Nine-tenths of a tiny, yellow wooden beach house sits on display in the lobby of the Lanier Gardens assisted living facility’s favorite gathering spot, The Wicker Room. It would be a complete house if not for the see-through cut-out on the back side. But without the cut-out it wouldn’t be a doll house. Without the cut-out children wouldn’t be naturally attracted to it like moths to a flame. Without the cut-out it wouldn’t produce thousands of pleasant childhood memories for adult viewers.
Doll houses are magic.
Bev Johnson, just this side of 90 by age, retired Presbyterian minister by trade, doll house architect by choice and necessity, and magic maker by virtue of his exacting, miniature craftsmanship, is the resident doll house creator in Athens, GA.
“I used to do wood working, making furniture mainly. And dulcimers. I made a lot of dulcimers, until my arthritis started acting up.”
Arthritis can put a screeching halt on dreams. Or it can make a carpenter shrink his world view into one-inch frame houses. Not only is Bev Johnson a shining example of the many creative artists of all stripes who have migrated to Athens in their golden years, but his life is a testament to the act of turning a disability into hundreds of little treasured childhood memories.
There really is just something about looking at miniature versions of reality that makes the viewer smile. Like teddy bears and army men, doll houses are people’s favorite toys. Unlike those little green army men, no one ever thought to melt their doll house in the sun. They’re so complex, so meticulously-constructed, so obviously full of love (love of the creator, love of the children, love of the craftsmanship) that they’re the kind of toys that we save, the kind of toys that mothers gift to their daughters. Or, to put it simply, they are magical.
As I interviewed Bev, in front of his latest creation, I made sure to keep my ear to the ground for the comments of passers-by.
“I would have loved that when I was a little girl.”
“My parents couldn’t have afforded to give me one like that.”
“Mine was more like a cabin.”
That last comment led Bev to recount all of the different styles of houses he had constructed over the years, in miniature:
Victorian, Appalachian-style log cabin, Adirondack-style log cabin (there’s a difference), Southwestern US-Adobe, Beach house, Farm house, Barn, Cape Cod (straight lines-federal style), Sharecropper house/Shotgun shack, a recreation of the O’Hara’s Tara plantation house.
Needless to say, recreating Tara was Bev’s most challenging little project. Getting every detail just right is especially important for a facsimile of a house from one of America’s most beloved books and movies. Bev even got the curtains (made even more famous than they already were by Carol Burnett’s famous sketch) just right.
At the height of his powers, Bev was making one or two miniature houses a week. These days, after a stroke has incapacitated the left side of his body, the pace of his work has slowed considerably…but he’s not giving up. He’s just taking his time, and relying on pre-fabricated kits, something he never did before physical limitations lessened the amount he could produce. They’re still magical entities, if a little less impressively conceived. In total, Bev estimates that he has created around 220 miniature houses in his lifetime, though that’s merely a guess because his work has always been about the doing and the giving, never the assembling and the tallying, and never about the selling.
Although doll houses do traditionally cost somewhere in the $400-$600 dollar range, Bev’s work has had more of a ministerial tinge to it than a capitalistic motivation. He could’ve made a small fortune selling them, but he chose to give most of them away, or to donate many of them to charity auctions. Creating art with a profit motive in mind is rarely a good idea. Bev is a miniature artist, a mini-minister, a tiny giver, and a huge healer, not a money man. In and of itself, that’s an impressive starting spot. After looking at the intricate detail in his creations, it’s more impressive. And then, after viewing the positive ripple effects of the abundant joy the houses have on everyone who comes near them, the word “impressive” is no longer big enough to describe their effect. The only word that comes close is “magic.”
Bev related a recent tale of an encounter with his yellow beach house style doll house. It, and Bev and his wife Mary Louise, were sitting in the public display space in the Wicker Room of Lanier Garden. A mother and daughter, visiting an aging relative, came upon it while making their way from the lobby to the elevator. Both mother and daughter were entranced. The daughter’s eyes widened and she began to reach in and play. The mother was equally as enchanted. When she was told that Bev, the humble, generous, kindly man in the electric wheelchair, had made it, she said, “I never had a doll house. I always wanted one.” In typical Bev Johnson fashion, his response was, “I’ll build you one.”