Jim DeRogatis is kind of a big deal in the world of miniatures.
Yes, DeRogatis co-hosts the syndicated radio show “Sound Opinions,” teaches at Columbia College and wrote the book on R. Kelly.
But he unwinds from busy days by making little wonders, including box dioramas with handmade, hand-painted figures from both history and fantasy.
WTTW News asked Jim DeRogatis about the appeal of making miniatures when he’s done with his day job.
“It’s just completely different,” DeRogatis said. “I’ll be at my workbench, listening to an album we’re reviewing on ‘Sound Opinions’ on repeat. It’s nice not to be in front of the f---ing computer, you know? I’d rather be working with an X-Acto knife and slitting my finger open or putting on the OptiVISOR and painting eyeballs on a figure that’s 2 ½ inches tall.”
DeRogatis serves as secretary of the Military Miniature Society of Illinois (MMSI), and he’s a skilled maker of all things small. The president of the society, Joe Berton, is a retired middle-school teacher who has been a member of MMSI since he was a teenager.
“I got involved when I was a kid,” Berton said. “They didn’t make toy soldiers in the periods of history I was interested in, so I started to sculpt and modify my own. When you’re making these things, you’re on your own. You’re down in a studio in the basement. It’s an individual creation.”
The Military Miniature Society of Illinois was founded in 1952. The group hosts an annual show in the Chicago region that’s open to the public. This year it’s at the Marriott Schaumburg from Oct. 20-21. Two hundred exhibitors display their sculptures in a juried exhibition that’s about more than tiny soldiers.
“At this point ‘military miniatures’ is a misnomer because the fastest growing area of the hobby is fantasy work,” said DeRogatis. “Everything from orcs and elves and zombies to 100% original creatures. We basically have three categories — historical, fantasy and ordnance, which is anything from trucks and airplanes to fantasy vehicles and Star Wars craft.”
Or people construct “civilian scenes,” frozen moments in history. A few years ago, DeRogatis created a diorama that shows the view from inside the Chicago Hilton during the riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Berton recreated Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom, complete with Van Gogh sitting on his bed and staring at the viewer.
Beginning modelers usually work with pre-molded kits, but advanced makers can create everything from scratch. Authenticity and details are everything. “You go down the rabbit hole,” DeRogatis said. “You wind up reading six or 10 books about a historical event to look for those little moments.”
MMSI President Joe Berton adds: “A lot of us will study the actual artifacts to see how the object looks, how the embroidery might reflect, or the color or lace on a uniform. The research is always part of it.”
Many minis are for sale, and dioramas can go for upward of $6,000. Collectors have included Malcolm Forbes, artist Andrew Wyeth and writer George R.R. Martin, who favors scenes with knights. “Peter O’Toole had one of my camel-mounted Lawrence of Arabia figures,” said Berton, who is also on the executive committee of the international T.E. Lawrence Society.
The hobby is more popular in Europe and Japan than in the U.S. Demographics skew more male than female. Besides rock critics and retired teachers, people come from all walks of life.
“We have doctors, high-powered lawyers and veterans, and we have the guy who used to fix the printing presses at the Chicago Tribune,” DeRogatis said. “Then there’s the people who still just love toy soldiers. It brings them back to childhood. It’s a real mix of people who have two interests in common — history and this odd little hobby.”
With all the artistry involved — painting, sculpture and sometimes even theatrical lighting — is it a hobby or a neglected art?
“It is overlooked sometimes,” Berton said. “Sometimes it’s dismissed just because of the sheer size of it, it being miniature. If we were working in larger scale or bronze, suddenly it’s easily accepted as fine art. But the size itself is also what people find most attractive about it. There’s a real magic in miniatures. People are generally fascinated by the smallness of it and the accuracy.”
This year’s show includes a rare group of 10 box dioramas by Sheperd Paine, the late president of the MMSI and a true giant in the field of miniature modeling.
And as far as artistry goes, members of MMSI are in talks with a prominent Chicago art gallery about the possibility of a gallery show in 2024.
DeRogatis is also interested in meeting the next generation of builders at the show: “It’s really nice to see kids come, because they get into it from Warhammer, and instead of painting those little 30mm figures for that game they say, ‘Let me try these slightly larger ones that those guys are doing,’ and then the interest grows from there.”
He adds: “It’s not as big as model railroading or Beanie Babies, but it’s a fascinating world for sure.”
The 48th annual MMSI Chicago Show takes place at the Marriott Schaumburg, 50 N. Martingale Road in Schaumburg. Admission is $10, and free for children 12 and under and active military with ID.
DeRogatis has a website devoted to box dioramas. Learn more at www.boxdioramas.com.
Note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Joe Berton’s name.