A detail of Charles Hendrickson's The Circus Comes 
    to Town.
A detail of Charles Hendrickson's The Circus Comes to Town.

Small Wonder

There's something wonderfully odd and mysterious about the mind of the miniaturist; it takes a certain kind of person to spend so much time around small things, to appreciate the exacting elegance of a tiny table or an itty-bitty bed. Whether it's a simple dollhouse or an extravagant diorama, creating a good miniature world is a matter of scale, a fastidious craft that requires patience, an artist's eye -- and lots and lots of time.

The Circus Comes to Town, a recently opened exhibition at the Denver Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys, is a mind-boggling example of the ways in which a miniaturist's vision can evolve into a life's work. California craftsman Charles Hendrickson spent seventeen years hand-painting hundreds of figures in the epic scene, in which lions, tigers and bears mingle with clowns, elephants, ponies and a train; there's even a parking lot with spectators and an unloading area for the circus crew. Though it all takes place beneath three big tents, the entire affair fits into a former bathroom in the historic museum. The Circus Comes to Town is a workout for the eye, a frozen, frantic moment from a minuscule version of the Greatest Show on Earth.

Hendrickson, who worked the big tent as a slack-rope walker in the '30s, died in the late '90s, so he never got to see his creation displayed outside his home. But he would have been heartened to know that his circus scene is now a permanent fixture at one of Denver's unique cultural attractions. The last living member of Hendrickson's family donated the masterwork so that it wouldn't be lost, and museum boardmembers spent more than 100 hours restoring it. Fascinating for its detail, The Circus Comes to Town is truly a wondrous little work of art. -- Laura Bond


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