HOW BIG IS IT?
Clusters of site-oriented art pieces once again adorn Southern California's foothills. It's not Christo's Umbrellas II. This time, it's the work of Nina Karavasiles, a San Diego-based artist. Instead of the freeway system, her viewing corridors are train routes: the San Diego and Arizona Eastern, the Cabrillo Southwestern, the Pacific Desert Line, and the Tehachapi Pass route. To see it all takes just one ticket -- a ticket to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Karavasiles wasn't required to deal with 43 governmental agencies and 477 land owners, as was Christo. But she did encounter a challenge he didn't: scaling the pieces to lilliputian proportions. This entailed working not just in one, but three different minuscule scales: HO, O and N. She began by making paper "people sizes," she says, "then I scaled the sculptures in terms of how I wanted them to relate to these person-sizes." Still, size questions arose. Legs Pegs and Points, one of seven sculptures in the Tehachapi Pass Exhibit, consists of three separate pieces -- two installed in the landscape and one en route on an HO scale freight train. At one point, Karavasiles asked about the size of the flatbed car on which the piece would ride. "It's forty feet," was the answer. "But how big is it really?" she wanted to know. Karavasiles started by cutting out the shapes she wanted in paper. The landscapes around the trains inspired many of the forms, such as Fallen Arch, which echoes the arc of a nearby tunnel, and Sight in the Mountain, in which a wire follows the outline of the mountain behind it. Next, she set the paper shapes into the landscape and snipped out the bottom so they would exactly fit the contours of the land. Several of the tiny sculptures Karavasiles fabricated from aluminum. Using a band saw, she cut hunks of aluminum into the shapes of the paper models. "It's really a pliable material," she says. "You can do so much with it. If you buff it, it looks like silver." Centerfold, one of the aluminum sculptures, is a double pun manifesting Karavasiles' whimsy as well as her ironic humor. A line down the middle implies the piece folds in half, which, of course, it doesn't. In addition, the sculpture has an hour-glass shape, suggesting images in the centerfold section of men's magazines. The sculpture's silvery appearance and it's allusion to an ideal female form also calls to mind the female form found on some trucks' mud flaps. Karavasiles' first piece for the exhibit was a fountain for the Cabrillo Southwestern O Scale Exhibit. "It's a likely thing to have in front of a building," says Karavasiles, except that "too much moisture gums up the works with the trains. They've tried running brooks, and, apparently, the trains just stop. It took three tries to make a fountain that didn't splash." The fountain itself takes only two tablespoons of water, although underneath a bucket and pump keep it going. To make the copper-colored fountain, Karavasiles used model train elements -- a smoke stack and cattle catcher -- tubing, and orange and blue tiles she fabricated. Even though the tiles are tiny, they are actually over-sized in relation to O scale. "If I made them to scale," says Karavasiles, "you wouldn't be able to see them very well. They're as big as they need to be to be visible, yet still small enough to seem to be in scale." Flowering Earthwork, in the San Diego and Arizona Eastern HO Scale Exhibit, provided a similar challenge. Karavasiles bought silk flowers in colors that echo the landscape--yellow, violet and a red-to-pink range--then cut them into tiny pieces and reconfigured them. They were still too big, so she did it again. Even so, the flowers that make up the circles and spirals in Flowering Earthwork are about waist high when considered in scale, but they are as tiny as Karavasiles could possibly make them. The humorous Small Items, in the Tehachapi Pass HO Scale Exhibit, is the only sculpture in which Karavasiles deliberately mixed human and model-railroad scales. She wanted something small for the human-scale object and tried a thimble and a pool ball. Finally, she settled on a zipper. The full-sized brass zipper unzips to reveal a gash in the HO scale landscape. Does thinking in these lilliputian relationships change how you see the world? "Yes," says Karavasiles. "You get so involved in focusing on the landscape or waiting for a train to come, then suddenly, you look up at the coke machine and you become very aware of the scale of things." The exhibition runs through September. The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is located in the Casa de Balboa Building on the Prado in Balboa Park. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $2.00 for adults; children under 15 are free. For more information, call 696-0199.