As an undergraduate student at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Amanda Kelly decided to embark on an ambitious artistic project: purchasing and building a Willow Dollhouse Kit. Because of its size, assembling the kit in her dorm room would in and of itself become an ambitious undertaking. But, she also struggled to acquire the modern miniature objects that were essential to filling each of the dollhouse rooms.
“Through my study of illustration and oil painting, I had developed the patience and creative eye for miniature making,” Kelly, who currently is pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching degree with a visual arts endorsement at Hollins University, recalls. “So, when I wanted something specific, I attempted to create it myself.”
Kelly found collecting and making miniatures to be an exhilarating process. Soon, her work began attracting admirers who sought out her creations, and this in turn led her to launch her own business, Panda Miniatures, as well as a dedicated Instagram page that currently boasts more than 34,000 followers. The presence of Kelly’s miniatures on social media also captured the attention of the producers of a new HGTV holiday series for 2020: Biggest Little Christmas Showdown, a four-episode competition in which “the nation’s best miniaturists…face off to create the merriest mini holiday houses, complete with all the festive, tiny trimmings.” Kelly and her fiancée and partner in Panda Miniatures, Bree Sepulveda, were subsequently invited to vie for the grand prize of $50,000, which Kelly notes “would be amazing for our wedding.” The pair successfully competed against two other teams in the series’ debut episode (which originally aired November 27 and is available for viewing in its entirety online) and will be among the three finalists when Biggest Little Christmas Showdown concludes on December 18.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, who recently relocated to Roanoke (she teaches art at a local middle school), Kelly believes miniatures “are such a mystifying art form because of their ability to teleport the viewer into another world.” She considers creating realistic and contemporary miniatures and scenes her “go-to style. I love when miniature scenes or dollhouses have a cluttered and lived-in look to them as if someone just left. An empty glass, receipts on a counter, trash overflowing, half-eaten chocolate bars – those are the details that bring a miniature scene to life.”
Kelly admits that “making tiny objects by hand is tedious at times, but it has taught me to be a perfectionist and to be proficient in scale accuracy. These became essential skills when I began 3D modeling and utilizing my 3D printers for unique miniature creations.” Her professional opportunities have included making miniature props and sets for clients such as Coca-Cola and Swarovski as well as various TV shows.
Another benefit Kelly cites from her work is the camaraderie she has experienced with others who echo her passion. “The community of miniature artisans has always been so welcoming to me as a young artist, and I appreciate how everyone is eager to share designs with each other.” With so many miniature conventions canceled this year due to COVID-19, she enjoyed seeing other miniaturist friends on the Biggest Little Christmas Showdown set. “It’s a pretty close-knit community…you could say it’s a ‘small world,’” she adds, laughing.
In their preliminary competition, Kelly and Sepulveda and the two other teams were challenged by Tony Award-winning actor and series host James Monroe Iglehart to “take tropical Hawaiian vibes and make a structure inspired by the island greeting ‘Mele Kalikimaka,’ Hawaii’s way to say ‘Merry Christmas.’” The contestants were given a month in advance to begin building their projects and finish up to half of their miniatures; Biggest Little Christmas Showdown’s November 27 episode covers the 12 hours the teams had to complete their designs. At the end of the time period, a panel of judges evaluated each creation based on three criteria: interpretation of the theme, creativity, and execution.
“‘Mele Kalikimaka’ is the perfect theme for Christmas because it forces you to think out of the box,” Kelly says during the show. She and Sepulveda created a floating tiki bar, a pontoon they dubbed “Santa’s Tiki Boat,” augmented by a sandy beach, a palm tree, and even two “sand people” in the classic snowmen shape.
Kelly and Sepulveda skillfully overcame some unexpected challenges and setbacks during the 12-hour construction marathon and emerged triumphant with the judges, who praised their structure as a “completely unexpected approach” and “Jimmy Buffett having Christmas on the beach.”
“What set us apart from the other teams is our attention to detail,” Kelly says, “things that just take it to next level of realism.”
As she and Sepulveda prepare for the competition final, Kelly continues to find encouragement in a particularly cherished childhood memory.
“When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was play with my Grandma Kelly’s dollhouse. It was built from scratch in the 1980s and filled with vintage miniature furniture. During special occasions, Grandma Kelly would hide a miniature chocolate bar inside one of the rooms of the dollhouse and encourage me to search for it. I would carefully open tiny drawers and peek behind little cabinets until I found the hidden treasure. When I found the miniature chocolate bar, Grandma Kelly rewarded me with a handful of M&Ms. We continued this tradition until I inherited Grandma Kelly’s dollhouse after she passed away in 2016.
“As 2020 comes to a close, I think of the miniaturists who came before me, like my Grandma Kelly, who inspired me to keep creating and bringing the joy of miniatures to the world.”
Top photo: Miniatures of Amanda Kelly (left) and Bree Sepulveda from the Biggest Little Christmas Showdown wrap party.