It's a Small World: The Amazing Richard McMahan Has a Little Obsession


This article was pulled from the Folio Archives. It was originally published on February 6, 2001.

Peter Pan. Bambi. Cinderella. Snow White. The streets surrounding Richard McMahan’s Westside Jacksonville home read like the parking lot designations at Disney World. His is a nondescript neighborhood filled with anonymous houses. Toys litter front yards, dogs tug on chains, regular cars sit in regular driveways. Geniuses hide in places like this. McMahan stands on the doorstep of his house in his stocking feet on a cool, sun-drenched afternoon. He is as diminutive as the artwork he labors over a few hours each day, his small frame swimming in a white dress shirt and black slacks. A boyish smile cuts across his face as he turns and enters the darkened living room where he has arranged his collection of “miniatures” — tiny recreations of famous works of art. Seventy or so pieces are arranged on the coffee table, and hundreds more are stuffed in plastic containers and baggies stacked next to McMahan. They’re part of a collection of reproductions that numbers close to one thousand, and ranges from the detailed nightmares of Hieronymus Bosch to Henri Rousseau’s “Sleeping Gypsy.”

McMahan sits on the sofa and gazes at his offspring, his babies. Before him lies an expansive micro-gallery, each piece painstakingly constructed and painted by the fragile-looking imp. The works are very small — and close to perfect.

At first glance, the collection seems a single piece, a unified wash of color and texture. Its difficult to focus, hard to register a particular image. But soon the colors separate, like cells dividing, and a gridwork of paintings, sculpture and statues reveals itself.

Pablo Picasso’s “Still Life with Pitcher, Candle and Enamel Pot” is smaller than a playing card, yet its color and form mimic the original’s with grace and reverence. A 3-by-6-inch version of “The Birth of Venus” imitates all of the detail of Sandro Botticelli’s original, right down to the radiant expression on a face smaller than a pencil eraser. The picture frame is magnificent as well, replete with S-curve leafing and decorative corner designs.

“These are replicas of masterpieces from various galleries throughout the world,” says McMahan in nasal tones. “Basically, I was so intrigued with art history that I wanted to do something different than ... the run-of-the-mill kind of miniatures. Whenever I see miniature artwork, I only see ‘The Mona Lisa’ or a few Monets, a few Degas — but they are so limited in what they show as far as subject matter. They are very restricted ... very generic.”

McMahan’s, objects d’art are far from generic. In fact, they are downright brilliant. Any attempt to describe his work falls short. It must be seen, must be touched to be appreciated. Lift a piece and get the sensation of holding something precious. Pull it close and observe its splendor. Each item seems a flaw less gem, an impeccable reproduction of that which was already so remarkable.

McMahan’s inspiration and education aside from four years (’89-’92) at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts come largely from the printed page. He’s never been to art school, has had no formal training and hasn’t attended college (“Not yet,” he says). Instead, he relies on art and history books, and his vast collection of National Geographic magazines for guidance. Hundreds of years of human evolution art and culture from around the world leap from the pages into McMahan’s mind, where they wrestle with his imagination. The result is an amazing array of tiny artworks that span the ages, documenting the beauty of humanity, the grace of the artist.

At 27, McMahan spends his days creating his little wonders, watching television and reading about the masters. He’s a fan of “Mike Hammer,” “The Avengers” and “Barbarella.” He listens to Jimi Hendrix, Madonna and Lenny Kravitz. And he digs James Bond movies.

McMahan is shy and chatty, and repeats himself often in order to be understood. He’s a cautious man, careful not to disclose too much personal information. Delve too far into his character and he becomes irritated. He’d rather talk about his art.

His work consumes him, a source of overwhelming satisfaction and not a little frustration. While McMahan has dedicated himself to his work his hobby, as he prefers to call it — he is uncomfortable with the implications of being a full-time artist. He shirks the thought of meeting dead lines, despises the notion of assembly-line art and would rather work at a fast-food restaurant (which he has) than cater to art critics.

