Making minuscule memories

By Hollie Deese
Portrait by Semi Song

Growing up in Nashville, Jessica Saylor was always influenced by the homes and buildings around her, never realizing she would one day preserve memories of many of them in minuscule packages.

Saylor’s senior superlative when graduating St. Cecilia Academy was “Most likely to paint a masterpiece.” As a student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, she immersed herself in art classes — dabbling in everything from hand embroidery to powder embossing, grinding and melting plastic.

It was when her sister got married about five years ago, though, that she began building her “tiny towns.” As maid of honor, she knew she had to give a speech. And in an effort to divert attention off of herself that day, she created seven dioramas in 4-inch-by-three-inch craft boxes she got at Michaels, each displaying a moment from their childhood.

“I used photographs and a bunch of different objects. Some things I created out of paper, some things were ready-made,” she says. “I had my sister stand next to me with the boxes closed. And as I read the speech, she opened up each box.”

Behind them was a projector displaying an image of each box as it opened so everyone could see. The effect was emotional and memorable — and really, really big to have come from things that were so small.

From that experience, Saylor fell in love with miniatures, and paper was a medium she could afford to work with. Her focus on houses and iconic buildings around town came about because the influences are endless.

“I’ve always loved architecture, and there’s just so many different possibilities — I mean there’s houses everywhere and buildings everywhere,” she says.

Her commissions began with family and friends and grew to include local businesses, which grew more popular once her first client — Mas Tacos in East Nashville — posted a pic of her miniature masterpiece on Instagram. Then Hattie B’s reached out, and she created two for them.

“I feel like I have so many ideas of what I want to do,” she says, keeping a list on a whiteboard of local buildings she wants to document in miniature before they are gone. “There was a building on Division Street that they just tore down. But before they did, I went down and took photos of it.”

If you follow her on Instagram @tiny_towns, you can even catch glimpses of her painstaking process in her stories, something paper artists can sometimes keep to themselves. For her, it is a part of the final product.

“I just think that the more transparent you are with your art, the more authentic and the more that people know you’re actually spending the time to do it,” she says. “And for me, this is almost like a therapy.”

She spends at least 20 hours on a project, though she has never set a timer because she stops and starts, never finishing a piece in one sitting. That would just be too tedious working in details so small.

“I have to be in the right mindset, because you don’t have creative juices flowing all the time,” says Saylor, who does a lot of planning on the front end before paper even comes into the picture. “When I receive photos from clients, I will stare at the photo and take it apart in my mind and kind of look at it piece by piece before I even start to sketch it out,” she says.

Saylor knows documenting people’s special spaces can have a true impact. Her sister still has the dioramas that started it all — and yes, she cried — and she recently got an email from Sandra Shelton, owner for 30 years of the now-closed Pangaea in Hillsboro Village, that she keeps the piece Saylor created of the store on her bedroom dresser.

And in today’s climate, when something that took a lifetime of work can suddenly be taken away, having a respectful reminder — even something so small as a miniature model — can mean so much.

“I think something that really touched me about that email was that the art that I create can be a reminder of people’s accomplishments and their memories,” she says.