Ziran Muse: Nancy, Proprietress of the Mini Museum

Within seconds of meeting Nancy Fleming you can't help but smile and join her happy bubble. She is effervescent, quirky, and gushing with joy. She's a local powerhouse too - proprietress of the AMAZING miniature museum in Roswell, Director of the Anderson Contemporary Museum of Art, longtime crew of the RAiR residency, and incredible artist. She keeps things moving.

One of the first weeks we arrived in Roswell we went to her Miniature museum and I was blown away. Over 100 miniature displays fill up the space, each one painstakingly created and cared for. There are entire worlds living in these boxes... from Egyptian kingdoms to pottery studios to dollhouses... Nancy has curated an incredible, impressive, super nerdy world of magic and craft. And that's only the front of the museum. The back storage area houses thousands of props and collectibles, which are meticulously arranged and organized for future use. 

We visited Nancy one morning in April and got a taste of her world. Here it is!

Where are you from?

The Midwest - I was born in Columbia, Missouri in 1964, and just before I entered seventh grade my parents moved us to a small town in Illinois. I went to a six-month secretarial school in St. Louis right after high school and was hired by a general contractor just five months of school. I had already had two years of typing and shorthand (!) so there wasn’t much else to learn! But on the first day of what was essentially my first job, I realized that this was not what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life. I quickly enrolled in night school at the local community college and lucked into a painting class. Those three hours twice a week were so much more edifying than the eight hours in the office, but needing to pay for the class – and all those I took afterward - I continued working in downtown St. Louis for 2 1/2 years. Nearing the end of the general contractor’s project, I had applied and been accepted to the Kansas City Art Institute. My 21st birthday was my first day at art school….I was in heaven!

I got to Roswell by following Stephen Fleming, an artist who was teaching in the Foundation Department (my work study area for three years), during my senior year. In 1994 Stephen became the director of the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program (he had been a RAiR in 1986-87) and I got the job of “government and education reporter” for the local newspaper! I did that for 2 1/2 years – reporting on everything from City Council meetings to drive-by shootings. The novelty of the job to me was very interesting, and I learned more about this town and met more people than I ever could have imagined! And I even did the job while I was pregnant! On the Monday Sienna was born, I had two stories with my byline on the front. In fact, I’d worked the previous day to make my deadline! My stint as a “journalist” came to an end when Stephen had an opportunity to go back to KC to teach. I became interim director at RAiR and full-time mom of six-month old Sienna. When Stephen returned I would still help him at the residency, but also took on lots of various and sundry jobs to help keep the boat afloat.

What made you gravitate towards art? Were you around art as a kid? 

Not Art, but I was crafty, and my mom taught me to crochet and sew. My sister and I would do things like paint by numbers and cake decorating. I loved to copy greeting cards and was good at making banners for the athletic teams at school. I think what I intuited on my first day as a secretary was that it wasn’t going to be creative or interesting enough to do for the rest of my life – but I also couldn’t envision an alternative as I didn’t have any exposure to an arts culture. That first painting class exposed me to the world I wanted to live in! I wanted to do more painting and less typing. I will say, however, that my secretarial skills really did – and do - come in VERY handy (as does all the time I spent writing for the newspaper!).

How did you come up with the Miniature Museum?

It actually started back in 2015 with two “homeless” miniatures – a three-story Santa’s workshop and an old-fashioned opera house. Elaine Howe, my artist and art educator friend, got the initial call to “come get these and do something with them.” Then she called me because I have a van and never say no to anything interesting! By the first Christmas we had renovated the Santa's workshop, acquired a two-story miniature saloon which we “Christmasfied,” and created a display for both of them in a downtown window for the public to enjoy. We thought it was pretty fun, and so did other people, because we received more donated miniatures and created more displays!

The second Christmas – in that same downtown window - we showcased 22 shelves of our friend Brinkman Randle’s Santa ceramics (small to large Santa mugs but also salt-pepper shakers, pitchers and cookie jars) which we entitled “Santaramics”. We were not only miniature collecting by then, we had added “curious collections” which was more in my and Brinkman’s realm of interest. On the miniature side of things, members of Roswell’s miniature society Los Pocos Locos (active late 80s to early 00s) were passing away. The family of two of the leaders of that group said if we were serious about doing something permanent, i.e., “a museum”, they would donate miniature supplies, tools, materials, and eventually more room boxes and full miniature houses. The Smith collection and the Santaramics were really the first seeds of the Miniatures and Curious Collections Museum, and having the already-established nonprofit Roswell Interarts Organization to be our sponsor, we took off quickly and began fundraising for a building.

