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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

An A -ma-ZINNing Afternoon with Alice Zinn

By Joanna Campbell Slan

At first blush, Alice Zinn's home looks like all the other houses in her neighborhood. The building is pleasant, on a pretty corner lot in a small city in Florida. However, when she opens the door and permits you entrance, you feel like you've fallen down a rabbit hole into an enchanted universe where fairytales and wishes come to life in miniature.

Because she knew I was interested in her workspace, Alice took me on a quick tour of her shop before we had the lunch she so kindly prepared. The converted garage is packed with supplies, as you might imagine, but most importantly, everything is labeled. Alice can put her hands on things quickly. I stood there and turned a tight circle at the stacks of plastic storage tubs that lined the walls and towered over my head. Her computer is at a right angle to the desk where she works, and therefore, perfectly situated for convenience. Although she enjoys working from the comfort of a big cushy office chair, because her work space is so large, she also makes use of a backless stool on rollers so she can scoot along the corridor in her warehouse of supplies.

When you meet Alice, you are immediately struck by her active, seeking mind. Her breadth of knowledge about the world in general is amazing. Her process is one of problem-solving. The pneumatic stool is an example. Its height is easily adjustable, and there's a tray on the bottom so the stool can actually be used to transport items. Really, it's perfect. I found myself coveting this handy seat. Alice laughed and said, "Stop by Harbor Freight. It's on your way home." I did and bought one for myself, a bargain at $26.

Walking from the workroom into the house, I paused to gawk at the shelving over the top of the doorsills. Alice set cove molding a ninety-five degree angle, turning the wood slats into narrow shelves. On these she's displayed miniature chairs in all sorts of furniture styles. There's also a cabinet full of gifts, including a china collie given to Alice by her grandmother. Alice was eight at the time and suffering from chickenpox. Young Alice was bothered by the fact that the dog didn't have fur, which made the piece more like a statue than a miniature pet. Many years later, when Alice decided to make miniature animals for a living, she set herself the task of making them furry, because no one else was doing so at the time.

We passed Alice's bathroom, and oh, my! A person could get lost in there. She's packed the place with tiny scenes, including a shadowbox of Teddy Bears, which houses another childhood favorite of hers. There's also a small nautical scene on the back of the toilet. "Guests go to the restroom and take forever," said Alice. "They get so involved with the minis."

As I wandered around Alice's home, it was delightful to pause and admire all the minis, including one particular castle, a showcase for Alice's sense of humor. The piece is called "Fear of Flying." It depicts a wizard teaching a young dragon to spread his wings.

"Dis-embarking"  *  Photo courtesy of Alice Zinn.
Nearby is a large Japanese house with a most unusual provenance. It was built post-WWII by a Japanese architect who wanted Westerners to see what a typical Japanese home was like. Alice's iconic Noah's Ark scene—"Dis-embARKing"—took my breath away, as I challenged myself to find as many of the 54 pairs of animals as I could. This is harder than it sounds, since tiny creatures scamper their way up the trees and hide in the leaves. The faces on her tigers are truly exquisite.

Her Amish barn scene shows off Alice's commitment to being tech-savvy. To produce two tiny saws and a wagon wheel, she turned to a "plotter," a "Wishblade" by Xyron. This machine allows Alice the freedom to design whatever she wants and let the machine cut it out for her.

A scene with Calpurnia and Caesar, emperor of Rome, delights the viewer, as it is easy to imagine these tiny people come to life. Their costuming is exquisite, right down to the way that Calpurnia's gown is carried over her forearm. The hair on Calpurnia is stunning, her tiny curls arranged perfectly in a noble style.

It is hard to believe that Alice designs the settings, curates and creates the furnishings, and creates the dolls as well. This speaks to the multiplicity of her talents.

Joanna Campbell Slan holding the "piano man" and the "bartender" by Alice Zinn.
In another room, Alice has the "Piano Man" scene she's busy creating for the Tom Bishop Show that will be held in Chicago, April 17-19, 2015. The dolls have already been created, although they have not yet been dressed. Currently, Alice is toying with the placement of the various elements that will bring the Tropical-style bar to life. We discussed where she might place a tiny gift shop, a cute way to display more tropical minis as part of this setting.

When assembling a "museum" scene that depicts various cultures, Alice likes to include a miniature house. These "minis within minis" serve as Alice's nod to the industry and a wink to her audience. They serve as a vivid reminder of the pervasiveness of miniatures through all cultures in all eras.

I left Alice's workshop with my head spinning. In fact, I went into a sort of "craft-induced" mental fugue state. Creativity begets creativity. Watching Alice decide what to place where in her "Piano Man" setting, see all the fantastic scenes she's already made, soaking up tidbits about her process, and thinking of how to apply all this to my own life nearly overwhelmed me. It occurred to me as I climbed into my car that I'd just attended a Master Class in miniatures from a Master of the Craft.

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Coming soon--"Ten Things I Learned from Miniaturist Alice Zinn That Any Miniature Enthusiast Can Use"
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Joanna Campbell Slan is the author of twenty-eight books, including three mystery series. She loves turning trash into treasure. She shares tutorials on her blog You can follow her on Pinterest at

For a free sample of Joanna's work, send an email to her assistant, Sally Lippert at and request the free copy of Ink, Red, Dead, one of Joanna's mysteries.

Visit Alice Zinn at her website or see her in person at the Tom Bishop Show. For info on the show, go to


Christine Verstraete said...

Fun! Alice's work is mega-admirable! I have a short profile of her on my blog here. How great to see it all in person!

Ruthi said...

Alice is indeed a very talented lady. Thanks for taking us on a tour of her world.

Joanna Slan said...

Christine, you rock! I was lucky to view it in person, wasn't I?

Joanna Slan said...

Ruthi, I'm glad I could share it with you.

Fay Zerbolio said...

Joanna, your tour of Alice's house sounds AmaZINNing. I'd love to visit it myself. Can't wait for your next column about the 10 things you learned. :)