Devin Drake

Reality In Miniature

By Author Randy Fox
Model Photos Courtesy of Devin Drake

Photograph by Chuck Allen
Photograph by Chuck Allen

Artist in Profile

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Devin Drake is on Instagram

Stepping into the world of Devin Drake’s artwork requires an adjustment of scale. It’s a world of familiar streets scenes, buildings, and architectural details — an abused but steadfast corner bus stop, a graffiti-covered light pole, or a beloved local storefront. Or perhaps it’s a well-accustomed interior space — a family TV room of your childhood lit by a warmly glowing cathode ray tube or perhaps a dimly remembered hospital room. Drake’s facsimiles of these places and objects are marked by an astonishing level of meticulous detail and craft but are all the more impressive because they can be held in the palm of your hand.

I often like to create vignettes where I can tell a story through a piece and I am the director,” Drake says. “I don’t know why people enjoy smaller versions of large things so much, but it’s something everyone seems to enjoy. Maybe it goes back to being a kid with dolls and action figures.”

A native of Springfield, Tennessee, Drake says he’s been drawn to art since his own days of action figure obsession. “I’ve been doing art most of my life — painting, illustrating; when I was younger and through my early high school years I was really into it. I took a break for about 10 years while I was in my late high school years and early twenties, but I’ve always tinkered with and built stuff.”

Drake was also exposed to a classic American hobby at a young age, resurfacing later in his chosen medium. “My great-grandfather built model cars and when I hung out with him, we would go to the hobby store and build models together. I think my generation was the last to build models. When I was a kid, there would be a whole aisle of model cars at Walmart. Now if you go to any big box store, there are no models, and you can’t find hobby shops like Hobby USA anymore, they just died out.”

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Drake’s return to art and his work’s eventual intersection with model making began in 2018. He was inspired by another artist’s work to try his hand at complex cardboard sculptures of ordinary objects. He sculpted life-size pasteboard simulacra of classic radios, cameras, and a Cold War-era Soviet cosmonaut helmet on display at the Golden Sound location of Barista Parlor. The sale of a few of his sculptures encouraged him to take his art more seriously and a chance at exploring a different form of art put him on the course to crafting realistic miniatures.

“I had a bunch of buddies that were going to school at Watkins and they didn’t have much money, so if they needed a spaceship or other models for the films they were making, I would build it,” Drake says. “I kept going with it and started making miniatures of places around town — a sidewalk or a doorway that looked interesting and replicating it.”

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Drake says the inspirations for his street-side vignettes can strike at any time.

“I keep a running notepad on my phone when I see a place or an object with a lot of character. My brain just seems to recognize quirky, less obvious things whether it be street scenes, a random doorway, or a strange crack in something here or there. I’ve always been drawn to architecture and design — really just lines, so I take photos all the time of stuff. Some of the pieces do have real-life inspirations, but if there’s graffiti on it I create my own.”

“I don’t really have a rhyme or reason to what I create,” Drake continues. “Sometimes it holds a nostalgic value for me — like the TV room, it was based on the playroom from my childhood — and other times it’s just an interesting piece. I like to stick with stuff people can recognize or relate to.”

While Drake often embellishes or adds to his dioramas, he likes to begin the process with every possible detail he can gather about its real-world counterpart. “If I’m recreating something, I like to have a gallery of photos in front of me while I work,” Drake says. “It’s even better if I can take actual measurements. When I did the recreations of [beloved local businesses] The Groove and Dino’s, I first did a rough sketch and left little boxes for each measurement. Then I measured everything that I needed, came home and did a mockup in cardboard. Once I feel okay about how it’s shaping out, I’ll turn to the actual materials I build with — primarily basswood, balsa wood, a lot of heavy card stock or mat board, and styrene plastic. If I need something that’s an organic shape, I’ll use oven-fired clay. I also use a lot of superglue and X-ACTO knife blades.”

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Drake’s obsession with gathering every possible detail and measurement before beginning is more of a challenge for commission work. “I work with the client and try to get as much information that I need,” Drake says. “I obviously can’t drop everything and just fly to Seattle to take photos and measurements. It’s a little frustrating to not have things at
your fingertips.

“One of my recent commissions was a recreation of signage of a bar in Tokyo that was the client’s boyfriend’s favorite bar. She didn’t have any measurements and I had to use photos from Google and Instagram, basing proportions off the measurements of the doorframe, since doors are usually a standard size. It was more complicated but it turned out pretty well and they were happy with it.”

Drake’s miniature work also serves as a substitute and dry run for another of his interests — designing and crafting full-sized furniture. “I love mid-century furniture,” he says. “I have sketchbooks full of my own furniture designs, but as of right now I don’t have a place to build them, so I’ve made several pieces in 1/12 scale. That’s purely because I love the furniture and the design and it gives me an outlet to build it without having 2,000 square feet of space for a woodshop.”

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For the past two years, Drake’s work has mostly been showcased through social media, leading to a deluge of commission work. As restrictions ease, he’s focusing on the prospect of gallery shows. “It took about a year to get my first show at the Rymer Gallery on Fifth Avenue and it went really well, but was cut short by the pandemic. I’d like to reach out to galleries in New York or L.A. and maybe do some exhibits in those cities.”

Effects work for film is definitely an area Drake is interested in pursuing further. He’s even started declining some commission work due to an increased load of prop and miniature effects work. Could dinosaurs or otherworldly beasts soon be stalking the (miniature) streets of the Eastside? Well … “I love stop motion animation and have since I was a kid from the Star Wars films and Ray Harryhausen’s movies,” Drake says. “I have a script for a short I’ve written that I’ve been storyboarding here and there, and my goal is to eventually shoot it. For right now, I plan to keep doing film stuff, taking commissions, do more gallery shows, and see where that gets me.”

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