Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Toy Story

“When you’re a kid, when you’re playing with your toys, there is this world that your toys are in and nobody else can see it—that world.”

“I wanted to recreate that,” Michael Murtha said.

So he finds old toys and images that remind him of when he was a kid, shrinks his imaginary world down, and puts it all in a box.

The result are vibrant, whimsical dioramas that peek into the mind of a grown-up, creative kid.

“I try really, really hard just to make sure that the world is cohesive,” Murtha said. “All the figures inside are color-coordinating with the world around it, or they are supposed to be in that space.”

His shadowboxes are made from mostly repurposed materials, so he starts by perusing thrift stores for books—often judging them by their covers—to find good images. After he cuts out the images, they’ll coat the walls inside one of his boxes.

“For the longest time, I felt guilty about ripping these things apart,” Murtha said. “Some of them were such great gems, like every image inside of it would be something I’d want to use and I almost saw the book itself as important as what I was going to create.”

But now he sees his art as a better way to display the images he finds. Instead of being trapped inside a closed book where an image might be seen for a second or two, he puts it on display to be admired and appreciated.

His art often has a cohesive tie—he’s done space, ocean, Indian, and cowboy themes so far—but he sees each box as a different world with a different story. He describes them as being as distinct as J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits and elves.  

“It’s the same way that Tolkien’s world was one world, but there were hundreds of different worlds inside of it…so I hope that when a viewer sees all of them together, they say, ‘Ah, this is cohesive, there’s a tie.’ But not really them interacting with each other.”

Finding the space guys, scuba divers, and other figurines to go inside the boxes can often be a challenge because Murtha wants his characters to be in interesting poses and he’s always careful to make sure they clearly belong in the world he’s creating. It was on a search for intriguing characters that he got his most recent opportunity to show his work.

He was browsing through Big Fun toy store looking for space figurines that would fit just right when the owner invited him to show his dioramas in the window display for December. He’s shown before, but it’s never been in a place that has as much childhood imagination as his boxes do.

“Part of the fun of putting it not in a toy store is that it caught people off-guard,” Murtha said. “I am worried that they may be…overlooked because they’re in a toy store, but the other part of me feels like they’ll be right at home.”

Murtha said people often get the whimsical childlike nature of his boxes and often turn away with a smile. But the best way he’s ever heard his art described was through a man who said he’d never put it in his house.

“He was like ‘Well, I feel like everybody who would come over to my house would think I was crazy, so if I had one of your pieces, I’d probably have to put it inside of a closet and then open up the closet every once in a while and [they’d] be like, ‘Cool this is really awesome!’ and then close the door again so nobody else could see it.’”

“Which I took as a compliment, of course.”

Shadowbox Art Show kicks off at Big Fun (672 N High St.) on December 6, and will run through the end of the month.