Hence his exhibit at the Webb Wesconnett Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library: a glass display case near the library entrance crammed with McMahan’s miniatures. Here, in a space no larger than a car trunk, McMahan has construct ed an Egyptian tomb. Ornate walls divide the case’s interior into several rooms that house tiny mummies and coffins, bowls and gourds, animals and skeletons and chariots with removable wheels. Each piece, though original in design, is modeled after an actual artifact. Each, too, is labeled on a strip of notebook paper: name, date and historical significance or function.

“I wanted to portray a tomb the way it look[ed] ... then instead of what it looks like now,” says McMahan, cradling a bow and arrow slightly bigger than a large paper clip. He handles his pieces like fragile insects, resetting toppled statues and securing loose items. As he fiddles about inside the tomb, a young boy and his mother approach the exhibit.

“Pretty cool, huh?” says mom to her child. “Wow.”

The boy stares at the delicate structures as McMahan explains certain aspects of the tomb. “This is [a replica of a piece] from the Hermitage Museum [in Russia],” says McMahan like a doting parent. “There are some things in here from the Ramses exhibit ... Just remember, you’re having an unprecedented view of this.”

The boy’s eyes widen beneath the brim of his baseball cap when he is told that all of the miniatures are made from cardboard, paper and glue. “Oh my God, that is so neat,” says mom. The boy stands transfixed.

McMahan, though solitary in his private life, relishes these rare public exchanges. Miniatures have become his primary method of self-expression, and he takes great pride in his work. “The thing about it is a lot of people don’t let me express myself,” says McMahan. “I have people call this stuff rubbish.”

McMahan refers to a few members of his church who want him to focus on religious art, but he refuses to limit himself. “I do a variety of things. I don’t stick with one subject matter all the time,” says McMahan, disturbed. "There’s more to art than just religion and politics.”

McMahan’s protest is evenly paced, his temper controlled. Still, there is something unnerving, almost contradictory, about the man. He is effusive about art but avoids talking about himself. He’s reclusive but longs for a way out of his parents’ Westside home. He studies art and art history but rarely visits museums. He needs money but refuses to sell his art. And though he desires normalcy, Richard McMahan is nothing short of extraordinary.

Periodontist Christian Berdy appreciates original art. The lobby of his modest Riverside office features several unique pieces, two of which were purchased from a street artist in Prague. Berdy has plans to make McMahan’s miniatures the centerpiece of his workplace exhibit. He is one of the chosen few McMahan has allowed to buy his work.

McMahan is reluctant to sell his paintings and sculptures, and is adamant about maintaining the integrity of his collection. (“I don’t want to do this for a living. I do it for my own fulfillment,” he says.) If he does sell a piece, he builds a duplicate for himself.

McMahan and Berdy met a couple of years ago after a mutual friend invited McMahan to present his art to a study group of local dentists. Berdy was moved by the sheer size of McMahan’s collection, which proved unwieldy to transport. “He came in with suitcases full of stuff,” recalls Berdy. “[As] I got to know him a little more, I told him instead of carrying [his pieces] around all the time, why don’t you get them into [photographs]?”

Berdy offered to snap digital photos of McMahan’s collection and help him create a manageable portfolio. It was during the photography session that Berdy approached McMahan about purchasing some of his works. McMahan agreed and hand-picked the items he’d sell. “I felt very fortunate that he sold me any of his paintings,” says Berdy.

Though Berdy appreciates the size of McMahan’s work, he marvels at McMahan’s use of material — almost exclusively tissue paper, cardboard, household glue and acrylic paint. His frames’ curved, ornamental trim is nothing more than tissue soaked in glue, rolled into a “snake” and twisted into shape. The canvases on which McMahan paints are merely cardboard squares slathered with a primer. Simulated rust on replicas from the Titanic is simply garden dirt mixed with brown paint.

“I started [learning] with modeling clay,” says McMahan, recalling his early works. “But you couldn’t paint it or anything. It’s not permanent. It would deteriorate, plus if I put it in a tomb or in a box with the walls painted ... it would start having oil stains all over the darn place.”

McMahan is cavalier about his develop mental years. What must have been hours upon hours of fastidious experimentation he reduces to a couple of sentences: “I just had to think it through. I just wanted to see what I could do in that arena.”

