Working in miniature goes back to when Damien Webb was miniature himself.
As a boy, he loved to craft cardboard spaceships and houses, build with Lego and assemble the model car kits his mother bought him at yard sales.
“Whenever I went to the library, any book I borrowed was always a tiny book. I had a tea set when I was a kid. People looked at me weird, but I just liked it. It was always in my blood,” says Webb.
Today, he creates tiny paper worlds inside cookie tins and coffee cups, as well as little free-standing sculptures from an old-fashioned typewriter to a house with a dance of colourful balloons from the movie Up.
Webb's magical exhibit, Ticky Tacky, at Argyle Fine Art, 1559 Barrington St., Halifax, showing till Saturday, includes a re-creation of the fireplace at White Point Beach Resort, where Webb and his wife work the overnight shift.
In fact, he often gets good-quality paper from the wedding table placards tossed out after the many weddings at White Point.
“I use different thicknesses or paper or cardboard or plastic — anything that goes into the recycling bin. I've got tweezers and little tiny grippers, but for the most part, I use my fingers, a box cutter and a metal ruler.”
Webb's unusual, exquisitely detailed art form has made him an Instagram sensation thanks to the popularity of Adam Savage, former co-host of MythBusters and now running his Tested website.
In 2012, just after Webb moved to Nova Scotia from Edmonton and he was out of work, he started looking at Tested, which has podcasts and videos.
“I listened to every episode. He's someone I look up to in regard to the work he's done in the past in model-making and then MythBusters, and now he tours and teaches kids about science."
One day, Savage talked about a cardboard man he had made as a kid, and how, at that moment, he knew that building made him happy.
“I decided it would be cool to make a perfect scale model of the cardboard man," says Webb. "I got a picture online and made it, and it sat on my desk for ages as a secondary representation for me. I was doing something I loved and it was making me happy."
Last summer, when Webb decided to clean off his desk, he sent the cardboard man to Savage. “I didn't think anything of it, and a couple of weeks later there was a video he put up about it and I started getting emails. It exploded from there."
His Instagram account went "out of control" with the number of his followers doubling from 2,000 to 4,000. “I had a lot of people very supportive of the work I do and just hearing from him that he enjoyed it made me happy."
The artworks on exhibit are inspired by the idea of escape. “Miniatures are a way I escape my regular life of having to pay bills and do housework,” says Webb.
“The house from Up is an escape from the city into the middle of nowhere. It can be a literal thing of a jail cell where the guy has busted out through the floor. Some people use video games as an escape; some people go down to the basement.”
The Water Tower represents an escape to New York City. While visiting the city with his wife, Webb bought a Boundless Brooklyn water tower model kit.
He painted the body of the cardboard water tower as a Campbell's soup can, inspired by seeing Andy Warhol's series of Campbell's Soup Cans at the Museum of Modern Art. "That was a striking image that I wanted to represent," he says. "The Metro card is the base, the legs are chopsticks and the crossbars are tree branches from Central Park.”
Webb's ideas come from popular culture, from commissions and from technical challenges he sets for himself.
“Sometimes I think I'm crazy for thinking of an idea and going through with it,” he says. “The Up house was a big challenge; it's very detailed. The siding is made of individual pieces of paper and every shingle is a piece of paper.”
Exact detail is not his goal. “The balloons in Up are Styrofoam, but from three metres away, they look like balloons. I like to trick the eye.”
Webb grew up in Western Canada as an adopted child in a family where his mother was a nurse and his father a pipefitter. Today, his brother is an accountant.
Later on, he discovered his birth mother did costume design in theatres, including at the Stratford Festival.
Damien graduated with a degree in theatre production from Grant MacEwan University, but it was hard to break into the highly competitive theatre scene in Edmonton. He and his wife left the city for Nova Scotia because it was too crowded. “We thought we'd move as far away as possible. We wanted to go off on our own and make our own way."
Working at White Point has also inspired his series of rock people, which are rocks turned into adorable and amusing characters.
“That came from an idea from a co-worker. She thought a rock was following her because she kept tripping over it when she came to work.”
White Point's beach is full of rocks, so one day Webb grabbed a rock, gave it a fedora and sunglasses and a newspaper to read and hid it in the office “as if it was following her.”
Webb's miniatures are on exhibit in Ticky Tacky at Argyle Fine Art through Saturday. The gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 to 5:30 p.m. Also on view at the gallery is Winter Escape, an exhibit of Kimberley Eddy's resin paintings inspired by tropical shorelines and skies.