“I hope you don’t find tight spaces overwhelming,” artist Lori Nix said by way of apology as she led me into her apartment. Narrow crates halved the width of the hallways; metal towers, filled with everything from fake moss and tiny trees to cunningly crafted figurines, lined the walls. Mushrooming out from the center of the living room were the beginnings of large-scale models on worktables: hints of a city square; landscapes; the outlines of mouse-sized domiciles. The room was dominated by a meter-tall wedge that resembled a chasm in the Earth, that would eventually become a sinkhole within a nondescript metropolis. To the side, Nix’s partner and collaborator, Kathleen Gerber, molded figurines in clay. Nix and Gerber craft these meticulous dioramas for both their personal work, under Nix’s name, and less-involved versions for commercial projects as Nix + Gerber. But for all the time they spend crafting (up to fifteen months per diorama), these intricate models are rarely the endgame. Rather, they exist as sets for Nix’s mesmerizing photographs, which open up into imagined scenes that are startling in their lushness and detail.
Though Nix is best known for small-scale dioramas on themes of disaster—her first series in this vein, Accidentally Kansas, imagined desolate scenes ranging from commonplace (train wrecks, plane crashes) to biblical (plagues of insects, thunderstorms, diseased livestock)—her ongoing Unnatural History turns to a lighter subject, natural-history museums. “Unnatural lets Kathleen’s humor really come out,” Nix said with a grin, gesturing to an image of a scuba diver painting coral underwater, paint tubes tethered to his body with chains. The series offers a meta read of sorts—model makers applying their miniaturizing approach to depicting institutions built on the art of model making. But it also sprang from necessity. “There was a can of black-and-white film that had expired in 1999 sitting in our refrigerator, and I wanted that section of our refrigerator back,” Nix said. “We could use all our expired house paint as well, because it was all black and white. These models are hideous in real life from all the color.”
Nix and Gerber met in Columbus, Ohio, at an art-production company that did store interiors for brands like Victoria’s Secret. Gerber was Nix’s boss, a dynamic that has evolved into an equal partnership. Gerber clarified: “We divide according to our skills. Also, she gets very dusty, so I don’t like her near my clay.” They moved to New York in 1999 because photo labs in Ohio were closing and, as Nix said, “I wanted to be in what I thought was the center of the photo world in the US.” Nix spent fourteen years working at photography labs before Nix + Gerber became a full-time occupation. Those years granted her free film processing and instant access to photo studios, an invaluable perk for a budding artist. Over the years she’s made what she calls a logical jump from 35mm to medium-format to large-format photography, which she often uses to document their models, though she shoots in digital, too.
Nix and Gerber occasionally exhibit the dioramas, as with a forthcoming exhibition at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, but they prefer not to. “It’s so different from image to model,” Gerber said as she sculpted an inch-long head, based on the actress Lucy Lawless. “The lighting is so different, and she does so much with strobing and technique to get the right image.” And of course, there are the logistics; often the finished models won’t fit through the door of their sixth floor apartment. As Nix likes to say, “I work in miniature, not minuscule.”
— Lilly Lampe