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Tiny Utopoias: Model Railroad Towns

Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 3)

"As for what clients get out of it, I don't know," Dunham says. "The guy who wants to watch trains go around wants it to watch trains go around. His point is to have something to treasure.

"In a real way, when you develop something like this, it's as real a work of art as anything else in the art world. They're portraits, not of a person, but of the world. It's as perfect as you want to make it. Better yet, it's your world and you can make with it what you will." In fact, when his customers insure their layouts, they do so as works of art.

"But why? It's the most common question and I still don't have any answers. But it seems to be that the transportation metaphor is always memory-based," he says. "What it carries you back to is what it means to you. It can be a better time, a happier time, or just a good time. But the words you hear the most--happier, simpler, familiar--it always has something to do with the past. It sure is powerful. A corporate officer at Citicorp said to me, 'Why do people want this? I don't understand.' All we can tell them is that it is fantasy. Anything more is counterproductive."

After a moment of contemplation, though, Dunham's not so willing to settle for an easy answer just yet. "If anyone can identify the synapse triggered by funny things running around on tracks," he finally says, "I'd be happy to know the answer."

Perhaps the answer is easy after all. The discerning collector simply wants the best.

New York City-based writer Phil Scott is the author of The Shoulders of Giants: A History of Human Flight to 1919 (Addison-Wesley, 1995).

"Most modelers try to downplay the layout," says Andy Sperandeo, editor-in-chief of the 216,000-circulation Model Railroader magazine. "But with Clarke's ability to handle backdrops and make something out of it, I can understand why he does what he does."

What Dunham does is create works of art in an unusual medium. Comparing Dunham Studios' layouts with any other designer's is like comparing a statue by Michelangelo to a lump of clay fired by a high school art student.

Clarke Dunham and his wife, Barbara, live here on a quiet road--quiet when logging trucks aren't rolling down the mountain loaded with pine and poplar--in what was once a vacation lodge, hewn more than a century ago from the lumber that grows there. In the back sits a huge barn of the type that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland might proclaim in unison, "Hey kids, we've got a barn and all this talent--let's put on a show!" In a sense, that's just what the Dunhams have done. After a fashion. Accidentally. And circuitously.

They met at that prime Rooney-Garland age. She was 15 and he was 17; they married two years later, in 1955. But let's go back a little further. Clarke's mother was a painter, his father an honest-to-goodness philosopher whose book Man Against Myth reached the New York Times Best Seller list and whose influence left Clarke with a wry philosophic bent. The Dunhams traveled in a circle of literati whose spokes originated at the Algonquin Round Table. "I grew up playing 'Twenty Questions' with Dorothy Parker," he says, speaking in his usual calm, measured sentences.

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