Dan Baines

Fairy Rings and Monstrous Things

The Cabinet of Curiosities Challenge Part 1

Well over a year ago a very special client sent me a huge parcel. Inside the mystery package was a large wooden doll's wardrobe box.  The uninspiring red stained box from around the 1960s then sat in the studio staring back at me for months like a blank canvas.  After months of batting e-mails back and forth many great ideas were hatched but I still couldn't get past the sheer size and plain facade and so it remained in the studio gathering dust while a very understanding and patient client waited...

And waited...

There comes a time as an artist when the subconscious mind whirs away in the background and comes up with a solution to the creative block you've been trying to figure out.  It then pushes the ideas back into your conscious mind and the blank canvas starts to take shape. For me, the penny dropped at this year's Doomsday when Andy Cooper and Nik Taylor did their lecture on how they created a cabinet of curiosities attraction in 3 weeks. If they could successfully turn something like that around in a matter of weeks surely I could take this box that has haunted me for so long and finally do something with it!

The huge wardrobe box in its original state

The huge wardrobe box in its original state

The most distracting thing about the box was the horrible red finish, it felt like a creative fog bank that I couldn't see past.  I proceeded to sand the lot off in a satisfying cloud of sawdust.  I then blasted the bare wood with a blow torch to highlight the grain,  applied a few coats of wood stain and then set fire to the whole thing.  The box finally took on a new lease of life and my creative juices finally began to flow.

One of the criteria for the box was that prior to the performance it had to be chained and locked to give the impression that something dangerous was safely contained within.  The chain and padlock would then unlock and fall with a loud bang as if opened by unseen hands all done with little or no intervention from the performer.

Simon Drake produces a very nice self opening padlock but the method would not work with this box as it needed to completely fall off with a loud thud.  The only other method I knew was developed by Roni Schachnaey and used an ungimmicked lock. I decided to go with a modified version of Roni's haunted lock but I would need to experiment with making the chain also break and fall.

After several hours tinkering I nailed it and the once normal antique padlock finally became 'haunted'.  The lock clicked open and hit the studio table with a loud crash followed by a tangle of rusty chain.  I put a big fat tick on the client's wish list and readied myself for the next task.

With the exterior almost complete I opened up the wardrobe and looked at the huge expanse of empty space.  This was by far the largest prop I'd ever tackled.  Like most huge tasks, the best way to approach them is to break them down into smaller manageable parts.   The wardrobe consists of four sections so over the next few blog posts I'll be covering each section individually until I finally arrive at a complete portable Cabinet of Curiosities. 
 

The client's 'want' list includes (in his own words) -

  • A portable bookshelf for the Doppelgängers. It would need some sort of buckling or removable strap to hold the books in place on the shelf

  • For the two drawers underneath, I was thinking that the top one would just remain a functional drawer, but maybe the bottom drawer could be home to your Ghost in the Machine?

  • I like the clothes hanger bar and was only thinking of using it for hanging pendulums and perhaps the Ceseral Spirit bell on a string for a performance option. If you can think of something better for it - or a reason to get rid of it - I'm listening.

  • A display section with little pouches with instruments and alike. I would also love to have several rows of your miniature phrenology heads along the back. I think those are brilliant.

  • All the backings of the case need some sort of base decor. Velvet? Satin? Flocked wallpaper?

  • I love that there is a mirror in this box, with a shelf in front of it. I wish there was room to do some sort of two-way mirror effect, but there probably isn't. The frame should be a bit more decorative -- perhaps an oval frame over the existing mirror would set the mood.

  • The drawer under that shelf, I was thinking, could be a velvet, padded drawer for transporting whatever 'delicate item' was required for that performance (haunted key, artifacts etc). I also have one other idea, for one of your fantaxidermy creations, but I'll add that in it's own section at the bottom. Under the drawer? I don't know.

  • I woke up one night and realized that I would like you to create a very special mummified fairy... a nightmare. It would be incredibly cool if he had "caught one" and could display it. I just picture one of your fairy pieces, but squatting on his haunches, like the nightmare from Henry Fuseli. Maybe it's captured and dried out in an antique glass lantern.

  • This was something that could go in that padded drawer, carefully removed for display on the table or on the shelf in front of the mirror.

Stay tuned and see how this develops!