If you asked Stacy Milrany two months ago if she was into dollhouses, she would’ve said no. But the Queen Anne artist now spends much of her day talking to strangers outside the tiny, dollhouse-sized art gallery she installed on the median strip in front of her house in mid-December.
From the outside, it just looks like another Little Free Library, or a generously sized birdhouse. But behind a glass door, the 18-by-16-by-9-inch box contains a wooden floor, white walls, a small easel, tiny shelves, a tiny bench — and a rotating collection of artwork, with a cast of miniature people to witness it. This afternoon it’s a miniteacher. “It’s like a little theater,” says Milrany. “The people help bring it to life and tell the story.”
Anyone can leave a work of art in the Little Free Art Gallery and anyone can take a piece home — the only rule is that you can’t take the furniture or the patrons — and “it’s not an even exchange,” says Milrany, meaning you don’t have to leave something behind if you feel moved to take a piece home with you. You can just take it.
But if you do feel inspired to drop off your art, Milrany would welcome it. One hundred such pieces have come and gone over the life of the piece. “It’s kind of taking over my life,” she says, opening the glass door to see the latest contributions — a postcard-sized block print of a bird and a tiny line drawing, of a fur-faced creature, about half the size of a business card. “This is the first time I’ve seen this one,” she says, handling the small slip of paper.
Milrany immediately sets to work arranging the new additions, swapping the teacher for a tiny chef, using blue painter’s tape to keep the work in place where she wants it. But she knows the arrangement won’t last long. During the next hour, as people come by to take or leave art and as Milrany makes adjustments, the art gallery’s contents will change several times, housing a yellow plaid paper crane, an orange painting of an ice cream bar (“mystery art”), fuse beads melted into a star shape by a child, and — briefly — a square, graphic piece by Seattle artist Harold Hollingsworth.
When Milrany started the gallery at First Avenue North and Garfield Street, she didn’t know it would become such a huge part of her routine. A working artist for five years who makes charmingly mordant paintings and mixed-media pieces, she’d been drawn to small-scale art, like an art-on-a-postcard project she started for her mother during a series of cancer treatments, and postcard-sized paintings she’d make using a small watercolor set while traveling. But as state restrictions settled in to contain the coronavirus outbreak, traditional avenues for showing and seeing art were no longer as accessible as they’d once been. “Museums and galleries were shut so it seemed like a good idea,” says Milrany, who saw an opening to do something different.
With the assistance of a carpenter friend who was up to making the custom bench and shelving, Milrany assembled her art gallery, using paint from a home improvement project (she says a true gallery white would probably have a cooler tone) and an LED bulb with a rechargeable battery for lighting. She installed her first piece: a print of “Cat Hair,” her own depiction of a blasé-looking human wearing a droll cat as hair, in a palette of red, pink, black and white. She shared the project on her social media accounts and told friends and family, and people just started showing up, eventually spurred on by posts on Nextdoor and a radio story.
The exchange of art has gone on ever since, with one disruption: Milrany’s miniature patrons include a chef, who was removed from the gallery along with a piece of art, although Milrany doesn’t suspect any foul play — the chef was tied thematically to the artwork that went with him. She thinks whoever took it just thought he was part of the piece.
Still, she put up a “Lost Chef” poster reporting the disappearance. When the poster also disappeared, she considered making a “Lost Poster” poster, but decided the joke had gone far enough. The ordeal has a happy ending, though: A second chef arrived with a whole new set of characters sent anonymously to Milrany through the mail.
Now, says Milrany, every morning she ventures out first thing in PJs, slippers and a raincoat, because “it will have changed overnight.” On busy days, she estimates she’s seen the gallery contents change over five times. Sometimes it happens hourly, sometimes not often at all. “If it’s raining, a piece can sit all day,” she says.
As Milrany rearranges the pieces inside the gallery, two neighbors walk up and examine its contents, peppering Milrany with questions: Is this her art gallery? How long has she been doing this? How many pieces has she seen?
The artist answers all of the visitors graciously; she has these conversations every day. She even has regulars: One neighbor brings his toddler son to the gallery every time they go walking in the neighborhood. No sooner have the latest patrons departed when another group arrives, with dogs in tow. (Milrany says she could easily spend her whole day keeping tabs on the gallery; for Christmas, her mother gave her lawn chairs so she could do just that.)
There’s also a special delivery from Ballard artist Hollingsworth, who bikes up in all black, an orange hat under his helmet, making his second contribution to “this odd, beautiful thing,” he says. The last piece he brought in was “gone in five minutes,” says Milrany, who starts rearranging the space again, swapping a tiny doctor in for the tiny teacher.
Though she’s arguably the Little Free Art Gallery’s curator, the artwork is a pleasantly anarchic mix of work from neighbors, working artists and people who’ve begun or returned to creative practices in the monotony and terror of the pandemic. Milrany only puts her own artwork in the gallery when it’s empty. (She has her own somewhat improvised gallery space nearby — “kind of a hallway” in the women-owned QA Marketplace.) About half of the gallery’s artists sign their work, Milrany estimated. The others remain anonymous. Milrany does her best to catalog every piece that comes through on a blog, where visitors can also submit images of the space.
The Little Free Art Gallery isn’t Queen Anne’s only piece of tiny public art. Near 10th Avenue West and West Bothwell Street, Richard Knowles has constructed a replica of the Rosebud Motel from “Schitt’s Creek” on a retaining wall outside his home. Over the holidays, Milrany would see people making a loop from his Rosebud Motel to the Little Free Art Gallery, a mini-art walk in a city where First Thursday hasn’t been held since before the pandemic.
Milrany attributes this interest in art to the impersonal, isolating experience of living through a global pandemic. “Evidence of something made by human hands is important … when we’re made to avoid each other,” she says. A free public art project can fulfill that need to see evidence of other people. And the ongoing exchanges in front of the gallery feel more like the conversations you’d have in a traditional art gallery. It also feels safer, though, because all exchanges happen outside and at a distance. On the sidewalk in front of the Little Free Art Gallery, strangers talked to each other about something other than COVID-19, with joy and curiosity.
Milrany says she’s even heard from people who were inspired to pull out their paints for the first time in years to make something for the space. “If a person spends 15 minutes making something with their hands … it’s a pretty huge win,” she says.
Milrany’s tiny public art project has the capacity to demystify the art world, the very concept of which can seem alienating if you don’t have the decoder ring of privilege and training to enjoy or access it. But the Little Free Art Gallery is open to all, including children, two of whom come by with their grandmother, a retired art teacher. One child places a star made out of fuse beads inside the space before leaving.
Across the street, a neighbor’s sander goes on at full blast, the noise a constant reminder that we’ve been stuck at home for months, and wanting to make something is a natural impulse. This may be the catalyst for the success of the Little Free Art Gallery, and the spirit of generosity it brings. Milrany has received inquiries from people who want to make their own versions.
“I hope that they will be in every neighborhood in the United States, don’t you?” she says.