On miniature aircraft, scale modelers painstakingly reproduce things like wires and rivet heads in sizes up to 70 times smaller than the real thing. Some kits have this level of detail molded onto the parts, but in other cases modelers add it themselves from scratch.

On this model, a tiny cockpit is scratch-built from plastic and wire. Note the penny, which gives a sense of scale.


The instrument panel and rudder pedals are assembled, painted, and ready to install in another model.

With a background in this type of modeling, detail is a vexing issue in my work for Artists of Hawai‘i 2013. My aim is for viewers to ponder the relationships between the forms and images, not to scrutinize minute details—which can add weeks or months to the time needed to construct each piece. I can’t squander time on features that would be invisible, or would not add significant meaning to the work.

On the other hand, “God is in the details,” as architect Mies van der Rohe said. It is an idea I find alluring; If I am to present a scale model as a persuasive symbol, doesn’t a more richly detailed and convincing replica make it more so?

So I aspire to as much detail as time will allow.

This attention extends to the finish of each piece, which consists of many layers: white primer, photographic image transfers, paint, decals and multiple clear coats. All are meticulously applied with episodes of sanding and polishing between each layer. It is a process that mirrors historic art practices, including the polychrome wood sculpture common in many cultures. The result of the effort is meant to equate with a conceit of the Renaissance, when the fineness of a work of art was believed to enhance its spiritual gravity.

Here, photographic images are applied over the white primer coat

“Polychrome” simply means multiple colors. Artisans without access to fine materials such as marble would often sculpt in wood, which was inexpensive and plentiful. (I prefer using scale model kits for much the same reason—today plastic is inexpensive and nearly ubiquitous.) To add vividness to their ordinary medium, the wood was often brightly painted. Then, multiple layers of clear resins were applied and vigorously polished to create a deep gloss. Applied mostly to likenesses of Christ and angels, the gleam was meant to portray the divine light of the subjects.

With the images applied, the rest of these models are in the process of being painted.

The fixing of images on my aircraft models is meant to allude to the camouflage and markings of real warplanes, which are often seen in drab finishes. But these models are designed to mimic this genre of representation, while imagining some eccentric, rogue ideology. The deep gloss—this divine light—proves quite tempting.


The real thing: A photograph of the famous Flying Tigers on mission over Burma in 1942. Photograph by R.T. Smith.

Here’s a nearly completed piece, based on the vintage photograph.

At the museum in September, I imagine my little airplanes shimmering like jewels.