The Illusionist

Wildfire – Matthew Albanese


Strange Worlds 

By Matthew Albanese

Introductory Essay By David Revere McFadden

Lazy Dog Press 2013 / Milan

John Fraim


“Carl Jung wrote that our ‘projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.’ Matthew Albanese’s strange worlds serve two masters: they are projections of the artist’s unknown face, but also of our own.” David Revere McFadden (Chief Curator and Vice President for Programs and Collections at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City)

There are model makers out there and there are illusionists. The model makers have their local clubs and competitions. Like the local chapter of the IPMS I’m a member of. Some of the finest model makers in the nation are members of the famous Rickenbacker (Columbus) Chapter of the IPMS. A number of national leaders of IPMS are members of the Columbus Chapter. Some of the finest models are created by members of this chapter. Each month is a meeting of the chapter and competition based on some topic or theme. Most of the models on the table for the monthly meetings and contests are historical models of some sort. There is much historical knowledge within club members.

They have made intense studies of such events of history like the world wars or the American wars and created models from this period of time. Most of the modelers are over 60 and still remember these old periods of time. And it is good that they remember them by creating amazing models from these periods of time.  There is a scattering of younger guys in the chapter but attention has been mostly on model kits and how well they could be produced by one of the club modelers. I would study the models on the table each month at our club meetings. I had never seen detail like this and perfectly painted models that looked so realistic.

So, the diorama model I entered in competition looked pretty much out of place. It was like that wrong house on the wrong street that stuck out from the others on the street like – you know – a sore thumb. The other modelers and the contest judges looked over my various dioramas with serious looks. Few times they got any of the humor I was trying to instill with various dioramas. Not only was I creating that orphaned child of the model industry called a diorama, but I was also offering some story involving some social critique or criticism. I offered up my “Deep State” diorama, my “Giant Pea Spill” diorama, my “Chasing Bullitt” diorama and “Desert Patriot.” A few of them placed third or so in a contest but my models didn’t do well in the contests.

The IPMS was an introduction to the great plastic model makers out there but I always had something behind all of this, driving me. It wasn’t that I was looking for some hobby to occupy time. Rather, I seemed to be bringing a lot of my interests together into one type of art-form. My growing up in Los Angeles and my interest in movies and screenwriting. My lifelong interest in writing. My photography and image experimentation. My interest in music and recordings I had made in my home studio. My love of model making when I was young. My sense of humor and sarcasm and desire to offer some type of cultural critique. My expertise in symbolism cultural critique.

* * *

This strange little mixture of arts and crafts called creating dioramas or small scenes seemed to be pulling in some new direction and I ended up blogging about this here on Midnight Oil since January of 2018, when I first started making dioramas. During this time, most of these posts have been about dioramas of some sort. I learned about them from the great diorama sites like Box Dioramas of Jim DeRogatis and Darryl Audette. I learned from a prophet called Sheperd Paine who passed away in 2015. From a man called Ray Anderson and a 1988 book he wrote. Certainly, I’ve learned from the IPMS although I seldom do anything plastic and from a kit that most of the members are engaged in modeling.


There are model makers and illusionists. The great model makers are the type of people I met in our chapter of the IPMS. But it was illusionists of dioramas such as the Box Diorama site that showed me the boundaries of this art could constantly be expanded. The exploration of this new art form inspired me and showed me the magic and the larger dimensions of this strange new art form that was invading my artistic life. I was almost like the Hunter Thompson type of journalist documenting this strange voyage over Midnight Oil posts since January 2018. Most on dioramas and our expanding inventory and thinking about them.

The Box diorama makers are much concerned with the creation of figures for their box dioramas. Many members whose beautiful, instructive works are on this site, offer in progress photos on how their magic little scene was created. It is somewhat like being back stage at some magic or illusionist performance.

There have been a few out of the box dioramists like Lori Nix who creates incredible post-apocalyptic models, photographs them and then destroys them. There is also some incredible modeling from other nations other than America. It seems that the world is having a type of renaissance in this art-form evidenced by some of the incredible European and Eastern diorama websites.