He makes it look simple enough. A replica Louis XlV-style armoire has doors that open on a special hinge McMahan invented. A miniature likeness of Jane Fonda from the erotic sci-fi adventure “Barbarella” comes complete with copies of the futuristic firearms used by the characters in the film. Shakespeare, standing no more than 4 inch es tall, is dignified in period dress with familiar bubbling pants and wide collar.

Christian Berdy boasts the largest collection of McMahan miniatures, and has purchased 50 paintings, each with its own elaborate frame, for $1,000, according to McMahan. Berdy plans to mount all of the works within a single cherrywood frame for display in his office in hopes of exposing his clients to McMahan’s work.

“At home I would not be doing him jus tice,” says Berdy. “I don’t think he wants exposure. He just needs a means of getting money to continue his work.”

The amount of money McMahan could make selling his art is not lost on him. While he would like his art to be displayed publicly, he is aware that there are profiteers who may capitalize on his talent. “I don’t really think of it as a business,” he says. “I don’t like people trying to choose my vocation ... People want mass-produced objects. I take my time with my stuff. People want it fast and now. I’ve worked with some of these ... sleezeballs that want everything fast and now. They don’t care about detail or quality.”

McMahan’s attention to detail and his depth of passion attracted the attention of Howard Kelley, president of Sally Corporation, a Jacksonville-based company that specializes in designing theme park rides.

“We had a project that needed his unique skills,” says Kelley. “At the time, we were extremely busy and had to reach outside the company. We commissioned him to build a miniature model [of a] theme park ride.”

After receiving specifications, it took McMahan about five weeks to complete the model, complete with replicas of animated characters for a theme park in China. The model was used for presentation purposes and as a guide in the development process.

“He has an innate talent to visualize and quickly convert that vision into miniaturization,” says Kelley.

Professional model builders often complete a series of scaling steps - taking measurements, rough 3-D drawings — before working on the miniature. McMahan skips the slide rule and the sketch pad. “He usually goes straight from visualization right to work ... He has a gift.”

Berdy thinks McMahan would benefit from having his own place to work — maybe a traditional studio where he can hone his craft. “I would love to, if I could figure out some way, to sponsor him,” says Berdy. “[Set] him up in a studio and challenge him, give him challenging art to work on.

“To get away from his environment, I think that’s the hard part for him,” continues Berdy. “I think he’s kind of a lonely man who wants to, internally, reach out to people.”

McMahan’s isolation is indeed palpable, and he is desperate to discover the rest of the world, get a full-time job and do some traveling. “Anywhere but here,” says McMahan, half kidding. “Sometimes I just wish I could go to a monastery for a month.”

But resources are limited. McMahan doesn’t have a car nor a driver’s license. He’s worked odd jobs but is currently unemployed. When he leaves the house, he takes the bus. Yet his vision is far-reaching: “I’d like to go to St. Petersburg. I’d like to go to Egypt, the Louvre.”

McMahan steadies his hand and drags a red line down the bulging side of a white amphora vase. His brush, unwavering and determined, glides along the stout vessel toward its base. McMahan pauses, lifts the brush, dips the bristles in a thick crimson splotch and resumes.

He paints another red line, eyes locked on its progress as it sweeps past one of the gourd’s handles. The process continues until the vase is covered.

A quick rinse of the brush, a dip in black paint, and McMahan is weaving intricate designs within the white sections. His con centration is measured. Pauses creep into his speech, his words marking the rhythm with which the brush moves.

The amphora is a replica of an ancient artifact used by the Incas as a grave offering for three sacrificial children, the remains of whom were recently unearthed on the Nevado Sabancaya volcano in the Andes mountains. “These children died of unnatural causes,” says McMahan. “They were murdered for sacrifices to the gods. [The children] were hit on the head. They were first given an intoxicating drink to render them unconscious. And then they were covered up and then they were bashed in the head ... in the temple area. This vase was a grave offering to the gods, the gods of the Incas.”

McMahan’s knowledge of his subjects is as thorough as the accuracy of his renderings — representations of the masterworks of Picasso and Dali, Bosch and Warhol, Rembrandt and Jasper Johns. The amphora is part of a historical series that includes scalar reductions of tombs and sarcophagi, swaddled mummies, headdresses and jewelry.

