HARRISONBURG — Artists Meg Romero and Joshua Miller are "makers at heart," according to Larkin Arts owner Valerie Smith.
Both artists began their careers building furniture nearly 30 years ago, but recently they wanted to move into a different direction. “They wanted to do something they felt was even more creative,” Smith said.
Miller and Romero’s whimsical woodwork is on display at Larkin Arts, located at 61 Court Square, in an exhibition titled “A Maker’s Show” for the month of June.
“One of the things that makes it special is the kind of art that is on display is not your average two-dimensional painting or printmaking art show,” said Paul Somers, a gallery director at Larkin Arts. “It’s the craft and the fine detail that elevate the work from the utility it references.”
The two artists are friends and collaborators who share a similar background as makers.
Romero, who lives in Cumberland, Md., designs and builds small-scale room boxes that she calls “vignettes of imagination.” She began making the diorama-like boxes three years ago after 15 years of designing and building artful cabinetry.
Each box, made from vintage hardware and found objects, tells a story with elements of mystery and surrealism. She was inspired by some of the other miniature room boxes she had seen from artists around the world.
“I was so entranced by them: by the details, by the stories, what was going on inside these rooms and trying to put my own perspective on the stories,” Romero said. “I just love them.”
Romero works on a 1:12 scale, which is the standard for models and miniatures. Three of the pieces are found boxes while the other cases she made using her cabinetry skills.
A piece called “Moving Day” features a tiny chair, dresser, ottoman and mirror, with text used as wallpaper. There are little cardboard boxes that are in the process of being filled and taped up, and mini books scattered around the room. The piece also features a drop ceiling, a tiny ladder and an attic that can be seen through the hole of a drawer pull.
Smith said the tiny scenes create moments of whimsical delight.
“She’s created little experiences,” Smith said. “It’s not just a room. It’s like a moment in time.”
In “Bookmobile,” a round bookshelf with a lampshade on top sits on a vintage roller skate.
“Rotunda Gallery” is a circular mock art gallery that has tiny framed paintings Romero made herself. The paintings are held up on the wall by use of magnets.
“Dear Mother and Dad” is a box in the collection that’s especially personal to Romero. The interior walls of the room are lined with copies of real letters her father wrote to his family during World War II. Romero’s family portraits are also inside the room.
Romero likes to incorporate historical technology into her vignettes, whether it’s roller skates, clock parts or pulleys.
Smith is fascinated with how Romero fuses found objects into the scenes. In one box, a mesh bag designed to hold grocery store fruit is repurposed as a pattern in an old window.
“The found materials that she uses are so interesting and unexpected,” she said.
The best part for Romero is how other people interpret her miniature vignette scenes and all the thoughtful, tiny details she puts into them.
“I enjoy the way people respond to them,” Romero said. “I love the way they explore the boxes.”
Miller has also found his work evolving into a more whimsical nature. He began transitioning from building furniture to more sculptural pieces about six years ago. He still runs a full-time studio in Mathias, W.Va., where he designs and builds custom furniture as well as timber frame houses.
Three years ago he started the “Implement (When Tools Were Beautiful)” series, which now hangs in Larkin Arts’ gallery.
“The series started out two dimensionally using exclusively walnut and white oak,” Miller said. “The walnut and white oak is milled locally and air dried in my barn for at least a year.”
The wall pieces depict abstracted, simple designs of shovels, rakes and other types of tools and implements.
He was inspired by his own home: a restored homestead farm in West Virginia. He would find old tools that the previous owner made that he described as handmade and raw, but also refined. Some had smiley faces carved into them, which initially puzzled him.
“I realized they’re just being fun and whimsical,” Miller said. “I see the tools of the maker as being extensions of ourselves.”
On the opposite wall of the gallery room hangs Miller’s more recent work: three-dimensional wall sculptures with bass wood and white pine that’s carved and painted with acrylics.
“I can just carve and manipulate and be more free with the softer woods,” he said. “I like the idea of painting and staining them so that’s the new direction I’ve taken.”
Miller’s “Implement” series has shown at regional galleries throughout the mid-Atlantic, including at Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, W.Va., Corner Store Arts in Washington, D.C., and Tamarack in West Virginia. His newer pieces using surface manipulation techniques are displayed at Larkin Arts for the first time.
Romero’s work has shown at Saville Gallery in Cumberland, Md., Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, the Washington County Arts Council in Hagerstown, Md., and the Dorchester Center For The Arts in Cambridge, Md.