar to the 1930’s in terms of huge style changes. The early part of the decade was still tipping it’s hat to the post war design sensibility. By the mid ’50’s, color along with a sense of fun and the emergence of the tail fin started to exemplify the national mood.

By the late 1950’s, a bloated sense of style and design was evident. This was a good and bad thing. It certainly paved the way for a more clean, pared down, “Space Age” look.

As much as I love the ’50’s, it’s that short, 3 year, “Jetson” style era that gets my heart racing. If you ever see a 1961 Plymouth Fury, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I haven’t done any models of that time period, yet. Although, I do have drawings and floor plans of buildings that I’d enjoy constructing.

For a man who has many model cars, it is said that you in fact, do not own an actual car? How did that happen?

It’s a long and sad story. I’ll blame it on the economy, job availability, lack of money and just plain common sense. For what it’s worth, the vehicles I drove were mostly pickup trucks. About 15 years ago I owned a 1951 Studebaker 4 door Champion (I loved that car).

You’ve mentioned in the New York Times that you didn’t add human figures in your photography because you wanted to convey emotions through the viewers’ mind. What about actual items left by people? Perhaps trash, or newspapers lying on the ground?

Ah grasshopper, you are very observant! Yes, there is trash and stuff left in the photos. Occasionally there’s a car door or hood left open, too. So in effect there are people in the shot, they just happened to be in the next room or they just left to get a cup of coffee. The lack of people has caused some viewers to become anxious or even angry. That was not my intent.

I realize I’m bringing my own baggage into this by what I’m about to say. When I was around 9 or 10, I totally enjoyed taking walks by myself, deliberately avoiding busy streets pretending I was the last person on earth. The sense of quiet and peace made me feel as though I was floating. As I got older, I still liked these walks but I would listen to the sounds coming from people’s homes; such as a radio playing, the sounds of dinner being made, or a faint conversation drifting from an open window. The world felt right and complete. So this is a direct link to what my photos are projecting.

Since I was a product of the 80s, looking at these models reminds me of Back to the Future with the song “Mr. Sandman” playing in the background. Do you think that the newer generation will have an appreciation with the 50s?

Another good question! I have to say YES, this will help people appreciate those eras, but then quickly add that as idyllic as these images are, I don’t think those times were necessarily better. There were less options available to society back then, so what is freely done now was smoldering not far from the surface, back then (I could tell you stories!). Yet in the same breath, a sense of morality and social correctness, at least for the general public, was more in place back then. From where I’m sitting now, that is not a bad thing.

What kind of art were you into when you were in high school or college?

In high school, I was experimenting with oil painting, pencil sketching and still life drawings. I was learning what was available in terms of mediums and techniques. Science Fiction themes that depicted landscapes and unusual skies were always of interest to me. And Clouds. I painted clouds all the time. I was fascinated by their size and infinite shapes, and the fact that they don’t make any sound at all.

In college I did a lot of flat color portraits of people. No shading or 3D modeling. I was also interested in color interaction, so there were canvases that were somewhat geometric and hard edge that dealt with value, hue and intensity. I was certainly a product of the POP art culture.

Now when I paint or draw, I go for the ultra realistic, single objects, that are elevated to an heroic position. My car drawings, done in colored pencil, show the extent of my (I hesitate to use the word) obsession.

Text book illustrator seems like an obscure profession. How was that?

Text book illustration was a really odd gig. There are so many rules and regulations set down by publishers that one was always navigating through a labyrinth of do’s and don’ts. For example, if I had to show a table set for a party, I could not show a cake or soft drink because it was considered bad eating habits to ingest that much sugar. I was instructed to show carrot sticks and a glass of milk. No sharp objects could be shown, for fear a child might get the urge to pick up a stick an poke his classmate. And the list went on. Adding to that, the deadlines were always short, but then I work well under pressure. All in all, I’m glad I had the opportunity and it was different than working as an illustrator for a major Boston newspaper. One of the big rules there was you couldn’t have insects in any of your drawings (I could never figure that one out).

Now that you’re Elgin Park project has been seen by many, how has life changed for you? Job offers or fans coming up for autographs? Maybe the paparazzi? [laughs]

My life hasn’t changed significantly, at least in the day to day sense. Staying employed is still the main aspect of my life. What has changed is that I’ve been approached by a few publishing houses and art galleries. The idea of having a book is actually wonderful. Showing in a gallery feels a bit dream like. Don’t get me wrong, I’d enjoy the experience.

I did have a “celebrity” moment a few months back where I was setting up a photo shoot in the early morning and a guy walks by and says: ” I know you! You’re that guy from Flickr!” I fessed up and I asked if he’d like me to take his picture with my model. It was a great moment. And sometimes I’ll go to a store in the town where I live and someone will comment on my work. I find myself thinking; Oh yeah, a lot of people have seen my photos.

There are still a lot of interviews being requested and I really enjoy that. Blogs and magazine articles, too. The most unusual magazine request was from the Russian version of Magnum. Slavic Babes in Elgin Park. [ that’s not the real headline, but …… ]

Even though I think about building models a lot and I have 3 new buildings in the works, plus ideas for photo shoots, my everyday life is very routine. Where I work, I’m seen as the old bearded guy that does the odd jobs around the place. People are aware of the Flickr site but it’s just part of my personal history. Truthfully I never thought it would go this far, so I have no expectations. After the initial shock of recognition, everything now is a gift.

Since our site is called Nerd Reactor, other than building scale models, do you have any other nerdy hobbies?

Nerdy hobbies….? Oh yes indeed. Let me create a list:

  • Wallpaper, fabric and linoleum from the 20th Century.
  • Street cars
  • Railroad buildings from 1850 through 1960
  • Eclectic music [ I don’t play any instruments but I enjoy finding curious music from all eras ]
  • Studying architectural drawings and plans
  • Catalogs from the 20th Century
  • Quirky Theology

As you can see, I’m rarely bored. If at all.

Thanks Michael for the interview. Check out the rest of his gallery on his Flickr page.

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John Nguyen
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