There are other full-sized works. McMahan has completed a number of larger paintings — some original, some repros — that adorn the walls of his parents’ home. He also sews his own costumes, elaborate and accurate copies of historical garments dating as far back as the Elizabethan period and as recent as World War I. McMahan’s skill is echoed in his decorative 19th-century gentleman’s outfit or his 18th-century bourgeois dress — complete with tri-cornered hat. He even sews the garment bags in which the clothes are stored.

But he specializes in the little things.

The Inca vase on which McMahan works is as tiny as a thimble yet it looks just like the picture McMahan uses as a guide. He created the container, with its bloated stomach and mini handles, using tissue paper, card board and household glue. Painting the piece is especially difficult, and McMahan’s work space — his bedroom — is primitive. There’s no workbench, easel nor special lighting. McMahan, slouching on the edge of his bed, uses available sunlight (“Why waste energy?” he asks). His tools are archaic as well. A plastic dinner plate acts as McMahan’s palette and he uses only two brushes while working on the Inca vase. Still, he is as diligent as any artisan, and his methods only hint at his hidden brilliance.

There’s limited floor space in McMahan’s bedroom. Stacks of art books and historical texts mingle with piles of laundry and bags that, according to McMahan, “hide a multitude of sins.” It’s a chaotic scene, reminiscent of the teen years, when pizza boxes were shoved under unmade beds and a boy was only as cool as his comic book collection. Within this chaos, though, exists order visible only to McMahan. Lining the walls and filling a couple of waist-high bookshelves are hundreds of issues of National Geographic magazine, all filed in chronological order. McMahan has every issue from 1939 to the present and a considerable number of originals from the early 1900s. Toss McMahan a month and year, and he can tell you what photograph adorned the cover and the featured story for that particular issue. It’s more than a parlor trick — the man’s a virtual card catalog.

September ’67? “Shinto Shrine. Kayaking in Japan.”

April ’68? “A man with a fish in his mouth. Vietnam.”

June ’56? “Alaska.”

Aug. ’71? “Oklahoma.”

He never misses.

“I just look at [them] enough and remember it,” says McMahan. “Exercise the mind.”

McMahan’s National Geographic collection functions as his research library and private gallery, the source for many of his renderings and replicas.

The magazines are also McMahan’s friends, and like good friends, they offer him comfort and companionship. They are always there. They don’t judge him or ask for things. They don’t demand change, or criticize. They just sit there, waiting to be opened when they will, once again, reveal the possibilities of life beyond the walls of McMahan’s home.

There is a sad sweetness about Richard McMahan. His boyish nature and simple lifestyle are disarming. Other than his magazines, art books and a few dozen record albums, he has few possessions. He laughs a lot, sometimes because he thinks things are funny, other times because he’s uncomfortable.

He loves his dog, Louie, and becomes even more childlike when the scruffy white mutt jumps into his arms. He’s a good son; his parents Sharon (herself a former artist) and Donald G., boast about his unfathomable talent. Yet, he’s so different.

Talking to McMahan, I couldn’t help thinking that he is truly a tortured artist. He’s not a hip outcast nor is he a self-abusive showboat. He wants to be liked, appreciated and nurtured. He wants a regular job, one that gets him out of the house and away from his universe of tiny things.

On the way to his exhibit at the library, McMahan told me about his days in school, days he spent as a pariah, teased by class mates. He was initially trepid, then the flood gates threatened to burst and he leaked a few drops of the real Richard — things he later forbade me to disclose. Yet, even with this fleeting glimpse into his dark, emotional recesses, I have no idea who McMahan really is.

I could postulate that his silence is his armor, a thick emotional epi dermis shielding him from the cruelties of society. I could pass him off as a caricature, an amusing anomaly whose significance is limited to the words on this page.

But I choose to see him for what I believe he is, a sensitive and lonely man with talent and imagination that dwarf today’s finest artists. A man who could do great things had he a little encouragement and some financial backing. A man whose path to glory — to freedom is obstructed only by shadows.

Richard McMahan has probably stood on his doorstep a thousand times wearing his socks and his irresistible grin, just waiting for something to happen. It’s out there, somewhere. All he has to do is put on his shoes and start walking.

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