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Henry ‘Hank’ Kupjack, renowned for museum-worthy miniatures, dead at 67

Henry "Hank" Kupjack, a master of miniatures.

Henry "Hank" Kupjack, a master of miniatures. | Facebook

Hank Kupjack made magic in miniature, creating Lilliputian rooms that were richly detailed, perfectly scaled, historically accurate and enchanting.

He died of a suspected heart attack Monday at his home near Armitage and Racine avenues, said his brother Jay. He was 67.

He learned his craft from his late father Eugene Kupjack, a principal artist on many of the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute, one of the museum’s top attractions.

With their jewelers’ loupes and expertise at woodwork, painting, carving and working with fabric, Eugene Kupjack and his sons won international acclaim. Their work is in many museums and in the private collections of millionaires and billionaires.

A Kupjack miniature. | Facebook photo

“They were these amazing artists who created these extraordinary rooms,” said their friend Carol Marin, NBC5’s political editor and a WTTW “Chicago Tonight” correspondent.

For one $100,000 commission, they duplicated the set where the Drew Carey show was filmed. For a retiring Chicago Tribune executive, they crafted a diorama of the offices of the larger-than-life Tribune publisher Col. Robert R. McCormick.

The Kupjacks’ art ranged from the interior of a pirate ship to Czarina Alexandra’s sitting room, to a roadside diner, a 19th century Gloucester fishing cottage, an English pub, a Western saloon, a Pullman train car, a Japanese farm kitchen and an Art Deco lounge.

After his father’s death in 1991, Hank Kupjack became the main miniaturist. He had a particular affinity for the ancient Greeks. He created a pint-sized version of Alexander the Great’s desert “siege tent,” according to his brother, who photographed their works.

Their shadow boxes usually measure no more than 18 inches wide, 17 inches deep and 22 inches high, enticing people to come close to examine a fairy-scale world of furniture, rugs, French gilt tea sets, paintings, champagne glasses, crystal chandeliers, candlesticks, books, top hats, feathered quill pens, sewing baskets, walking sticks and working clocks. The Kupjacks used a penny to craft the base of a tiny copper tea set.

Every year, the Thorne Miniature Rooms are “one of the top three” exhibits at the Art Institute, according to curator Lindsay Mican Morgan, who said the Kupjack brothers have been “unbelievably generous” with advice and expertise when repairs are needed.

But miniatures weren’t always appreciated by the high-brow set, Hank Kupjack said in a 2011  Chicago Sun-Times interview. “They’re not Impressionist paintings, and the Institute for a long time didn’t like that,” he said. “They always rubbed them the wrong way — they only acquired them because Thorne gave them to the Institute, only took them because [Mrs. Thorne] was a founding member of the Art Institute and the only donor during the Depression. Once they were installed, they couldn’t do anything about it.”

Hank Kupjack captioned his workshop picture “Everything in its right place.” His studio was in the Mana Contemporary Chicago art center at 2233 S. Throop St. | Facebook

Hank Kupjack grew up in Park Ridge, where he liked movies and meals at the Pickwick theater and restaurant.

He attended Roosevelt grade school and Lincoln Middle School. While at Maine South High School, his brother said Hank and a friend got an old hearse and built a coffin that doubled as a beer cooler, hoping to display them in a homecoming parade. For senior dress-up day, Jay Kupjack said his brother crafted a medieval pope costume. “He set up a table and was [dispensing] indulgences,” he said.

While other kids were laboring to make primitive fake IDs, his brother said young Hank used his artistic skill to create a realistic driver’s license and passport from a phony country he dubbed “The Grand Duchy of New Brunswick.”

The Kupjacks were known for their attention to detail, scale and historical accuracy. | Facebook

Hank Kupjack studied architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After helping redesign the ice rink at Marina City and a brief stint as co-owner of a recording studio, he stated working with his father around 1974.

Kupjack works were collected by publisher Malcolm Forbes, philanthropist Richard Driehaus and other wealthy patrons, including members of the Searle pharmaceutical empire and relatives of Marshall Field.

A fan examines a Kupjack shadow box. | Facebook

A punk rock fan, Mr. Kupjack visited New York in the 1980s to go to shows at the famed club CBGB, his brother said.

In addition to the Art Institute, Jay Kupjack said their works have been displayed in the Baltimore Museum of Art, the du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware, the Illinois State Museum, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, the Knoxville Museum of Art, Palm Springs Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

His brother said funeral arrangements are pending.

Miniatures created by Hank Kupjack enticed observers to come close to examine the fairy-scale details and craftsmanship. | Facebook