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Adventures in model-hooning: An Interview with Michael Paul Smith, Part I

That sign looks familiar...

If there’s any consolation to not being Jay Leno, or not having Jay Leno’s bankroll, or not having Jay Leno’s garage, or not having Jay Leno’s connections toward obtaining that which even vast bankrolls and ordinary fame cannot spring from the unobtanium well… it’s models – and the ability of the plebian class to amass vast quantities of same.

Be they kit-built or ready-for-display die-casts, scale models and toyish replicas of cars have long held a place of esteem in the heart of many a hoon. As children we amass collections of Hotwheels and Matchboxes and drugstore-brand cars. As older children we graduate to tubes of sweet-smelling toxic goo and bottles of paint slathered on styrene parts, toward a final product representing a dream – however crude that first attempt may turn out.   Some of us stubbornly proceed with further attempts until the final products become more than passable artifacts of pride and craft and memory.

Even as adults, who doesn’t take the occasional stroll down the Hotwheel aisle to see what’s new?   Try it sometime and you’re just as (if not more) likely to see fully-grown men and women declaring fisticuffs raiding the pegs as you would a child.   The die-cast industry has exploded in recent years, as Chinese labor CAD/CAM, 3D scanners, and ready access to licensed OEM blueprints and high-res photos have made it financially viable to tool new replicas of even the most obscure and unlamented vehicles.    Even those who dedicate the entirety of their time and money to 1:1 rides and exotics are hard-pressed not to own at least 2 quality car models of some sort.   And many a millionaire’s Garage Majal has been outfitted with a display of models that could probably finance any one of our own daily drivers.

And yet, as impressive as a cabinet full of resplendent metal and plastic is, wouldn’t it be better if those models could somehow be made more real?  To make your dreams or memories or aspirations that much more tangible, forever?

One man has managed to accomplish this, and takes the creed to a level of artistic fidelity that is beyond extreme –  it’s mind-boggling.    To wit, it’s also the most-tipped subject that Hooniverse has ever received.

We here at the ‘Verse love you all so much that we decided a simple yoink repost of sample photos would not be enough.   So, having a fairly accomplished background in scale modeling myself (railroads primarily but also cars of course), I took the liberty of joining the 21st century signing up for a Flickr account just to make contact with one Mr. Michael Paul Smith. He graciously sifted through my moronic drivel, found the interview request, and promptly replied with an enthusiastic “yes!”   What a guy!   And thus having called my bluff, forced me to come up with an interview that wouldn’t be the same-ol’-same-ol’  “Why do you play with toys OOH SHINY!”  dreck.  Oops.

What will follow in 3 daily installments (that’s today through Friday for those counting laps at home),  is a dialog exchanged over email a few weeks ago in February.  My words are in black, Mr. Smith’s are in purple (and 99 percent unedited, to his additional credit); the photos and models are all his, of course.   So pull up a chair and get comfy.   You might also wanna have a nurse on standby to pick your jaw off the floor.

So, without further ado… Part I!

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First let’s get the boilerplate biographical stuff out of the way…

GIC: How, when, and why did you start modeling cars? Did you begin with cars, or was it planes, trains, monsters, dollhouses, or something else?

MPS: I started modeling cars when I was 12 years old.  My dad bought me a AMT 3-in-1 1962 Chevy Impala kit for my birthday.  I had a number of promotional models that dealerships gave away, but here was a car you could build – it was totally cool.  But with that being said, I had started to build shoebox and cigar-box houses and buildings when I was in grade school.  I had this huge fascination with miniatures.  So of course that applied to electric trains and certainly monster kits – I had all the monster kits!  And at $1.50 each, I had to mow 3 lawns to buy just one.   But it was worth it!  I built my first real dollhouse in the 1970’s from scratch and it turned out quite well.

GIC: You and your work have become something of an internet phenomenon in the last few weeks;  it’s the most-tipped subject Hooniverse has ever received and we typically deal with cars that can actually be, you know, uh, driven, as well as the people who build and drive and appreciate them.  Then I’ll be checking other social and automotive sites, and chuckle when I recognize the photos and the gushing praise. So let me ask: did you ever expect this kind of exposure and appreciation when you began sharing your work on Flickr?

MPS: The irony is that I never showed anyone my models or photographs. It was just by chance that I purchased 2 ’59 Chevy models from West Coast Precision Diecast. They were so wonderful, I took a picture of them with one of the buildings I had constructed and sent the photo to the owner of the company, Brian Dunning, as a way of saying “Thank You for such a great product.” He asked if I had any more photos and I embarrassingly said yes; I felt my hobby was very geeky. Brian posted them on JSSSoftware and that got me an interview with Toy Car Collector magazine. I was thrilled but also felt exposed.  This is not false modesty. I’m an extremely shy person (although I am very personable) and drawing attention to myself is unnerving.

