Miniature Mansions

If you happen to look outside one day and see a friendly elderly woman hiding in your bushes taking pictures of your house, it just might be Jean Routman, sole proprietor of Home Portraits.

Routman has traipsed across the front lawns of dozens of houses in Edmond since making clay replicas of houses became her profession. Usually, those who seek Routman’s talent for reproducing the front of their house in clay form want the model as a surprise gift, requiring a certain amount of stealth on Routman’s part.

“I sometimes have to sneak around and take pictures of the homes,” says Routman, who has been making models of houses for more than 11 years. “It’s often an anniversary gift, or perhaps as a keepsake for someone who is selling their house.”

She laughs as she recalls a time she got caught taking pictures and tried to pass it off as fascination with the front yard’s flower beds. “I then had to stand there for 30 minutes while (the homeowner) told me the names of each one.” Another time, she had to admit the real reason she was there to a suspicious homeowner: “It’s for a gift. Please be surprised when you get it.”

Routman uses the pictures she takes to create a 15-inch wide, half-inch thick colored clay replica of the front of the house (grounds included). The model perfectly matches the house in proportion and color. Pictures of the house are critical, so Routman usually has to take them herself. The model is of the front of the house so it is necessary to get pictures taken straight on. “Any pictures from an angle will skew the perspective, and thus my measurements for creating it in proportion,” she explains.

After getting pictures, Routman draws a design based on the photograph. Then she rolls out the clay and gets to work. The carving process takes about three days. As the clay begins to harden, she puts in the details.

The next step is a struggle for Routman: waiting. The clay has to dry for two to three weeks before it can be fired in the kiln, requiring patience that she admittedly doesn’t always have. Firing the clay too soon, however, can result in breakage. She fires the clay in her personal kiln, which takes six to eight hours. Working with water-based clay can be a challenge, says Routman. Even the slightest air bubble or hint of moisture trapped within the clay will cause it to “blow up” — or shatter — when it is fired in the kiln. Sometimes a minor repair can be fixed with more clay and wood putty. But if a clay model breaks in the kiln it usually means starting from scratch.

Another big challenge, she says, is matching the colors of the house. “Sometimes I sit in front of the house (that she is replicating) and just look at it,” says Routman. “For that week, I know that house perfectly, I live it.”
The final step is painting the model with acrylics, again matching the original perfectly. While the finished clay model is only a half-inch think, the depressions and raised parts make the house look 3-D.

The entire process takes about five working days over a three to four week period, but since she can work on several models simultaneously, she can turn out a finished model every three days.

Routman started making model houses for Edmond residents in 1999. She’s made at least 500 for houses all over the world, even as far away as Germany. One regular local client is the Oklahoma County Medical Society Alliance (OCMSA) annual fundraiser. People pay admission to tour five houses in Nichols Hills. Each year, the volunteer hostesses get one of Routman’s models of their house as a thank-you. She also does miniatures for the chairmen of the Oklahoma Symphony annual fundraiser.

The 82-year old has been an artist all her life, after years of art lessons and attending Washington University School of Fine Arts. She started doing pastes and portraits but liked “playing” with clay the best. She also makes clay figures and sculptures which are for sale at the Paseo Originals gallery in Oklahoma City’s Paseo district. The images and characters she crafts in her own sculpture art are purely from her memory and imagination, she says.

Her favorite part of sculpting is watching that lump of clay come to life. “It’s exciting to have a nothing blob come to life as you work on it,” she says. For more information contact Jean at 844-1035 or send an e-mail to jroutman@mac.com.

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