Updated: Oct 26, 2018
I was thrilled when a co-worker came to me with an idea for a special gift she wanted to present to her mother. She told me upfront that her budget was very tight, and she wanted to know if within that budget I could create a special miniature scene that would be highly detailed. Upon learning that the setting would be the front garden of her mother’s home, I knew immediately that keeping the cost down would mean using a photo of the façade (vs. building a 3-D model of the house), so I asked her if this would work. She enthusiastically agreed to provide a “good photo” of the front of the house, as well as a few additional photos of the front walkway and the fence. We were off and running!
I was in the process of transitioning to a new role in a new company, so we agreed that I would begin the project about a month after I had settled into my new job. I reached out to her when I was ready, and within a few days I received several great photos and a 50% deposit for this little project that touched my heart and truly got me thinking outside the box. I was keen to construct a detailed and highly accurate miniature scene for my former co-worker’s mom, while also challenging myself to get creative so I could stay within her budget.
Knowing that I wanted to use the full-front photo of the house as my entire background, I went to my local FedEx/Kinko’s and enlarged the photo to scale. Very pleased with the results, I headed straight home and got to work mapping out my plan and my budget for all the other materials.
As a person with a bit of a miniature problem, I was over the moon as I began to think through what would be needed to bring this project to life. I new that I already had quite a few of the items I wanted to use. Mind you, it took a little time to find them because there isn’t as much order in my mini-life as in my full-scale life, and I had to rummage through 4 or 5 boxes labeled, “Flowers/Plants/Garden/Outdoors” before I found what I was looking for, but there it was! The perfect little dried flowers in the PERFECT shade of fuchsia were my first find, and that set the tone for what would be a great afternoon of tinkering with different styles of flower pots and watering cans, and different colors and textures of miniature soil. Unexpectedly finding some miniature gardening books that I had purchased years earlier caused me to shout out loud… and I even found gardening tools that I’d forgotten I had, including a small weed and bug-killer contraption. Very cool.
What I didn’t have, I could purchase and make - - life-size seed packets, a container of Miracle Grow, and a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, all to be copied and scaled down to the right size. Easy.
A trip to Beverly’s would yield the basswood, balsa wood, adhesives, foam core board and all the acrylic paints I needed, and a trip to Michael’s would get me the small acrylic case and the 5” wooden finials I would need to create the vessel that would house this project. Done and done.
Over the next 2 weekends, I worked on the project for several hours on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. I thought it was shaping up beautifully as I received unsolicited encouragement from my family. From my son’s, “That looks really good, Mom!” to my daughter’s, “That’s incredible… you made it look JUST LIKE the pictures…” to my husband’s “Wow, Sweetie… I think she’s really going to love it!” I was feeling great and pretty sure that I had nailed this project. Not only had I tried a few unconventional and untested methods that were very successful, I also managed to stay within budget, and all-in, the project took less than 12 hours to complete.
I emailed my former co-worker to let her know that I finished the miniature and that I could hardly wait to deliver it to her. We agreed to meet in a location that was close to her office early the next morning, before the start of our workday. She greeted me with a huge hug and an anticipation that was palpable. Feeling excited and very proud, I removed the project from the large shopping bag with the expectation that she would squeal in delight and tell me how much she loved what I had created. That moment never came.
Instead, as she held the acrylic box, she brought it in closer so she could examine it. She then looked at me and I felt an overwhelming wave of disappointment. With tears in her eyes she said, “This isn’t what I wanted.” I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I was winded, nauseated and confused. With disbelieve and even a bit of indignation I responded… “I don’t understand. What do you mean it isn’t what you wanted?” Then before she had an opportunity to answer, thinking I had some idea of what the issue had to be, I continued… “Oh, I’m sorry it isn’t in a nicer case, I got creative to stay within your budget…” She interrupted. “It isn’t the case, Tammie… this is wrong. It’s not what I asked you for.”
I responded, still confused and feeling ill, but now my indignation had surrendered to sadness. “Please help me understand why you are so unhappy with this miniature.”
Her response shocked me and it felt like I had received another punch to the gut.