* * *

Yet this new artform, there is one person who holds the title as a master illusionist of the outdoors. Not the interior scenes of character-heavy box dioramas but rather exterior scenes that an artist like Bierstadt might have created if he was a dioramist.  Matthew Albanese is a magician of creating and capturing amazing scenes with brilliant photographic techniques learned in his degree in photography and his work in the fashion industry. He is a modern creator of perhaps the most dramatic scenes one could imagine in nature. All types of phenomena are examined by Albanese. Much of his inspiration seems based on the grand ideas about the environment by visionaries like John Muir or Ralph Waldo Emerson. His brilliant scenes are always under various attacks of natural phenomena like sunsets, storms, volcanos, tropical islands, the planet Mars, the Moon, a train wreck in the middle of the night. It is that topic relentlessly pursued by the “eyes” of the National Geographic photographers. The art of Albanese is the greatest art. It is not an art created at particular places (like a film). Rather, it is particular places made into art. This makes all the difference in the world.

Box of Lightning

The regret is that the brilliant Strange Worlds art book has yet to be really discovered to this day. A regret but not all that surprising given the shallow depth of modern culture and the shallow, false images it concerns itself with. Within the area of so-called art books, Strange Worlds stands as one of the great ones of all time. Accomplishing all a book of this size could do and accomplishing this in a powerful manner.

I think it will eventually be considered one of the most important art books of art experimentation. The journey of Albanese – a brief glimpse the reader is given in this brilliant book – is such a hybrid journey of an artist, into a  Frontierland yet unclaimed by other artists or schools of art. Maybe it is a new niche in the art world he has created? He has little interest in this. He continues to push his art further into new areas.

In the end, perhaps it is a type of niche that he has created. An environmental illusionist is one definition that comes to mind. Showing us much of the power of nature but also sometimes the other side of nature. The two dichotomies are represented in the photographs “A New Life 1” and “A New Life 2.” The former is photographed in color. The later in black and white. There is a huge contrast between the two images as the artist wants to show us both sides of the world, from nothing more than different times. Not just on the level of a brilliantly photographed model. A true visionary artist I’ve been fortunate to come across in the shallowness of current culture.

Promised Land

Recently, the book went on Amazon. The price on Amazon is $55 but the book can be found in less expensive online places if one looks around a little.

But even at $55 the book is such a deal offering readers a view into the mind of one of the world’s visionary artists. This type of access to the creative mind of an artist is seldom offered up by the artist. Albanese is more than willing to offer up comments on his ideas and models in progress. This access is priceless as the book is full of such unadorned wisdom about the world. Amazing in itself that all of this is possessed by a person in his mid-30s.

The book is gorgeously designed with some of the most innovative typesetting I’ve yet to see in a book. Leave it to the Italians for creating beautiful books impossible to obtain in America. The printing is superb and the photographs spectacular. A brilliant short essay by David Revere McFadden (Chief Curator and Vice President for Programs and Collections at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City) begins the voyage to the art of Matthew Albanese. The book contains a useful and fascinating Backstage section where Albanese provides background on the creation of his various visionary scenes. The elements he uses to create his scenes are listed in this section. They comprise an amazing mix of substances such as phosphorescent ink, sifted coffee, chili powder, paprika, cinnamon, yellow glitter, cooked sugar, moss and red, orange and yellow party bulbs. At the end of the book is a fascinating Periodic Table of Strange Worlds showing the wide range of manufactured and natural elements, foods and tools used to create the artist’s models and photographs.

Aurora Borealis

It holds one of the great artists of the modern world. More than a dioramist. Albanese started as a photographer and his work has shown this first art form for him. He works are inspired like the art of Shep Paine. Yet Albanese has no figures in his scenes like Sheperd Paine always had. Seldom are Albanese’s scenes inside like much of the Box Dioramists. Inside various rooms. Most of Albanese’s scenes are outside. It is in the outside world where Albanese can observe the changes in mother nature and her weather. Yosemite before a great storm in a recreation of an iconic scene of Yosemite already burned into a lot of memories.

