Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Alice in Wonderland room box

I have never made room boxes based on literature (except Lord Asriel's study, and it was pure imagination since it is not described in the novel). Since I am a children's literature scholar it may seem natural to make scenes from children's books, but for some reason I don't find it tempting, maybe because it's too obvious or too limiting or whatever.

In September I am doing a workshop for teachers in conjunction with a big international conference on Alice in Wonderland. The workshop will be focused on perception of size and scale, and what can be better as a point of departure than a miniature scene? 

For most of her time in Wonderland, Alice is three inches high, which is approximately 1:12 scale. This is apparently not a coincidence, but reflects spatial cognition, that is, the ability of our brain to understand size and proportion. Our favourite miniature scale is within the cognitive “comfort zone”. It ensures that the miniature world is still recognisable and comprehensible. If the scale is significantly smaller, psychology says, it demands a considerable cognitive effort. We miniature makers know it by intuition. If we work with smaller scales, it takes more effort to "see" the scale. 

Anyway, I agreed to do this workshop some time ago, and as a first step I took an empty wine box (formerly nursery, formerly yarn shop) and put in some random doors I had from various projects. This is what the text says: 

Alice “found herself in a long, low hall, which was lit up by a row of lamps hanging from the roof. There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again”.


 The box was the right shape: long with low ceiling. I put in a 1:12 doll, but I also found a tiny doll - dollhouse-in-the-dollhouse doll - to represent Alice when she shrinks to fifteen inches, which in our scale is just over an inch. I also made a glass table with a bottle labeled "Drink me". 

Then I didn't do anything for a long time. I needed a larger doll to represent Alice when she grows to nine feet, or 0.75 feet in scale. She is taller than the ceiling, and I wanted to convey the sense of claustrophobia, the horror of being stuck in a small space, that is repeated throughout the book. I also realised that white doors on white walls didn't look good. It was tempting to paint doors in different colours, but I thought it would be too patchy and distracting, a beach-hut feeling. Instead, I tried various colours on the walls. And I also made "a row of lamps hanging from the roof". The lamps are tops of eyedrop containers. I made some additional doors in my three-layer technique.


Of course the three Alices do not co-exist, but a room box can tell a story containing several episodes. This is the first episode, featuring the middle doll:

“Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table, all made of solid glass; there was nothing on it except a tiny golden key, and Alice's first thought was that it might belong to one of the doors of the hall; but, alas! either the locks were too large, or the key was too small, but at any rate it would not open any of them. However, on the second time round, she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!”

I have hidden the little door in the corner, and it is easy to miss it because the large doors will attract more attention. You need to adjust your scaling, just as Alice. Unfortunately, Alice is too tall to go through the tiny door, but when she drinks from the magic bottle and shrinks, she is just the right size, like the smallest doll. But sadly, she has left the key on the table. I put the little doll under the table to show how futile her attempts to get the key are. Luckily, she finds a cake that says "Eat me" and grows to nine feet... and so it goes on. 

The three dolls do not look alike so I had to make them look more alike, and the only way was to give them similar clothes. I didn't want to follow the stereotypical Disney-Alice image with a blue dress and white apron (it is also historically incorrect). There are some illustrated versions of Alice that portray her in a green dress, and I had a nice piece of green fabric. This was a good test of scale! The big doll's dress was child's play, and it was easy to trim it neatly with lace. The middle doll took more time and effort, especially since I didn't want to take off her clothes and ruin them, so I put the new dress on top of the old one. The tiny doll's dress took five attempts, and I am still not quite happy. But at least I think you can see that it is supposed to be the same character. 

I have added some Alice-related items to the scene: chess pieces, the Queen of hearts, mice in different scales, a clock. I wanted to have a looking glass, but I cannot see where I could fit it in. I have some time to work on it. The workshop participants will be asked to create their own room boxes inspired by Alice's growing and shrinking. It wil be exciting to see what they come up with.

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