“This looks almost exactly like my mother’s garden, but I told you that while my mother loves to garden she wants a prettier front garden with lots of flowers… and I asked you to make it beautiful. It’s amazing how much this looks like her house… the fence, the sidewalk, the stairs… all of it. But all you did was add a few flowers! You didn’t create a beautiful, sunny garden with lots of flowers like I asked you to. I can’t give this to my Mom.
We looked at the miniature and then at each other for what was probably just a few seconds, but it felt like several awkward, painful minutes. She asked if I could “fix it by adding a lot of flowers… a large beautiful bounty of flowers.” At that moment, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had used a permanent adhesive on the case and that I would have to partially destroy the project to open it and add flowers. I simply nodded and I placed the miniature back in the large shopping bag. My heart was in my toes.
“Can you tell me how soon you can do it? I mean, I won’t be able to give it to her in time, but I can let her know I have something special for her.” she said, barely making eye contact.
“I AM SO SORRY. Yes… of course,” I said. I will let you know in the next day or so when I can add more flowers and get it back to you.” She thanked me and quickly walked away.
I headed back to my office, walking as fast as I possibly could, and almost tripping more than once. When I arrived, I sat the shopping bag on the floor beside my desk and suddenly overcome with emotion, I ran into the restroom. I barely made it into the last stall when I began to sob uncontrollably. I put my hand over my mouth to muffle the sound so as not to alarm anyone that would come in. I was devastated, embarrassed and really upset… with myself. How could I not have heard and understood what she asked me for? How was this possible?
I had a busy day ahead, so I had to pull myself together. I had no choice but to put the matter out of my head until that evening. When I got home I pulled out the client folder I had created for this project. In it I found all the photos that I had received, copies of every email exchange, a few concept sketches and my hand-written supply list and budget sheet. I then removed the miniature from the shopping bag and I sat it on our kitchen table. I stared at it, trying to think of how I could open it; cut it, saw it; drill holes into it… without ruining it. I got out an Exacto knife, inserted a new blade, and began meticulously running the blade between the edge of the case and the adhesive. I did this repeatedly for about 15 minutes before determining that this was a futile effort. I decided that the next day I would leave work early enough to take the project to Beverly’s and I would ask one of my favorite sales associates if he had any ideas about how I could get the top off of the case without destroying the miniature scene inside.
“I don’t think it can be done…” he said sighing and shaking his head. “I mean you can probably break it off, but you have the front of the house glued to the back of the case and to the base… and all the other elements are touching every part of it. This isn’t one of those higher quality acrylic cases…. it’s very thin. I think if you try to saw or drill into it, it’s gonna crack.”
Another heart-wrenching punch to the gut.
I knew what I had to do. That night, I sent my former co-worker an email letting her know that I would create a new miniature at no cost to her because I couldn’t remove this one from the case without ruining it. She emailed me a response the next day, saying she felt really bad because she knew I had worked hard on the project that turned out not to be what she wanted. She asked how long it would take me to create a replacement. My workload was ramping up at the new job and life at home was busier than ever, so I told her it would take a month. I didn’t hear from her for about a week, so I reached out to ask if that timeline would work. In the end, we agreed that I should just refund her money and not create a new miniature for her mother. I was both relieved and devastated.
Over time, I came to realize that in my desire to be accurate in the details and impress my client with a miniature that was true to life, I managed to completely miss the fact that she only wanted the background to be true to life. What she was asking me for, and what I failed to deliver, was the fantasy of what her mother’s garden could be. She didn’t want a scene that depicted someone working on the start of what was becoming a beautiful garden, she wanted it in full bloom, in full bounty and in miniature… in front of her mother’s house.
Many years have passed since this incident, and I have made dozens of miniatures for friends and clients. In the cases where I am asked to create something that lives in someone else’s mind, I get annoyingly granular and I ask A LOT of questions.
What I’ve learned is that even in miniature, there’s no growth without failure. I kept the miniature project that remains my biggest miss, and I keep it displayed on a shelf, not just as a reminder that I must truly listen to my clients, but also because the big lesson living inside that little case keeps me humble, and on occasion, it can even make me smile.