When we visited the former Cobeans Stationery and Office Furniture Store – which had been empty for eight years – we knew it was the perfect fit! It was big, located just a block off Main Street in Roswell’s downtown area, and the running length of inset shelving was more than perfect for miniature room boxes and vignettes! We had space for a children's play area and a gift shop area to supplement donations! We had community support and also secured a commercial loan to buy the building and bring it back to life as the newest museum in Roswell! It didn’t hurt that Elaine’s husband Tom is a superb contractor and our friends are artful AND helpful! We grew so much those first years that we have actually outgrown the building! To accommodate a permanent workshop space, more miniature exhibition areas, and more storage for our rotating curious collections, we’ve just purchased the building next door to the museum! To say it’s been a whirlwind of wonder, work and rewarding experiences is an understatement!

So you’re going to continue the collection into the building next door? 

Yes. Our new expansion will enable us to promote the making of miniatures as well as host more workshops that go along with the theme ‘du jour’ of our Curious Collections exhibit. For example, one year we had an exhibit entitled “Domesti Collecti: collections from home and refrigerator” and paired it with a free community workshop wherein people of all ages painted with food on small canvases! With a new dedicated workshop area we hope to eventually utilize updated technological tools like a laser cutter and 3D printer to create unique miniature objects, furniture and more! 

As a collector, how do you draw the line between collecting for use in the future, collecting because you like something, or collecting and then it never gets placed. How do you balance what to take and what to leave?

I guess it’s about taste. We have more than 200 “things” we collect in about 25 themed categories. I love to go to thrift stores, estate sales, flea markets and antique malls – and I never come out empty handed! If I like the look of something and it fits a category and my pretty cheap price point, I'll totally buy it. If it's too spendy, it reluctantly and sadly goes back on the shelf. I love vintage, quirky, unique, handmade… If Brinkman and I saw something too good to pass up but kind of ‘expensive’ then we would split the cost so it seemed less expensive! Unfortunately, Brinkman passed away a couple years ago, but we had planned so many themes and each started so many collections that we will be entertaining people for years!

We also have lots of items that I call “double duty” – objects that can be part of different collections. A glass ashtray is good for the “bad habits” exhibit going up now, but also the eventual “glass” exhibit (awaiting a much better title!). The way things are grouped can be quite interesting and appealing – 100 red objects sounds like a fun exhibit! And I definitely like to pair “usual” collections (like stamps) with the unusual (postmarks punched out of envelopes). Most any and all donations accepted! We wouldn’t have the diversity of items without the wonderful, random things that come our way! Keep ‘em coming!!!

We were with Josh and Maya (past RAiR residents) recently and Maya described you as effervescent. I thought that was such a good word because you're so bubbly and sweet. You're like brimming with positive energy. Is this something that comes to you naturally, or have you worked on being this way? 

This is a good question and the answer is both, because, honestly, I think once I decided I was not going to work full-time as a secretary in downtown St. Louis for the rest of my life, I got ‘Happy’. It prompted me to really become the driver of my life… The smile on my face driving away from St. Louis to my Kansas City art school destination has really never left. 

I love that. What do you love about minis? 

I love the quantity of items in them – particularly the handmade items! - and the varied styles and themes. I love diversity! One “object” can have hundreds of styles, colors, sizes… I love putting things together in a visual display – love creating installations. Most of my collections started out as “art supplies” for my installations – like my collection of postmarks. I'm just interested in so many things both two- and three-dimensionally. 

My biggest fault is that I run out of time to do all the things I want to do. But that's all about balance. I do what I can. I lie in the bed that I make. If I'm overwhelmed, it's of my own doing so I consciously remember to not project that on others. And I really don’t get too grumpy with myself because I’m old enough to know that’s a waste of potentially useful time and energy. The wonderful thing about Elaine and I working together is that we don’t pressure each other. We each have our own self-imposed deadlines and only a few combined deadlines like an open house or workshop. I try to push my own creative energies because I love to make things….It's just crazy fun. And sometimes things fall down or don’t look as good as I want them to, but c’est la vie! Fix it! No time to waste – the show must go up!

What inspires you? You do everything. 

Ha! I’m inspired by EVERYTHING! For example, the next Curious Collections show is titled “Objecti Habituum: smoking, drinking, gambling and pills.” We have ashtrays, beer bottles, flasks, funny shell turtles playing poker… and pill coasters! One day while helping a friend sort all her meds, I got the “arrange pills in coasters and pour liquid plastic on them” brainwave! In the end I made 80 of these pill coasters and even lined the cabinet with blue-white capsules that I had a huge quantity of…but don’t ask me what any of the pills – or vitamins – are for because I separated them from their bottles and people donated them without the labels. I have good friends!  

