A woman in a red sweater stood on a boulder, bent over, sand beneath her feet, a small white crab on her right and the ocean at her back. She was surrounded by driftwood, feathers, pebbles and dry vegetation. Further along the beach lay a pink Hello Kitty lunchbox, covered in seaweed and barnacles.
This was the inside of Claire Wings’ shoebox diorama. Using paper, paint and found objects, she created this scene based on a book she loves, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.
Wings was one of about 15 contestants in Wednesday’s Dioram-Off, a book-themed diorama competition co-hosted by the Berkeley and Oakland Public Libraries at Actual Café in North Oakland. The event was open to adult users of both libraries.
Three experts judged the contest: Justin Carder, owner of E.M. Wolfman Books; Alicia Goode, a diorama artist for the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA); and Sarah Seiter, the associate curator of natural sciences at the museum. They recognized all contestants for their efforts, with awards ranging from “best depiction of cannibalism” to “best use of a living plant” to “best intergalactic peep show.”
To the right of Wings’ diorama sat Hayley Bennett’s, portraying a scene from Far from the Madding Crowd. In the scene, a thunderstorm threatens protagonist Bathsheba’s barn, so her love interest, a shepherd named Gabriel, comes to save the haystacks. Bennett used clear beads hanging from wires to depict rain, small clay models that she baked in her oven for Bathsheba and Gabriel, and hay bought from a local pet store for the bales. She won the “most quasi-biblical” award.
Further down the table was Martin Sirk’s diorama, which depicted scenes from The Hounds of Baskervilles, one of his favorite Sherlock Holmes stories. Sirk created the scenes, all set on the moor, using paper cut-outs of black-and-white characters and a blue-tinged printed landscape for the backdrop. Behind his diorama, a small flashlight shone through a circle of white tissue paper, creating an illuminated moon. Sirk also used a flickering yellow LED to depict a candle-lit room in the distance. He won first place in the contest.
Goode, a judge, said that the best dioramas transport the viewer to a time and place. Sirk’s diorama, she said, “did a very good job of describing a very dramatic scene in the book. And the lighting, the ambiance, the perspective–it makes you feel like you’re in there, witnessing this murder take place.”
Dioram-Off is the brainchild of two librarians, Emily Foster of the Berkeley Public Library and Amy Martin of the Oakland Public Library. Both said they wanted to create a fun way for adults to share their favorite books.
This is the second time the duo has hosted a diorama contest. They first got the idea last year, as then-colleagues in Oakland, after seeing a photo on the internet of a similar contest. They worked with Carder to host the 2015 event at E.M. Wolfman Bookstore. This year, Foster is working in Berkeley, but she and Martin remain friends and decided to co-host the event.
Carder said that he loved the idea of creating dioramas about books because it’s a low-pressure, fun and silly way to make them more accessible. “One of the things that’s great about the library, or about book culture in general,” he said, “is that it has a level of unabashed, well-meaning and sweet kind of nerdiness.” Creating dioramas and sharing them with others is part of that, he said, adding that the contest is “nerdy in a way that’s really fun.”
Foster said that she that, while she had “really fond memories” of doing book reports as a kid, she feels like there are fewer opportunities for adults to discuss and share books. Additionally, she said, the contest is a chance for adults to be creative. “I think it can be kind of intimidating for adults to try something new, especially if it’s creative expression, because we have a lot of things in the world telling us everything we do has to be perfect,” she said. “It’s really important for me to make sure that people know that they can just do it, and if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, it’s okay.”
For Lauren Aczon, an Oakland artist and new mom who said she hasn’t had much time lately for her art, making a diorama was a manageable creative project. Her diorama was based on The Little Prince, a book that she said her father read to her as a child–one chapter a night, every February.
For her project, Aczon used a small cardboard box that opened in the middle like a book. On the right side, using paper cut-outs and wire, she depicted the book’s famous illustration of a boy holding a bundle of strings attached to flying birds. Aczon said she loved this image, in which the boy is leaving the comfort of his planet to explore something new. “That’s like a lot what parenting feels like to me,” she said. “But as I was making it and reading the chapter, it also made me think about like our son leaving the womb, being born. [It’s] like this crazy, hormonal metaphor.”
On the left side of Aczon’s diorama was a removable printout of the cover of the book. Behind it, she had pasted phrases from the book onto the cardboard, rearranging them to create a poem about her baby. “I don’t expect anyone to take it out,” she said, referring to the printout. “This is kind of just a personal part for me.”
For Wings, an Oakland resident, creating a diorama meant facing demons from her past. “I have a tragic history with dioramas from childhood,” she said.
She recalled a third grade assignment to make a diorama of “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” She said she thought she had created a “killer” diorama, one that tested her construction paper cutting skills “to the max.” But, according to Wings, her teacher reacted by telling her that she had used too much glue on her sheep and was wasting it.
“It was devastating,” she said, somewhat jokingly. “Another artist crushed, crushed, in nascent form.”
So when Wings found herself, some 50 years later, looking at a flyer for the contest, she wondered why anyone would voluntarily create a diorama. But as she walked home, she saw a box of free things on the curb, and inside it, a memo pad. She started to get inspired.
“I thought it was a sign, or an indication for me that it was okay to get over something that happened when I was 8 years old,” she said. “I’m 62 now. I think I can maybe let it go.” The memo pad eventually became the Hello Kitty lunchbox in her diorama.
“I used as much glue as I wanted,” she said.
Text by Briana Flin, photos by Rosa Furneaux.