L.A. Now

Shadow boxes shed light on African American history

Martin Luther King Jr., she admits, looked a little funny at first.

His head was too big, his cheekbones were too low, his eyes were kind of lopsided. And his lower lip?

"Let's not even go there," Karen Collins, 60, said with a laugh.

Photos: Karen Collins' shadow boxes

On her third try, she finally got him just right.

Her pint-size creations fill nearly every inch of her living room in Compton. On her carpet slaves in chains await their transatlantic voyage. On her fireplace mantel, protesters gather for the Montgomery bus boycott. And on her entertainment center, Malcolm X preaches to the Nation of Islam.

She calls it the African American Miniature Museum, and it took her nearly 15 years to build. Soon, she will have a permanent display place at Leimert Park Village.

Most days, no one witnesses the history but Collins and her husband, Ed Lewis — and every so often, a grandchild who by now knows better than "to go messing with Nana's museum."

Collins crafted it, scene by scene, inside shadow boxes of all sizes to share with schools across Los Angeles as a traveling history channel. Several times a year, she and Lewis rent a truck and haul the collection to classrooms in Compton, Inglewood and South L.A., where kids giddily line up, fascinated with every miniature detail.

"They'll ask me, 'Did you really make all this yourself Ms. Collins?'" she said. "And I tell them, 'I sure did. Just for you.'"

She also did it for herself. And for her son.

In 1991, weeks before his high school graduation, Eddie, the eldest of two children, got tangled up in gangs, Collins said. He is serving 167 years for a third-strike conviction for attempted murder.

His sentencing turned her life inside out. She quit her job as a preschool teacher and sank into a deep depression.

"For years, the museum is what's kept me sane," she said, sitting on her couch surrounded by her boxes. "It's my therapy."

Before Eddie went to prison, Collins, charismatic in gold earrings and red lipstick, liked to tinker with dollhouses. She would turn them into perfect, flawless worlds with tiny tables, couches and chairs bought at stores specializing in miniatures.

To make it look like a black family lived inside, she built little picture frames with black faces and hung them on the wallpapered walls. She made itsy-bitsy versions of black magazines and glued them to the coffee tables. She sculpted tiny food out of clay and wood for the kitchen — collard greens, glazed ham and black-eyed peas.

She got so good at it that people started to buy her creations — scenes at ice cream parlors, barbershops, schoolhouses and jazz clubs.

"Everything was whimsical and happy," she said.

When her son was locked up, that changed.

She left behind the idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque portraits of life and made it her mission to capture the black community's actual history. Not the abbreviated kind or the edited kind told in classrooms and museums, she said, but the real thing, the good and the bad.

"If I can show just one child how much people sacrificed and gave for their freedom, if I could light just one spark," she said. "Then it'll all be worth it."

With this in mind, she spends hours on end alone in her workshop, a tight corner near the closet in her bedroom. She sits on the edge of her bed, next to a small wooden table, where her clay molds are safely kept inside an old plastic baby wipes case.

A portrait of Maya Angelou rests against the wall with her favorite quote: Pursue the things you love doing and do them so well that people can't take their eyes off you. All other tangible rewards will come as a result.

Painstakingly, she makes many of her dolls by hand: four- and five-inch pieces the colors of caramel, coffee and chocolate that eventually resemble Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist who freed slaves in the 1800s; Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice in the 1960s; and track star Florence Griffith Joyner, an Olympic gold medalist in the 1980s.

Her creations aren't perfect, she said, not like the work of true master miniaturists, but people seem to appreciate them.

"Once, an elderly lady told me,'Honey, don't stop. You have our dreams inside those boxes.'"

So with donations from family and friends and scraps she finds around the house or at thrift stores, she creates. She turns toilet paper into tree branches, paper clips into glasses, yarn into hair, perfume bottle lids into hats. She makes tiny clothes out of her old shirts and dresses.

In the garage her husband fashions each shadow box out of wooden planks. He builds and stains her tiny bookshelves, tables, chairs and lunch counters.

"That's one advantage of growing up poor," she said. "You always know how to create something out of nothing."

Photos: Karen Collins' shadow boxes

Starting Aug. 28, Collins' collection will move out of her living room. Her 50 boxes will be on permanent display at The Sisters Market Place in Leimert Park.

"I hope to see a lot of kids and families every day," Collins said. "I want the whole city of Los Angeles to show up and feel uplifted."

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