Murders in Miniature: An Interview with Abigail Goldman
Abigail Goldman was not always a master of the diorama, of tiny, perfectly-rendered scenes of murder and mayhem. As a child in Northern California, she remembers being asked to make a miniature version of one of the state’s 21 historical missions, the centers where Franciscan missionaries from Spain attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity. “I recall making a model of Mission San Juan Capistrano in fourth grade,” she says. “My mission was made out of lumpy, heavy clay. It collapsed in class. You could say I was a pretty middling art student.”
These days, Goldman has honed both her skills and her openness to underlying societal violence: her tiny “Dieoramas”—based on model train sets, she carefully creates the scenes using a magnifying glass—are exquisite representations of murder, mayhem, and gore, and have made the Bellingham, Washington-based 37-year-old an online sensation (and netted her both gallery representation and a waiting list). Now she’s the star of a new Topic documentary short called, appropriately, Dieorama.
Goldman is no stranger to the dark side; she and her husband met as reporters covering a double murder in Nevada in 2005, and in the years since, she’s worked as an investigator with the Las Vegas public defender’s office, and currently works as an investigator for the Whatcom County Public Defender’s office. While the comparisons to the famous “Nutshell Studies”—painstakingly accurate models of true-crime scenes made in the first half of the 20th century by the heiress Frances Glessner Lee—are obvious, Goldman’s works differ in one key respect: she doesn’t dramatize real murders.
Each one of her gore-fests is purely the product of her imagination, a darkly comedic take on tragedy rather than an homage. Not obvious escapism, perhaps, but crafting the painstaking scenes has proven both a calming hobby and a way to contextualize the horror of what Goldman deals with daily. She says she loves the contrast of the seemingly twee scenes and the gory subject matter: people tend to look once, and then look again. That second glance, she explains, is the point.
You invent the crimes you depict. Does each one have a full story in your mind? Do the “characters” have names?
I do have a story behind each dieorama—and I really resist telling them. Everyone has a bit of a detective in them, I think, and people are eager to decode and deconstruct the small scenes. In many ways, what you see in a dieorama can be a bit of a Rorschach test. Any interpretation is partly a reflection of the viewer.
You work on the really tiny model train scale, rather than the “miniaturist” 1/12. Why the extra challenge?
I started making my own dieoramas after seeing a model railroad layout, so that was just my natural starting point. Part of the charm for me was the extreme small size—model railroads are 1:87 scale—and working in such a tiny scale seemed challenging and interesting. I started making dieoramas to give them away as gifts, and I liked the idea of surprising someone; they would get a four-inch-square dieorama and think it was just a cute little souvenir. Then they’d look closer and see the mayhem. Then maybe they’d leave it on the mantel to scare guests.
You’ve often been mentioned in connection with Frances Glessner Lee’s so-called “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” which are now used as teaching tools for trainee forensic investigators. How do you feel about comparisons between the two?
I first learned of Lee’s work after my first gallery show, when people who saw my work told me about her. I understand the comparisons, though I think people often don’t realize that my dieoramas are made in a scale almost eight times smaller than hers. She can get in a lot of rich detail that I cannot, simply because it would be invisible to the naked eye in my scale. Lee’s “Nutshell Studies” were also created as teaching tools—her scenes are practical and linear, where mine are gorier and perhaps more absurd.
So much of your work deals with upending images of a mostly white suburbia. Can you talk a little about that?
I grew up in a mostly white suburbia, so I tend to draw from that background in my work. I also enjoy the upending of stereotypical suburban scenes with an injection of horror and violence. I think plenty of dark, unspoken things happen in the suburbs—I see that every day in my work as a defense investigator.
Are most of the train figurines Caucasian by, um, birth? Manufacture?
Prepainted model railroad figures are white, by and large. When I’m painting figures, I also routinely paint them white. I don’t want to endorse or contribute to the false narrative in this country that crimes are only committed by people of color. Crime is committed among all walks of life, and institutionalized racism is real.
Miniatures have so often, historically, been a seemingly safe way for women to be subversive or express frustrations or just creativity. For that matter, women are the primary consumers of true-crime media/lit. Do you think about yourself as part of that tradition?
It’s interesting to think of the miniature as a female form of subversive expression. I suspect the origin of this all comes down to dollhouses, and dolls, and the notion that a girl’s play should be preparation for the “women’s work” of tending house and home. Or the idea that girls should play with delicate, indoor toys. How better to challenge tradition than from within?
I’d be flattered to be seen as part of any tradition of female artists. This said, I don’t yet think of myself that way. I think of myself as a person who had a private hobby that one day became public. By some odd miracle, people responded to my work.
Your mordant take in some ways jibes with the “death positivity” movement pioneered by Caitlin Doughty, et al.; do you feel it’s important to deal more openly with death and violence?
I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re in profoundly violent times. There’s so much violence that we’ve become accustomed to it, which is to say nothing of fictional violence, pervading most of our entertainment media. There’s at least two TV networks devoted to true-crime coverage, and people salivate for more. At the same time, I think there’s an undercurrent of rage building everywhere, a feeling like things may boil over at any minute. These twin forces—violence and anxiety, anger and fear—build up a kind of sediment in your psyche, and the next thing you know, you find yourself lashing out at a stranger or, I don’t know, sobbing in the shower. Or both.
I think there’s something valuable in miniaturizing rage, containing violent dieoramas in little bubbles or boxes and making them preposterous. People who like dieoramas—and not everyone does—tend to find them funny more than anything else. Maybe that’s a humor that comes from discomfort. Ideally, I’d like for my work to be a send-up of violence culture. But I recognize it can also just be a sight gag. Making someone laugh is its own triumph, even if you have to kill tiny people for a punchline.
You mention in the short Topic made about you, Dieorama, that when your work first went up on Reddit, about half the comments were awful, and that was a ratio you could handle: do you think your experience with actual tragedy makes you better able to handle the abuses and occasional emotional violence of the internet?
Those of us who are interested in violence or true crime learn real quick that not everybody understands or appreciates these perusals. So, more than any thick skin I may have developed from working in the criminal-justice system, I think I just had an innate understanding that not everybody was going to like miniature murder. Gallows humor is a coping mechanism that you either appreciate or you don’t.
Last thing. What's the deal with the Pacific Northwest and the macabre?!
Such a good question! Do you know there’s an ongoing problem with lone human feet just washing ashore in Washington state? Last I read, we’ve had more than a dozen in the past decade. Anyway, if I had to guess, I’d say that there’s something about the broody and dark woods here that makes people morose. This said, I came here after a decade in Las Vegas, which is just a buffet of the macabre. So maybe we’re looking at this backwards: it’s not that people in the Pacific Northwest are darker, but that we don’t expect them to be awful as they really are. As everyone really is.