“I love the idea of people that I don't know seeing some tiny world that I've created, and thinking, 'Oh, that's so whimsical!' I loved the idea of what it might make someone feel,” Hallee Nguyen described. That notion has been foundational to a project Nguyen has engineered and had been working on for exactly 43 days when we met at Humble Coffee in early September. In reality, Nguyen had been working on Tinyscapes, a pop-up art installation series for years. She described how she and friends would, for example, set up tableaus of gnomes and other tiny figurines in bathrooms at parties. Or how, as a student at UNM she was influential in driving Spring Storm, a volunteering event that, during Nguyen's tenure with the effort, was themed around lawn ornaments. She helped make the tiny very big—in this case a gnome—by working with other students to scale some up to as much as 9 feet tall. “Oh, I've always been fascinated with gnomes,” she laughed. “That sort of fairy tale otherworld—I just love it.”
Earlier this year, Nguyen described herself as being really in need of a creative project as her personal life was shaken up. “I'd been craving something like this project, an outlet,” she said. “I feel like my true self when I'm doing stuff like this.” So, she set to work on Tinyscapes, wherein she intends to document 101 staged, miniscule landscapes throughout the city. The initial iterations of the project were intended to exist as installations left on-site, but as she scaled up the project to 101 distinct tinyscapes, she decided to photograph and compile them instead. That day, she would set to work on her 43rd installation. “I really just don't have the inventory to leave them in place, but I hope at the end of it all I can find spaces where I can leave them. I'll do the photo project, then leave them in the world and see what happens.”
In the worlds that Nguyen creates tiny tigers and cheetahs prowl in cut grass, a miniscule zoo pops up on the sidewalk outside Target, complete with fencing or a small figure in an equally petite life vest bobs in a puddle. They are adorable images that allow viewers to get on a level they don't often see. “I kept thinking of this, which is the tagline now for the project: ‘Appreciating tiny in a big way,' ” she said. “So many parts of our environment go unnoticed. I'm guilty of doing that—getting hyper-focused on what I'm doing and not paying attention. A project like this has helped me, as the designer of it, to pull away from that. … I thought it would be interesting to make the piece unexpected, tiny, unnoticeable. Then, wanting to make it a photography project, I thought it would be interesting for the viewer to get the perspective of a tiny thing.”
To capture that perspective, Nguyen herself has had to fanagle some strange vantage points, too. “To capture the subjects, I have to lay on sidewalks, and be in these really awkward positions,” she described. “It's funny because the whole point of the Tinyscapes project is to not be conspicuous. Then, I'm reversing it and making a scene!” For that reason the project has been a bit liberating for Nguyen personally and as an artist. “I'm a quiet, soft, passive sort of personality … [and] just being in a public space and being bold enough to go for it has been a challenge for me.” Allowing herself to indulge in a hobby that might seem odd has allowed her to discover a sense of adventurousness in her art and appreciate her own quirks and those of others.
“It's been cathartic to let myself be a little bit eccentric,” she said. “And I think that's super healthy—I think everyone should do it, even though I still feel shy and awkward when I pull out my big bin of tiny stuff. But still, I do feel like my true self. I can't help but think that more people should do stuff like this.”
She hopes that Tinyscapes might provide some inspiration for others to do just that—or if nothing else garner some of the feelings of wonder and whimsy that she feels in the creation of the pieces. “I hope it brings people joy and a laugh and a new perspective. The perspective of tiny. Maybe that will spark some imagination. But really, I hope people just laugh, it’s so silly,” she said before returning to what was, in part, the impetus of the whole project. “I just always think about what people would feel if they found a tinyscape. It would make them feel how I feel making it.”
By focusing on what's small and often overlooked, Nguyen has been able to cultivate a sense of child-like mindfulness, which is mood-altering, if not life-altering. And it wouldn't be possible if she didn't chase her ideas and interests—as strange as they might seem to others.
“At the very end,” she confided with a big smile, “I want to have a party with all of them. I know I'm ridiculous. I know how very eccentric I am.”
Follow along with Nguyen and her tiny cadre of models at tinyscapesabq.com and on Instagram and Facebook @Tinyscapesabq.