But about a year later, I came across Flickr and I thought, “why not post what I have?” It was a leap of faith but also a chance to be proud of what I had been building. In two years my site got 1,500 hits and some wonderful comments and support. I felt really good about that. THEN….. in November, I received an e-mail from an editor of Classic and Sports Cars Magazine out of London. Mr. Walsh was very enthusiastic about my work and wanted to do a piece.  I was flattered beyond words and the article was great! From that point, my Flickr counter started to go up on a daily basis, along with compliments. At that time I was alerted by way of Flickr mail that The London Times featured my work. The Times never contacted me and the headline made me gasp: “America’s Top Modeler”. Now as flattering as that is, I’m not America’s Top Modeler – I’m just “Joe Shmo” [ed: note the spelling; there can be only but one of our beloved Jo Schmo].  A number of other details were inaccurate, too. I have to say I was so embarrassed that I wrote them a letter correcting all the errors (and there were a few). By then, the site took on a life of its own. As of this writing there have been over 17 million views of my work.

Many people have written that they feel a deeper story is going on in my work. It’s not about the cars or the buildings per se, but of childhood, family, longing, happiness, love and sadness.  Not having people in my photos was deliberate on my part. I wanted the viewer to put themselves into the photo without the distraction of  “other people” being there. These are dreamscapes.

The e-mails, comments and compliments actually make me emotional at times, out of joy.

GIC: My own experience in Model Railroading circles has shown that, oftentimes, the perception of the scale modeling hobby – and the people who enjoy it – can often be described as “misunderstood” at best, to “negative” at worst. The sad truth is that while scale modeling can be elevated to a 4D art form (if you consider the “fourth dimension” the interacitivy and engagement of tangible subjects), our ultra-connected and hyperactive ADHD world has little patience for such introspective craftsmanship. So it’s great to see a master get his due. What would you say to those who generalize scale modeling as a passe’ endeavor solely enjoyed by quiet, crabby guys who live in basements?

MPS: I know what my dad would have said: “Go fry ice!”

For myself, if I were confronted by a person saying that (and now that I think about it: I have), I would turn it around and ask them what they do to express their creative side. I find that if you can get a person to start talking about their own creativity, they will sometimes tell you totally unexpected things about themselves.  There was one person who revealed that they sang in clubs. Another person enjoyed dancing but never made it public knowledge.

For myself, I think preconceived ideas happen because I don’t understand what the activity is all about, or it’s totally out of my realm of experience. So the easiest thing to do is generalize and be dismissive.


GIC: One of the most amazing things about your dioramas is that they’re all 1/24 scale. This of course isn’t surprising where the vehicles are concerned since 1/24 is very common, but the buildings and props present a challenge as the larger the scale, the more visible the details – or lack thereof. Plus, you’ve had to scratchbuild everything since you can’t go down to the hobby shop and choose a random 1/24 building kit.  Yet you’ve nailed the essence of the structures, creating extremely convincing models without seeming to be obsessed about every last detail. I know guys who have spent their entire lives trying to discover the balance between “not enough detail” and “anal-retentive rivet and brick counting”.  How did you master this essential skill?

MPS: Before I started building models, I had done painting and drawing.  A very important concept that I learned was that the brain / eye / emotions will fill in the details, even when there is the most minimum amount of information available.  You can also have too much information and details; when that happens, you end up with a literal representation of something and very little room for personal interpretation. The more the viewer can project themselves into a photo / painting / film / model, the more powerful it becomes. For myself, it’s all about focusing on the mood and the emotional gesture.

GIC: Considering 1/24 scale again: is there any particular reason you stuck with it? Guys (and gals, lest we forget) have been building street/automotive/story scenes for railroads and military displays in O (1/48), S (1/64), and HO (1/87) scales for eons. 1/32 is another popular scale somewhat exclusive to auto and military collecting.   There have always been multiple tradeoffs between the ease of handling the larger sizes, versus the space required for convincing setups, versus the visibility and durability of details, versus availability of materials and commercial parts… eventually the modeler either prioritizes, or just picks one and runs for a bit letting the paint fumes and xacto blades fall where they may. So was there a reason you chose / stayed with 1/24, or did it just sort of happen by accident?

MPS: I dabbled with HO scale and 1/12 scale but my ever increasing collection of  1/24th diecast cars tipped the scale (as it were).  There was just enough detail and realism to them.  Plus it photographed beautifully, although I didn’t know that at the time.

