Monday, February 3, 2014

The Uncommon Valentine: Build a Miniature Cabinet of Curiosities for Your Special Someone

This year for Valentine's Day I've decided to revisit a project that I did years ago. While I was in college I briefly worked at the local art supply store with my then-boyfriend-now-husband (he worked there long before I did - that's actually how we met, sort of). Working at the Art Attack was a great experience. While waiting for the occasional student to wander in I would sit, surrounded by materials and supplies, and daydream about all of the wonderful things I could make.

Then, once a week, a group of artsy friends and I would meet after work on a Thursday evening to create/draw/illustrate/make whatever we fancied. Jeremy and I still do this to this day, Thursday evenings, with a very small group of friends, though Art Attack has been gone for years now (that was a sad, sad day).

At some point I started building boxes out of cardboard or foamcore and covering them in decorative papers. It wasn't long after that when I realized I could create small paper cutout dioramas in these boxes, and then I set out to make an entire series of them. Many of them have been lost over the years, and I gave some of my favorites away, but this year I would love to revisit them and to show you how they are made so that you can share them with your loved ones as three dimensional Valentines!

Anyway, before you get started you've got to gather some things. I usually flip through some old clipart books (Dover is great!) or look through my boxes of vintage papers and magazines. If you haven't got access to this sort of thing you can always find it readily available online! Find more images than you think you'll need. It's always fun to have options. I also like to look around for actual objects to use. A rooster feather, a seed pod, vintage fabric, an interesting bit of string – small things like this are perfect to use to embellish your cabinet. The differences in texture will make a much more interesting visual experience!

Since this is going to be a Valentine, you could collect things that you know your significant other will like. You could even brainstorm on a piece of paper about the person the cabinet is for... Some of the words I came up with were: skulls, fish scales, mermaid, mermonk, etc. Obviously I am not gearing my Valentine for the average bear.

I'm going to do a much more traditional Valentine style for my tutorial box, but I'll post a picture of the finished Valentine for my husband as well so you can see what I came up with.

You will need:
  • Thick Cardboard or Foamcore (I prefer foamcore!)
  • A strong liquid glue (archival, if possible!)
  • Flexible and lightweight decorative paper and/or paint (tissue paper or lightweight handmade papers work well for this - nothing too stiff!)
  • Images/objects of Curiosity (feathers, string, sticks, dowel rods, paper cutouts, stamps, leaves, seed pods, etc. Try browsing your local craft store's scrapbooking aisle!)
  • Cutting tools: Scissors, X-acto knife, Box cutter (be careful with these things!)
  • Cutting mat (or some surface you can cut on)
  • Your Imagination!

Before we get started, let me mention that I seem to have lost the photos from my box making day! I'm going to do some searching and get them up as soon as possible. Sorry, folks!

Step One: Decide on the dimensions of your box and cut out the pieces.
This will either require some serious math, or some whimsical eyeballing. I like to start off with math for the back (base) of the box and then just eyeball the sides by laying them out along the back piece. This is also when you decide how deep to make your box. If it's not deep enough, you won't be able to "set" things on your shelf. If it's too deep, it will be difficult to put paper over. Once you've decided on how big you want the box to be you can add shelves or compartments by gluing in additional bits of cardboard. The joints don't have to be 100% perfect, but they should be close enough that they glue soundly. 

Step Two: Glue the box pieces together.
Take your time and glue the four sides onto your box. If things seem like they're slipping around a lot, I like to let my glue dry a bit and get "tacky" before really expecting the sides to stick. Let these dry firmly (patience, young Padawan). If you have shelves and you plan to cover them in decorative paper you may want to cover them before attaching them since it will likely be easier.

You can also use an existing box for this and save yourself the trouble! I still have a sort of Curiosity Cabinet that my cousin made years ago out of Swan Brand matchboxes! 


Step Three: Cover (or paint) your box.
Covering your box with paper is the hardest part of this project. If you prefer to paint the box, I totally understand. I've done some painted, myself! I love to use metallic paints for this.)
In order to cover the box I've made thus far, I am tracing around it to create a paper shape to envelop the exterior of the box. For the interior I am using a paper that is very lightweight and easy to mold into crevices and corners. The interior can be tough, but the easiest way I've found to do it is to cut a strip of paper that is the width of the interior and long enough to be pressed up against the sides. 


I then cut two smaller strips that are the height of the interior and glue those to the remaining exposed areas. This takes some finesse, but what I've found is that you can just kind of wing it a bit and push and shove the papers around until they're in place. Carefully spread a thin layer of glue over the entire area that you intend to cover. Make sure the glue is thin and even, or you may get bubbles or bleed through.


I also wrap my "shelf" pieces in glued decorative paper at this point, and firmly glue them into place. You could probably also use a spray adhesive to do this part, if you happen to have it around. It's great stuff for delicate paper layering!

Step Four: Prepare your Curiosities!
This is the most fun of all of the steps, in my opinion! Prepare the objects that you want to showcase in your box. This could mean gluing a hat on a paper dog, painting a seed pod metallic gold, or writing out your favorite quote in a loopy script. 

Go with whatever strikes your fancy! This is the time to be adventurous and imaginative. Be BOLD! Curiosity Cabinets were private collections of things that fascinated their owners. Keep that "fascination" in mind!

Step Five: Mount your Curiosities.

If your curiosities are three dimensional objects, simply find a way to glue them into your shelves. A dollop of good adhesive will hold small objects to your shelves without letting them rattle around. If your box is cardboard or foamcore you can even use pins to pin your objects into place similar to an insect specimen case.


When I use flat paper pictures in my boxes, I like to create little "supports" to ensure that they won't get bent or tilted once they're glued in. You can also use these supports to give the illusion that they're floating in space. Glue a small dowel or a piece of cardboard to the back of your flat picture and then put a drop of glue on the other end. Let this glue set up and become tacky before installing your picture, as you don't want it to smear around on the back of your box! Once it is tacky, simply glue it where you want it to be!

You can also use various methods to add depth to your box. I've used dowel rods to give the appearance of cage bars, and I've even used string to add a bit of dangly movement. Seriously, folks. Let your imagination run wild!

Step Six: Enjoy, and Repeat!


Voila! You have your own little Cabinet of Curiosity to give to your loved one. But why stop at just one? Once you start making these, you'll realize how wonderful it is to showcase little bits of beautiful and bizarre! Make another!


Ah, and here is the final Wunderkammer I made for my husband!