Oh, now to answer the question! All I have to do is start sorting stuff or go thrifting, and I get a million ideas! I don’t think a day goes by when I’m not inspired by something or think of something new to do, make or collect. Actually there isn’t a day without inspiration because I get Colossal in my e-mail. Art from around the world shows up daily in my e-mail. I love it. Check it out! And my friends are creative, my jobs are creative….every day I’m surrounded by amazing, inspiring objects and people!

So what does your family and husband Stephen think of your collections and endless creativity?

Stephen’s nickname for me is Gadabout Clutterupticks (read that slowly). Gadabout because I'm always going somewhere or doing something. Clutterupticks because in my world, all horizontal surfaces need piles. He actually hates that, but in fact he does the same thing so he’s pretty accommodating. My “stuff” is supposed to stay in the garage or my two rooms in the house, but it creeps out into the living room because I like to sort there…like the thousands of buttons I bought this past December. When I actually make something out of the “stuff”, Stephen is usually impressed – probably more for my finishing something than for how it looks, but nevertheless, I’ll take a compliment from him any day! Actually, he is very complimentary about the job I do both at the Anderson Museum and all that Elaine and I (and our magic helpers) have done at the Miniature Museum. And, really, the best testament to his supportiveness is that he cooks me dinner every night except for take-out Tuesday. You can’t beat that!

You know I see him when I push Meilu in the stroller. We’ll stop and chat and he always talks you up. He has such nice things to say about you, especially you as a mother. He'll be like, “Nancy was the best mom and really took everything on.” 

Ahhhh he’s super sweet. I love being Sienna’s mom – and she’s 28 now! How did that happen?   

I'm a new mom so I'm like figuring out this transition, and just wrapping my head around this new thing.  You're a mother to all of these things too! 

My motherhood experience is an understanding that it was probably more good luck than good management. The mix of where we live and what we do added to the good fortune of having an easy-going wonderful kid. It doesn’t get any better than that! To extemporize a bit – Roswell is a town that’s just big enough to have lots of things to do, and small enough to get around to do all of them! Stephen was director of the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program for 25 years, so we lived in the most creative environment one could possibly imagine. Then on top of that, Sienna’s adult attributes of being bright and creative applied to her when she was little as well! I periodically say Sienna lived a charmed childhood, but that really goes for all of us! If I had any motherhood “technique” it was to participate!!! In everything! Oh gosh, I’m definitely still doing that even now! I also absolutely loved reading to Sienna every night. We advanced from children’s books from the Roswell Public Library to all the Harry Potter books at least three times each… and we even went to the midnight premiere of the first movie when she was 7! We had loads of fun. I just cherished pretty much every day of raising Sienna, and my motto was to have “no regrets.” When I signed Sienna up for Girl Scouts at age 6, I also signed up to be a volunteer – which was perfect because the leader was exceptional at the outdoor activities and I could lead all the artful endeavors and be the Troop 9 cookie mom! That was an exceptional way to have shared memories and tons of fun! Sienna was such a trooper that she wore all the alien costumes I made for her (and sometimes friends too) for the annual UFO Festivals – something like 18 of them! I stayed very busy during her growing up years, and I’d even go off and do my own thing once in a while - it is definitely an important part of parenting to not lose yourself in the process!  We also gave Sienna as many ‘wings’ as we could and long story short, she attended her first semester of high school in Aberdeen, Scotland, and the last two years of her high school we drove her up to and back from Santa Fe where she had been accepted into the (then) newly organized New Mexico School for the Arts. I’m very proud of all Sienna has accomplished – mostly without any help from us!

Ziran means natural, spontaneous and free. To push away outside influence and embrace your own authenticity. Do you feel like you live Ziran? In some ways you collect so many things freely but there is also a meticulousness here and in your art. I think you're both, what do you think? 

Definitely yes. I really do feel the freedom of being able to make my own choices - within the jobs that I have and especially outside those jobs. Part of the beauty of living in a place like Roswell – 200 miles from an urban center – is that there isn’t much competition in which to get boggled down here. You really can make possible whatever you set your mind, energy, money and time to doing! I don’t feel any social pressure to be a certain way or do a certain thing – or if there is, I’m not paying any attention to it. I’m in my own little art bubble, and I feel super free…super lucky…and that’s why every day I’m pretty much a happy camper!

Creative Direction: Kelly Wang Shanahan (@theziran)

Muse: Nancy Fleming

Photography: Brad Trone (@bradtrone) 

Shot in April, 2023. Roswell, New Mexico.