Welcome to our series, Hello Denver, My Name is… where we profile different people in Denver you probably don’t know, but should. Get ready to meet painters, dancers, comedians, musicians, designers and just generally fascinating people that help make Denver awesome.
It all started with a Christmas present. Which turned into another Christmas present. And another. A handmade present, to be exact — a little world inside a jar, like a snowglobe. That’s how Denver native Scott Hildebrandt quit his corporate IT job and started making miniature worlds inside upcycled, and preferably retro, objects. At first, he went by the name Mister Christmas — an homage to the origins of his craft — but now, Hildebrandt makes these mini-worlds full-time and is prepared to take all the credit, especially with the confirmation of his place in Denver’s Meow Wolf installation.
Each handcrafted miniature scene Hildebrandt creates is more than a still-life landscape. Using LED lights, tiny computer chips with handwritten code, speakers connected to audio files, conveyor belts and more, Hildebrandt makes these worlds come to life. Watch with childlike wonder when one turns on, revealing an elevator moving between floors, cars racing by, a lightning storm and a TV flickering behind curtains. But the worlds inside are only part of the splendor of Hildebrandt’s creations — the containers he chooses to put them into have just as many stories to tell.
There are flash cameras from the ’60s, alarm clocks, kitchen clocks, vintage car headlamps, bank deposit tubes, a dress bust from the ’40s, pieces of airplanes, vacuums, drumsets, globes, toy trucks and more. When Hildebrandt first started working full-time on the mini-worlds four years ago, he scoured thrift stores, estate sales and online auctions but now he has connections all over the world that send him both vessels for his worlds and items to put into his worlds like buildings. His studio has a graveyard in the back with other people’s tossed away items — it’s a few heaping shelves that excite Hildebrandt’s imagination.
Denver, meet Scott.
303 Magazine: How long does it typically take to make one of your miniatures?
Scott Hildebrandt: It kind of depends on the size and complexity of the piece. A smaller piece can take four to five hours (the size of an old alarm clock) or 70 to 80 hours if there is neon and movement with lots of detail. I have learned to start some of these bigger pieces and only work four to five hours on it then walk away and start another project. I might come back to it a week or even a month later. At any given time, I can have up to 10 different projects throughout my studio.
303: Is this what you do full-time or is this a passion project?
SH: Yes – this is now my full-time career. It was a hobby that I started back in 2008. About four years ago I got into the Cherry Creek Arts Festival and won Best of Show that year, and decided to see what would happen if I gave it 12 months [of] dedication. Now it’s four years later and I’m honored to call myself a full-time artist. I worked in Corporate IT prior to that for 22 years.
303: In those four years, you’ve made over 3,000 worlds inside other objects. So what’s your schedule like?
SH: My schedule varies with different commission project pieces but mainly I dedicate most of my time to arts festivals which start in March and take me through September. I do still participate in a few holiday shows in November and December. Starting this year and into next year, I will be working on a permanent art installation for Meow Wolf Denver. I am very excited to be working on this.
303: Meow Wolf? Can you tell us any more than that?
SH: In 2017 they sent me an email and asked if I wanted to submit a proposal. I thought it was a joke. You know, one of those emails that con you into buying a really expensive ad for something… So I was really skeptical and I waited and waited until the last day it was due, and then I suddenly thought, ‘what if this is real?’ I worked last minute on a proposal and submitted it — and they accepted it. Originally there was an opening date in 2019 I think, and I went to the kick-off party and met everyone involved in the Denver unit… Finally this year, all the contracts were signed after they opened the Kaleidoscape ride at Elitch Gardens, with a new opening date of 2021. I’m actively working on my piece now, and I’m officially doing an installation for them. I can’t tell you what it is, of course, but you can probably guess what my medium is! [laughs] So yeah I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be on the Denver Meow Wolf team.
303: You were born and raised in Denver, and have stayed. What’s your favorite part about living in Denver? And about being an artist in Denver?
SH: I love the culture and history of Denver. My favorite part about living in Denver is the artist and maker communities. Denver is very supportive of small businesses and artists. Most of my encouragement and support comes from the people in my community.
303: Not everyone can work with such tiny pieces as you do. What do you love about the miniature replication of things?
SH: To me, it’s almost like landscape painting. I love the challenge of creating something from my imagination. I love creating a model of it and then bringing it to life by using lighting and motion.
303: Do you have any other inspirations, aside from your imagination?
SH: I take a lot of inspiration from movies, vacation destinations, childhood memories and yes pop culture. I loved Star Wars as a kid so that definitely comes out in some of my scenes. I did a lot of camping as a kid so many outdoor scenes are frequently in the dioramas that I create. I grew up in the ’80s, so I love that pop culture and using some of those old electronics like brick cell phones and boom boxes to build certain scenes.
303: Describe your favorite piece and why it’s your favorite.
SH: I built a replica of Union Station on top of a kid’s toy piano. That is the main piece that I used in a photograph to get into Cherry Creek [for] my first year. I like that piece a lot because it was a transition from only building dioramas inside of radios and clocks. It gave me the freedom to explore repurposing almost anything.
303: Since you use a lot of vintage and retro objects, both as vessels and inside the mini-worlds, do you find you have an older audience? What’s your fan base like?
SH: My age group is anywhere from the 70s all the way down to teens. I have a lot of Millennials that connect with it as well, and a few collectors in that age range too. Small apartments in Denver are perfect for the smaller pieces. I don’t want to paint myself into a corner where nobody can afford it. The prices range from $175 for the alarm clocks or smaller pieces to $10,000 or more for the bigger ones.
303: What is the biggest challenge you face when making these miniatures?
SH: One of my biggest challenges is finding or creating a dark enough place to display or show my collection. Since everything lights up, it makes more sense to be indoors but most of my art shows are outside. That creates an obvious challenge so I use a dark tent to create that indoor atmosphere.
303: And the obvious follow-up question — what’s the biggest reward?
SH: Connecting with people at the shows. I love it when the reaction of a child’s face is exactly the same as the adult. Miniatures create good memories of when we were kids. We all created our own mini-worlds when we were young using our imaginations. The other reward is connecting with someone’s memory with the re-purposed vessel or antique that I used to house the diorama. These create nostalgia and memories with people from decades gone by.
What really makes me emotional is when people come to me and say ‘I’ve been following you for five years and I’ve finally saved up enough to buy this piece.’ That means a lot to me. Disposable income, I get it. Most people don’t wake up thinking ‘I’m going to go buy a globe with an upside-down world in it.’ Art is an impulse buy, but art is also important enough that when you surround yourself with it, especially handmade pieces inside your house, it changes the way you look at things because you have something that someone else spent their time, energy and emotion on. The art we have hanging in our house catches my eye every day… Those types of things are really important to have whether you have a studio apartment or a house in Palm Springs.
303: Looking at all of your mini-worlds, there are vehicles and animals and lit-up apartment windows, but there aren’t any people in them. Why not?
SH: I want you to imagine your self in the scenes that I create. By creating an empty scene that has detail, depth and lighting, it will build a story that you can imagine. I feel that when you add people into the miniatures it distracts from you using your own vivid imagination.
303: The final question is from our last interviewee, Robert Murch: “When you look in the mirror, do you see all of yourself or only the parts you like? Is the reflection staring back what you want and hope to be, or who you are right now?”
SH: When I look in the mirror I look for things that I would like to improve. Things like, can I give more time to others, have I encouraged someone today, am I using my time wisely. The reflection that I see is positive and helpful. You have two choices on how to interpret your reflection. You can criticize yourself and stay negative or you can see the positive. Both choices will reflect on others.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.