Miniature artist sets a scene at GardenFest

Miniature artist Renee Wilson at her studio in Old Lyme.
Miniature artist Renee Wilson at her studio in Old Lyme. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

It took a team of thousands of artisans and craftsmen 22 years to build the famous white-domed Taj Mahal in India back in the 17th century.

It took Renee Wilson of Old Lyme 12 years to build her masterwork: "Pleasure Gardens: A Miniature Maharaja Palace," working single-handedly as architect, builder, interior designer, decorative painter and gardener, armed only with tiny tools, tweezers, nail scissors, fabric glue, cabinets full of stuff she's spent a lifetime collecting - and the patience of a saint.

The result of this recently completed grand project in miniature scale will be displayed during the annual GardenFest at Old Lyme's Florence Griswold Museum that kicks off June 1.

Based on several palaces in India, at the center of the 8- by 5-foot creation (in 1:12 scale) is a three-story palace flanked by two minarets decorated with intricate carvings, columns and ornate railings. The main building is surrounded by topiary and water gardens, a bustling street scene, elegant pavilions and an elephant stable.

The entire complex had to be disassembled for transport to the museum and then reassembled at the other end.

Meanwhile, the dynamic Wilson has been working on a furnished Victorian house-the largest of her projects to date. An Italian street scene (exhibited at the Florence Griswold Museum in 2005) and a South American hacienda are among her other completed works. Her miniature constructions also have been exhibited at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.

All Wilson's works are inspired by places she's traveled, extensive reading and research.

"I like to make things I'd like to live in," Wilson notes.

An artist and art lover throughout her life, Wilson was born in White Plains, N.Y. She attended the famed Isabel O'Neill Studio in New York where she earned the titles of Journeyman (1966) and Master Craftsman (1972). She went on to teach classes in decorative finishes at the O'Neill Studio for 18 years-a skill evident in her structures' precisely faux-painted walls and intricately patterned floors.

In 1970 Wilson and her husband, Ramsey, who has since died, moved to a house in a woodsy section of Old Lyme where he built her a light-filled studio.

"I'm a collector-you name it, I collect it," Wilson says, pointing to several wooden frames on the wall that she's arranged with dozens of tiny objects, going back to her grandmother's antique collections. "I'm always going to junk shops. I never know what I'm going to find."

During the years when she volunteered at the White Elephant fundraiser at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Wilson says she'd buy anything leftover that she thought would work in her maharaja palace and stick it in a drawer for later use, like the ebony elephants and tiny jewels she used to decorate them.

The centerpiece of a fountain in one of the gardens is actually a belt buckle off a Mary McFadden evening dress.

"I saved the belt when I got rid of the dress," Wilson says. "I see everything as grist for the mill."

One of the items she collects is antique lace, which she placed on the palace walls and painted white, creating a stucco effect.

An earthenware pot is really a dried vegetable pod. The vegetable stand and bench are repurposed Tibetan hand-tools Wilson found in a local antique shop. Cheetah figurines were purchased in England on one of her travel adventures.

"I'm a detailist," Wilson says. "Everything is very detailed."

Among the many active scenes within the palace scene is a snake charmer seated before his hissing baskets, a camel driver readying for departure and a wood dyer working hard at his trade.

"Each part of the structure tells a story," she explains.

Wilson creates her vivid scenes so that viewers can walk around them, peeking into rooms and gardens and courtyards from every angle, always finding something new.

"It's three-dimensional art," she notes.

The craftsman denies having any math skills and says, "I'm a frustrated architect-all my friends are architects"

And yet, she has an eye and innate sense of proportion and scale to build from scratch such accurate structures.

Even though she's a miniaturist, she doesn't sweat the small stuff.

"One of the things you learn about doing this is to never get upset if you make a mistake. You can always fix it," she stresses. "And I'm good at fixing things."

Wilson says she does this very challenging work that requires so much patience because it's relaxing.

"It's great," she states. "It takes away all ills."

Although she focuses on the little picture, she says, "My imagination keeps moving bigger and bigger."

She's already contemplating her next project.

"I think I'd like to try some boxes (in the style of) Joseph Cornell," she says.

Miniature detail work by artist Renee Wilson.
Miniature detail work by artist Renee Wilson. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
Detail of a piece by artist Renee Wilson.
Detail of a piece by artist Renee Wilson. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
Miniature detail work by artist Renee Wilson.
Miniature detail work by artist Renee Wilson. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
Miniature detail work by Renee Wilson at her studio in Old Lyme.
Miniature detail work by Renee Wilson at her studio in Old Lyme. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Guide to GardenFest

Renee Wilson's "Pleasure Gardens: A Miniature Maharaja Palace" will be on view at the Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St. in Old Lyme throughout GardenFest (June 1-10) that celebrates the museum's historic gardens.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1 to 5 p.m. Sun. Admission is $9 adults, $8 seniors, $7 students, and free to children 12 and under.

For a complete list of events, displays, demonstrations and family activities related to GardenFest, visit or call (860) 434-5542, ext. 111.

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