It is these surrealistic scenes of nature that Albanese shows new visions of nature in his art. It is not produced from the kits that most modelers create from. It is produced just from his mind. A photograph or painting of a new world created by an artist is one thing. But, a photograph or painting of a new world created by the artist … this is another thing altogether.

A New Life 1 – Sunset

This brilliant art book Strange Worldson the art of Matthew Albanese from Italy’s Lazy Dog Press is a gem. Something seldom found today. Of course, beautiful art like this has seen publication abroad and one needs to buy a foreign published book to witness what I have witnessed in this incredible book.

There could not be a better way of presenting the brilliant art of Matthew Albanese to the general populace. They would certainly be aware of it in the few modeling contests it is entered in. Lazy Dog Press has introduced a grand artist to the world. More than a model maker. Rather, a type of master illusionist. Using not just model-making skills but also his amazing photographic skills. The brilliant illusions he created are captured in the pages of Strange Worlds. Perhaps no other artist has been able to express the forces and moods of nature like Albanese

The North Jersey Din – A Groundbreaking Animated Diorama 

I could provide a lot of the background on this incredible new artist. But it seems more appropriate to let the artist speak to you with his images and words from his own website below.


Strange Worlds By Matthew Albanese

Lazy Dog Press 2013 / Milan

Order The Book From Lazy Dog Press (Special Sale On Now!)

Barbara Orlandini (Sales & Promotion)

Matthew Albanese Website

5 thoughts on “The Illusionist

  1. Hi John,

    I finished reading your review of The Illusionist, (Strange Lands).

    First, I will be buying a copy as soon as I can, especially for the ‘behind the scenes’ information. Movie special effects and ‘how things are done’ have always fascinated me.

    The Forward by David Revere McFadden, is concise and is so true.

    I have long admired certain photographers, and Imagineers; some of the world’s best know and admit that they not only record the sitter or landscape in front of them, but record themselves; their thoughts, their feelings.

    Your comments on IPMS ring true not only in Columbus, but also here in Canada and more specifically locally. I love the quote, “Orphaned child of the model industry called a “diorama”. Even during the reign of and the post admiration of Sheperd Paine, not much has changed in these closed modelling circles, sadly.

    Your comparison and analysis of the works of Lori Nix and Matthew Albanese are spot on, and bring a whole non-linear knowledge to dioramas, whether open on bases or enclosed in a box. The terrain is open and, like the ‘wild west’ of old is unconquered territory, exciting !

    Most dioramas, especially open ones (on a base) are very literal and narrative, most being historical, which brings into the fold the work of the Thorn Rooms in The Art Institute of Chicago. These contain no figures, and are considered ‘Room Boxes’, and tell a story completely by the design and composition of elements, such as the turn of a chair.

    You didn’t mention theatre models, which and are often linear, but also a metaphor, which can be a whole article in itself, but one that would feed into the works of both Nix and Albanese, again exciting !

    I am in very much appreciation of you opening these dialogues and hopefully more people both in and not in the modelling industry will appreciate and become involved in.

    Darryl Audette

    1. Darryl,
      So much appreciate your comments above. I need to check out the work of the Thorn Rooms you mention above. You are right – I should have mentioned theater models. Thanks to your recommendations, I am reading three books on theater models at this time. Has gotten me into the fascinating area of scenography. Through the great used book program at Amazon, bought Robert Edmond Jones’ The Dramatic Imagination, McKinney and Butterworth’s Cambridge Introduction to Scenography and Theory and Craft of the Scenographic Model. All of these are spot on as to what I am doing (and know you are) with these dioramas. Certainly (it seems to me) our craft is much closer to scenography than model-making. Much better to find a “welcoming” home for what we do than being an “orphaned child of the model industry.”

