Framing houses: Local artist uses unexpected material to build his structures
John Duncan builds houses. And churches. He is known for his detail work. He loves making wrought-iron gates and rails the most.
He nestles his structures among sprawling trees and gracious shrubs, each leaf a glistening green, each flower a shimmering yellow or red.
The buildings are balanced, symmetrical, lovingly painted — and made entirely with cotton-fiber paper.
They are not life-size, of course. Duncan calls them “three-dimensional paintings,” though others consider them sculptures.
“I wanted people to see them from every angle,” Duncan said. “So the layers became three-dimensional.”
When he can, he spends one to 12 hours a day working on a paper house. He loses track of time in his small apartment facing Colonial Lake. The sun makes its arc overhead and Duncan pays it little attention, focusing instead on his tiny petals, his window dressing, his columns and doors and porch railings and tile roofs.
A complicated piece might take him 250 hours to complete. The work could carry on for two or three months, depending on other obligations.
“It’s fun, it keeps me busy.”
Duncan’s got five commissions in the queue. He’ll earn up to $3,000 for a major piece. Occasionally, he makes small pieces that feature only a detail of a house. These cost about $500. He said he wants to make more of these — to build some inventory — and possibly set up a booth at the Charleston Farmers Market or find a gallery partner.
Duncan has another job: He’s a concierge at the Harbour Club on Prioleau Street, where he’s been for eight years. Before that, he worked at the Preservation Society of Charleston.
Averse to self-promotion, Duncan nevertheless hung some of his work in the Preservation Society shop on lower King Street, which garnered him some attention. And the Harbour Club, too, has a piece on display. This has helped generate commissions.
Duncan, 59, was born in Kansas City, Mo. He studied graphic art at the Kansas City Art Institute and took a few classes in sculpture, too. He’s always been an elaborate doodler, he said, even during those years working as a restaurant waiter. Doodles became drawing and architectural renderings, and the one-dimensional renderings became experiments in layering.
He moved to Charleston at the end of 2001, fascinated by the city’s historic buildings and detailed architecture. He had found an environment ripe for his paper creations.
“He is a Rembrandt in his field,” Lucile MacLennan said. “He really is magical.”
MacLennan, 93, is a happy client. She saw one of Duncan’s pieces at a friend’s house in Mount Pleasant and immediately knew she had to have one.
“When you think he takes paper and creates a perfect reproduction of a building, well, that’s genius.”
So MacLennan invited Duncan to visit her home in the Crescent neighborhood across the Ashley River. He photographed the property, careful to record its various details. After a while, he delivered the final product, which MacLennan displays on an easel in her living room.
When a neighbor saw it one day, he commissioned Duncan to make an image as a surprise gift for his wife, MacLennan said.
And that’s typically how it works: Word of mouth, or an accidental encounter with Duncan’s work. Somebody sees one of his pieces and decides he should have one.
Duncan has produced a total of about 40 pieces, and now strives to complete five a year, he said. He’s built downtown houses, Mount Pleasant houses, James Island houses and Kiawah houses.
He’s fabricated a replica of St. Michael’s Church. He’s pieced together a plantation house in Oxford, Ga., and a Chesapeake Bay home. He is working on a house in the Garden District of New Orleans.
Most of the works are set in 3- or 4-inch-deep frames, protected by a glass cover.
Remley Campbell and his wife, Chris Christopher, have one of Duncan’s pieces. They get a view of their house as they return from errands or a day’s labor, then they can view it again, with its red-tin roof and wrought-iron fence, in the dining room.
Campbell, a financial adviser and member of the Harbour Club, didn’t know that his wife had commissioned the work as a Christmas present.
“I was just thrilled,” he said. “He’s got a talent that’s unbelievable.”
Duncan’s three-dimensional painting of the house includes hanging baskets on the porch, an American flag and azaleas in bloom. Each tiny piece is excised from cotton paper with an X-Acto knife, each is dampened with water then meticulously painted.
Campbell said he admires Duncan’s ability to imagine all the details, to picture the final product in his mind. He also admires the artist’s humility.
“John is not a self-promoter,” Campbell said.
In his apartment, Duncan is working on a relatively simple project. He’s created the basic “box,” cut out the spaces for the windows and assembled many of the finishings. A paper envelope holds hundreds of small leaves. Another contains hundreds of flowers. A pen holder sits full of small brushes, which Duncan wears out quickly. Glue is kept handy.
“Each piece has to be individually handled, and there’s no way to speed it up,” Duncan said of the time it takes to complete a project. “I have hundreds and hundreds of blades; I buy them by the gross,” he added with a laugh.
Stucco finish is not too hard to do; he adds sand to the paint. But brick houses take more work. Each brick is assembled, painted thoroughly and added to the structure. Duncan relies only on reading glasses to see what he’s doing with such intensity and precision.
It’s painstaking work, requiring enormous patience. Which is a little odd, Duncan noted.
“I’m not a very patient person otherwise.” But the labor, hour by hour, produces obvious results. It’s comforting. It keeps Duncan focused on a creative pursuit. It rewards his solitary endurance.
“I like seeing the progress being made.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.