GIC: Do your dioramas primarily spring from want for an elegant, interesting display for your cars, or a desire to tell a more cohesive story?

MPS: It started off with the desire to have an interesting display for my cars, but once I saw the potential with photographs, there was no turning back.  From the very first photo I took, I could see the inherent story telling aspects of the “dioramas”.  Just so you know, all of the 15 buildings I’ve constructed are in pieces.  They are not set up as a town in one room. When doing a photo shoot, I mix and match them; turn them around or temporarily add to them so they have a different appearance. This gives me the ability to tell different stories and create different moods.  It also allows for a dreamlike feel where the buildings move around in different locations.

]-[

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Our interview continues Thursday; be sure to check in to learn more about Scale Craftsmanship and Storytelling with Cars…

In the meantime enjoy the gallery of selected works below… when you’re done reattaching your jaw, be sure to see even more at Michael Paul Smith’s Flickr Photostream and have it knocked off again

And show some love to Mr. Smith in the comments in thanks for our first Hooniverse Interview!

[Photo credits: Michael Paul Smith]

  • Excellent work and thank you to Mr. Smith for the interview!

  • Wow, nice article. Thanks for sharing your work, Sir. Truly enjoyable to look through

  • Mr. Smith, you are truely a Hoon of Genius and a gentleman. Your models are the best I have ever seen. Thank you for taking the time to let Hooniverse into your life! We look forward to more photos and models.

  • When I saw this a while back I was floored. I found Mr. Smith's Flickr site and spent a few hours just flicking through the pictures. Absolutely amazing. The man is an artist.

  • Absolutely amazing. I about tilt-shifted out of my chair. Mr. Smith you are a brilliant, creative man. The world needs more people like you.

  • When I first saw these, I was like…wow, those are some great shots of old cars. It wasn't until later that someone told me they were models.

    • I agree! I assumed they were recoloured, mildly-Photoshopped photos circa 1960. This is incredible work.

  • These dioramas make me wish I could be like Art Clokey's Gumby, become 1/24-size, and walk right into the midst of them all…
    So beautifully crafted and staged, they are a joy to behold…!

  • …And now we all know where our intrepid author got his IntenseDebate user avatar (but I only just realized why the diorama of the car dealership looked somehow familiar to me. I can be slow on the uptake…)

    • Ha ha… actually, my userpic is a (highly compressed!) photo of the *real* OK sign in my possession. What a job that was to obtain… blasted thing is over 4 feet in diameter!

      • No kidding…? That's awesome. So where did Mr. Smith get the inspiration for his diorama?
        Was the 'OK' signage a generic that buyers could put to use as they saw fit…?
        Gosh, I sound so stupid, but this is not something I knew about until now…

        • As far as I know (having never looked it up), "OK" was a brand that GM licensed beginning in the post-war era, for franchisees to brand their used car lots as a separate entity. They used this until the term "OK" became somewhat tarnished in vernacular, in favor of marketese like "certified pre-owned", etc. Ford used to have a similar brand called "A-1".

          I can still remember when every GM delearship around had an "OK" lot, but the brand was phased out beginning in the 90's. Many smaller dealerships did not rebrand right away. My sign came from the Jeff Sachs Chevy/Olds/Buick/Pontiac/GMC/Cadillac (no Saturn, Saab or Hummer) in Frankfort, KY, which shut down in 2008. When the local Nissan dealer bought the property in 2009, they finally lowered the sign for removal, and the new manager implied to me that he would not care if it "disappeared". Which it did, after much scheming and the use of bolt cutters and a BFH.

          • I'm old enough (46) that I would have seen that OK signage… Maybe THAT'S why your avatar and Mr. Smith's diorama have such a familiar air in my mind… I'm recalling old memories without really being aware of it. Next thing you now, I'll be jotting down "Tang" and "Fresca" and "Tab" on my weekly grocery list…

            • I remembered the first time I saw his avatar because there was one of those signs that was right on the way between home and school as you rode your bicycle. The car lot was at this weird geographical pinch-point and there was no way around besides going right next to the sign onto the sidewalk by the highway where the cars were hauling-ass and then once on the the other side you were, "O.K."

  • An incredible artist. Good start, can't wait to see more GIC!

  • I'd just like to take this moment to publicly thank Mr. Smith for putting up with me, and being a fantastic interviewee in addition to a wonderful artist.

  • Amazing stuff. Big thanks to GIC putting this together and to Mr. Smith for taking the time to talk about his masterpieces.

  • still can't get over how real they look.

  • haha, Leno is so wild! I love him.