  2. John , Thanks for sharing Matthew Albanese’s beautiful illusions of Strange World. when looking at the
    first diorama , the illusion makes me think immediately of the raging fires in California. It is so well done,
    the illusion makes me feel I am there, feeling the heat and looking at the devastating fire through the trees.
    I also loved the Box of Lightning , the shadows, and depth of the illusion on f the water and lightning also gave me the
    feeling I was there…. Matthew Albanese has great talent and I enjoyed the information you
    gave for each . Thanks again for sharing. Barbara

  3. Hi John,

    The letter you sent to Matthew Albanese got me thinking back to my University days about symbolism, narrative, media and it’s meaning and role.

    For many years I have thought and used symbolism to create stories, both narrative and symbolic, using all means I could find at my disposal.

    The great Sheperd Paine came from the lineage of great illustrators such as Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Roy Anderson. All great narrative illustrators, painters and modellers.

    Illusionists come more from the lineage of artists like Andrew Wyeth, Alberto Giacometti , Disney Imagineers, Idustrial Light and Magic Designers and Impressionist painters such as Monet, Pissaro; where they leave either the beginning or the end or the story out, or certain elements, respecting or challenging the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the missing pieces or make up their own, so each visit is both interactive and different.

    Regarding size and scale; do you see a correlation between the size of a miniature and it’s monetary value? Is a small sized piece, or small scale piece valued as less because of it’s lesser size. Is the bigger the piece mean it is valued more.

    Sheperd Paine noted to me, that a miniature or model should have a visual weight or presence. It’s size and/or scale should equal it’s visual presence, especially when at an exhibition or competition.

    The exciting method of constructing a 3/D model or miniature , photographing or filming it, then destroying or discarding it is not new. The theatre and film industries have been doing it for decades. Some of my favorite constructions were discarded or reused after final photography. The traditional purists are disgusted by this, and just don’t understand. Many artists and Illusionists discard or even destroy their work for various reasons, Disney and Rembrandt are the first two that come to mind.

    In regards to your review on Matthew Albanese’s book, “Strange Worlds”, which I will find a copy as soon as I can. I love your comments on the”collective psyche”. This plays such a huge role in the interpreting of works, and that the artist can manipulate the piece to alter or control the interpretation of it.

    What is the “medium of the message” in dioramas, shadow boxes, and light boxes ? Is the medium the message ?

    No matter what the medium or carrier of the message of our ideas, thoughts and feelings, are we not just continuing as story tellers”, or are we breaking away from this time honored but stayed endeavour.

    “Cool Media” thinking isn’t the modern invention of Marshall McLuhan, as it has been implemented in art for centuries, but under very different names and guises.

    Has or is 3/D modelling moving into the arena of “Hot Media”, with the reduced attention spans, limited time, our current pop culture. I am testing the theory with a few shadow boxes that I have done and am doing for commercial displays. I find this fascination and creates a whole new challenge when building, combining model making, retail displays, theatre all together.!

    It harks back to my childhood days of lingering to look at and absorb retail store window displays, especially at Christmas time. Isn’t this really what we as dioramaists do, but on a smaller scale?

    Using visual symbols, non-verbal symbols to communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings, as apposed to just placing a miniature object on a base with some grass around it.

    Some artists, Illusionists and media workers greet us the the beginning, middle and end of a story; some greet us with just enough elements to allow us to use our intellect and/or imagination to complete their story or message, or even forming our own.

    In closing, I apologize for my fractured thoughts, my thoughts are rapid and my fingers can’t type fast enough.

    John, where can I find a copy of your manuscript, “The Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication”.

    Darryl Audette

    1. Great comments around my letter to Matthew Albanese!

      Such insightful points. I am glad they are posted on the site for others to see.

      I too remember the department store windows of my youth.

      Yes, illusionists are so different from model-makers. Going back to the book I read a few weeks ago – The Secret HIstory of Magic – I really think illusionist dioramists (like the Box modelers and Matthew Albanese) have more of a relationship to magicians than anyone else.

      You are so right that cool media was not invented by McLuhan. In fact, in Understanding Media he provides an interesting quote from Francis Bacon that show Bacon was thinking about cool media:

      “Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting hot and cool prose. Writing in ‘methods’ or complete packages, he contrasted with writing in aphorisms, or single observations such as ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice.’ The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth.”

      Need to ponder more your comments. So much here.


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