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Mini art on a world stage at Chicago’s Model Expo

Fletcher Clement, of Little Rock, Arkansas, crafted a surrealist miniature scene titled "Homage" for the 2017 World Model Expo.

Fletcher Clement, of Little Rock, Arkansas, crafted a surrealist miniature scene titled "Homage" for the 2017 World Model Expo. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

Alexander the Great, Zelda Fitzgerald and a demonic monster walked into a hotel ballroom — for Chicago’s first World Model Expo.

More than 600 hobbyists from around the world showcased 1,500 miniature versions of famous figures at the triennial convention, which has been held abroad since 2005. Chicago modelers hosted the Expo for the first time in the event’s history, offering seminars, exhibits and awards during its four-day run at the Hilton Chicago.

“It’s a chance to showcase Chicago and the United States,” said Expo co-chair Dave Peschke of Spring Grove.

Peschke said modelers call this event “the Olympics” because in the miniature world, it’s a big deal.

In the exhibition room, monsters leer out from their plastic stands, while elaborate scenes unfold behind makeshift frames — the historic Battle of Issus, Chicago protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and a meeting of 33 individuals from the modeling community that artist Fletcher Clement calls a “surrealistic hairball.”

Modelers can present historical, fantasy and ordinance pieces, meaning vehicles like tanks and ships. Some paint, some sculpt and some do both.

“It’s a piece of art,” said event organizer Mike Cobb. “It’s just little.”

Clement, a modeler from Little Rock, Arkansas, sculpted Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald because he “wanted to get them out of his head.” His pieces are made of plastic and putty — what Clement calls “flotsam and jetsam.”

“It’s really creative,” he said. “Anything you can conjure up in your brain.”

Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald come to life in a miniature by Fletcher Clement at the World Model Expo. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

Other modelers, like Jose Martinez of Vernon Hills, prefer researching and recreating historical scenes. Packing up a bust of Gen. George Patton, the 68-year-old Martinez remembers emigrating from Mexico 30 years ago and brushing up on the craft. “It’s an incentive to learn history,” he said.

His wife, Cristina, was also drawn into the hobby. “I feed him and I critique,” she said of her role at the convention. “I have to tell him to redo things sometimes.”

A piece can take anywhere from two hours to two years, modelers said. While some turn to history for reference, San Francisco native David Diamondstone, 34, favors “Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones.” A fantasy fan, Diamondstone uses kits to paint these monsters in miniature.

Modelers display work year-round at regional shows, biding their time until the triennial international convention. The event draws many from Europe, where organizers say the hobby is more popular.

Fantasy modeler Patric Sand came to the Expo from Sweden — his first trip to the U.S. The 24-year-old said he enjoys the camaraderie at the convention, but nothing beats the craft itself. “It is like my meditation,” he said.

Greg DiFranco, 61, from New York City, has been modeling for 50 years. He said modelers can make lasting connections at the Expo, either to sell art or trade tips.

“From one little model soldier when I was a kid, I’ve known thousands of people all over the world,” he said.

DiFranco returns this week to his New York City home and his “full-time business job,” but he will get up early to work on his models for an hour, as he does every day. “It enriches your life,” he said.

Jose Martinez packs up his historical figures on the final day of the World Model Expo in Chicago. | Emily Moon/Sun-Times

David Diamondstone showcased fantasy figures at the Expo / Provided photo