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Vinyl Fantasy

Atomic Pop Show Spotlights Dark, Witty, and Flat-Out Bizarre Customized Toy Creations

Jefferson Jackson Steele
WRAPPED IN PLASTIC: (from left) Artists Stephen Blickenstaff, Whitney Sherman, and Stephen John Phillips play with their toys.

By Raven Baker | Posted 3/5/2008

Whitney Sherman is stumped on how to price her latest piece. She has sold many works during her long career, yet she can't settle on what to ask for the hand-painted figure she created for the upcoming Vinylmore exhibit of toy customizations. Sherman, the Maryland Institute College of Art's illustration chair, isn't alone. A number of artists in the show are also wrestling with the question.

The relatively new hobbyist toy movement blurs the distinction between high- and lowbrow, fine art and commercial, and even art and craft. Growing alongside the designer toy industry, custom amateur toymaking has fostered a slew of online groups, forums, and blogs with names such as Vinyl Abuse and Vinyl Toy Freaks, where enthusiasts discuss and display their work.

Increasingly, hobbyists are showcasing their pieces offline as well. While Vinylmore, which opens March 7 at Hampden's Atomic Pop, is Baltimore's first exhibit of its kind, like-minded art shows have popped up around the United States, Canada, and Europe--such as the December 2007 Say Whaaat!! held at the now-defunct Kickballers skateboard shop in Washington.

Curated by Atomic Pop co-owner Benn Ray (and erstwhile City Paper contributor), Vinylmore has attracted a diverse group of artists and inspired collectors such as illustrator, children's book author, and City Paper contributor Kevin Sherry, of fashion label SquidFire; comics photo-illustrator Stephen John Phillips; painter and punk-rock album cover artist Stephen Blickenstaff, and Sherman, among many others. The premise is simple: Each artist customizes an undecorated vinyl figurine, known in the designer toy world as blanks. Many blanks are rounded, cartoonish figures modeled after animals, such as the Kid Robot company's monkey-shaped Munny figure. Other popular blanks are those from Hong Kong's Toy2R Qee line, which includes bipedal bunnies and pigs alongside stylized skull- and bomb-headed figures. Participating artists were free to choose the model, size, and number of pieces for the Vinylmore show.

As varied as their lives may be--participants span in age from their early 20s to 50s--many involved in the show share a nostalgia for the toys of their youth, particularly model kits. Sherman, Phillips, and Blickenstaff came of age during the 1960s and '70s, and customizing these toy blanks conjured memories of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's hot-rod models.

Those kits, often featuring Roth's iconic, demented Rat Fink character, were based on the anything-goes fringe car culture of post-war Southern California. Like hot-rod owners themselves, hobbyists were encouraged to let their imaginations run amok while designing their pint-sized models. This creative freedom stood in marked contrast to other popular model kits of the day, which fostered a meticulous attention to realism.

"You can chop it up, paint it, and turn it into some crazy kind of thing," Sherman says of her childhood hot rods during an interview at a Charles Village café. "[It] was like a model gone wild. It just exploded."

While not all participants are designer toy enthusiasts, most passionately collect something. For Sherman, size matters. She is an indiscriminate collector of anything miniature. Among her favorite finds are a one-inch rubber firefighter's boot and a minute dancing couple à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Her Vinylmore piece, though, is large--an eight-inch bunny-shaped Qee character, titled "Mummy Dearest," whose one fearsome slit eye glares out from under painted bandages. In a Joan Crawford/Faye Dunaway riff, "Mummy" clutches a handcrafted wire hanger in its blood-splattered paws.

Ayumi Yasuda and Jim Lasher--married graphic designers based in Baltimore--also collect miniatures, and both share an interest in gashapon, the highly detailed, diminutive capsule toys sold in Japanese vending machines. Yasuda also collects prolific toy designer Frank Kozik's Smoking Rabbit figures, and her husband has remained a model airplane hobbyist since his youth. Inspired in part by 17th-century samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi's strategy guide A Book of Five Rings, the couple collaborated on a five-piece, mixed-media series of tiny Baby Qee figures that personify the traditional Japanese elements of fire, water, earth, wind, and void.

Before getting into punk in the early 1980s and creating album covers for bands such as the Cramps and They Might Be Giants, graphic designer and painter Blickenstaff caught the collecting bug at as a kid. He spent his childhood in Frederick hunting down vintage horror titles from EC Comics and constructing model kits. While he was attracted to the Big Daddy Roth hot rods, Blickenstaff also gravitated toward creepy creatures. "Ever since I can remember being alive, I've been collecting," he says during a phone interview. "Dinosaurs, monsters, bugs, anything like that." Evoking Roth's Rat Fink character, Blickenstaff's Vinylmore piece, the grotesque "Squishy," is a squat, pink Munny customization dominated by bulging bloodshot eyes and jaggedly crooked teeth.

Towson's Phillips is a fervent designer toy fiend, with photos of his collection proudly posted on his web site's main page. The fine arts photographer, faculty member at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, and illustrator for DC's Vertigo comics line has a soft spot for memorabilia from the 1960s sitcom The Munsters and lowbrow artists like Mark Ryden, Robert Crumb, Kozik, and Kaws.

Phillips first got hooked to designer toys during his annual attendance at San Diego's Comic-Con International about half a decade ago, though at the time only a handful of sellers were scattered among the convention's many booths. "Now, when you go--it's incredible," Phillips says. "There's five or six aisles of collectible toys." His Vinylmore entry "Dead Clown," a gothic mixed-media Qee piece featuring a photo-realistic face, is his first custom toy design.

In fact, working with these character-based, three-dimensional forms was a new experience for many of Vinylmore's artists. "The fact that these are blank and [you can] do whatever you want really opens it up to a lot of different things," Sherman says. "I can make one of these for somebody that I care about [or] do a bunch and have a show."

Citing Francis Bacon's penchant for always painting on a particular size of canvas, Lasher and Yasuda chose to work with the same Qee blanks, the smallest ones available, for their five pieces. "[D]oing them all with the same shape has its own kind of fun" Lasher says. "What clever little thing could you do with it?"

Vinylmore has given other artists, such as Sherry, a chance to flout their own conventions. Known for his childlike animal designs, Sherry took a different tack for the show, creating two slightly off-kilter Qee caricatures of presidential hopeful Barack Obama. While he enjoyed the novelty of working with predetermined figures, Sherry prefers the control of sculpting his own characters, a hobby since his MICA student days. From a café table in Mount Vernon, Sherry admits that he is not into designer toys, though this does little to dampen his excitement for the show. "I'm really looking forward to [it] because there [are] a lot of different backgrounds coming down on this," he says.

Whether designer toy collectors or not, all of the artists interviewed agreed on one thing: When asked if they would design a toy commercially, each eagerly said yes. In the meantime, they are content to sell their one-of-a-kind pieces through the show. That is, once they settle on a price.

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