Constable: Military miniature show more about art than artillery

  • Artist Joe Berton's miniature sculpture of photographer Robert Capa and author Ernest Hemingway, left, complements the 1692 Bavarian staff officer made by Pat Vess of Naperville.

    Artist Joe Berton's miniature sculpture of photographer Robert Capa and author Ernest Hemingway, left, complements the 1692 Bavarian staff officer made by Pat Vess of Naperville. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • The Military Miniature show features works ranging from Joe Berton's shadow box of Vincent van Gogh's bedroom, left, to Pat Vess and his bust of Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford.

    The Military Miniature show features works ranging from Joe Berton's shadow box of Vincent van Gogh's bedroom, left, to Pat Vess and his bust of Robert de Vere, earl of Oxford. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Most miniature figures begin with a kit with multiple pieces.

    Most miniature figures begin with a kit with multiple pieces. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/21/2021 6:08 AM

Founded in 1952 by five men who collected toy soldiers, the Military Miniature Society of Illinois has grown into an international club that goes far beyond military figurines. Its 46th annual show this weekend in Schaumburg features 400 acclaimed artists and sculptors.

"It really doesn't matter if it's Napoleon or Gandalf; it's about good work," says award-winning artist Joe Berton, who grew up in St. Charles and is president of the group.

 

Show-goers could see hobbits, wizards, elves, dragons, Terminators and basilisks sharing exhibition space with World War II tank commanders, Civil War generals, Roman gladiators, medieval knights, Mohawk warriors, and 1799 Egyptian Mameluke soldiers.

"A lot of the younger kids are interested in the fantasy characters," says show chairman Pat Vess, 60, a retired Army veteran from Naperville.

Berton, 68, remembers taking the train into Chicago at age 13 and buying his first toy soldiers at Marshall Field's. Berton majored in art at Northern Illinois University, retired after a career teaching art at an Oak Park middle school, and is married to Gloria Groom, chair of European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Berton's miniatures include a piece featuring author Ernest Hemingway hanging out with famed photographer Robert Capa during World War II. Berton, who minored in history in college, did the research to know that Capa wore paratrooper boots and Hemingway made do with general U.S. Army boots. That attention to detail is also why he has Capa holding a flask and a cigarette.

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Artist Joe Berton, who grew up in St. Charles, made a miniature diorama of Vincent van Gogh's bedroom, complete with a figure of the artist.
Artist Joe Berton, who grew up in St. Charles, made a miniature diorama of Vincent van Gogh's bedroom, complete with a figure of the artist. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Berton drew on his wife's career for his stunning shadow box based on the painting "The Bedroom," by Vincent van Gogh, that will be displayed at this year's show and features the artist sitting in his bedroom. Berton used wire and an epoxy-based putty to form van Gogh, and he sculpted the details of the artist's face for the work that took him 150 hours to complete.

Captivated by the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia," Berton has sculpted Middle East scenes with camels and sheikhs. One of those pieces was purchased by actor Peter O'Toole, who played the title character. A Berton sculpture of a chieftain holding a sacred falcon sold to the crown prince of Bahrain, who went on to become the king.

"The subject you want to do is open to what you want to do. It's really limited only by your imagination," Berton says.

St. Charles native Joe Berton, left, and Pat Vess, of Naperville, show off their artwork in advance of this weekend's Military Miniature Society of Illinois show.
St. Charles native Joe Berton, left, and Pat Vess, of Naperville, show off their artwork in advance of this weekend's Military Miniature Society of Illinois show. - Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Vess says most of the club members "have an interest in history."

The club's online magazine, The Scabbard, is edited by Jim DeRogatis, the former Chicago Sun-Times music critic who also designs box dioramas. Another member is John Rosengrant, who won an Emmy for his role in creating Baby Yoda for "The Mandalorian." Miniature collectors have included painter Andrew Wyeth, actor Robin Williams, and publisher Malcolm Forbes, who started a miniature soldier museum in Tangier, Morocco.

The show isn't a competition, but artists are judged to see if their work merits a gold, silver or bronze medal.

"It's more about the camaraderie of the hobby," says Berton, who has won many awards.

Vess said he joined the club "thinking I was a hotshot figure painter."

"Oh, I had a lot to learn," remembers Vess, who got into the hobby as a teen growing up in Colorado. "I started out building a plastic tank."

He went on to graduate from West Point, take part in the Desert Storm invasion that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, and serve as a tank commander in charge of 14 tanks during his tour in Iraq, before retiring in 1993 as a captain.

He and his wife, Kathy, dedicate one room of their house to his hobby, where he spent 20 hours crafting and painting a bust of Robert de Vere, the 14th-century earl of Oxford, and did a full figure of a Bavarian staff officer from 1692. He also does tin flats, thin metal figurines that were popular in Germany near the end of the 19th century.

Meeting for the first time since the pandemic, the Miniature Military Society of Illinois expects a crowd at its 46th annual show this weekend in Schaumburg.
Meeting for the first time since the pandemic, the Miniature Military Society of Illinois expects a crowd at its 46th annual show this weekend in Schaumburg. - Courtesy of MMSI

This is the first face-to-face meeting of the group since a show in Atlanta in February 2020 and is the largest national show of its kind. The group has been hosting monthly meetings online but hopes to return to in-person meetings soon at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines.

Anyone who comes to the show can buy kits for as little as $5 and get tips from the best in the business.

"A lot of modelers are very good at sharing their techniques," Vess says. "It's not like chefs who say, 'You can't have my recipe.'"

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