Thursday, 11 June 2015

Elephant No. 131: From the Archives—Altoids Tin Diorama

Over the past several years, people have been using Altoids tins to make lots of interesting things, from tiny amplifiers to little shrines to homes for itty-bitty animals. So today, I thought I'd try making something using an Altoids tin.

Altoids are strong breath mints that were first produced in England in the 1780s. Billed as the "Original Celebrated Curiously Strong Mints", Altoids are characterized by a high proportion of peppermint oil.

Interestingly, Altoids are harder to find in Britain than in the other countries to which they are exported. They have never been heavily marketed in Britain; however, in the United States they are so popular that the brand's owner moved Altoids production to Chattanooga, Tennesee, to be nearer the primary market.

In addition to the traditional mints—currently available in seven breath-freshening flavours—Altoids makes sour hard candies in round tins. Other items such as chewing gum, chocolate-dipped mints, and breath strips have also been marketed over the years, but have since been discontinued.

A selection of Altoid tins.

In addition to the mints, many people buy Altoids simply to get the handy little tins. Some people use them as simple containers for household items such as paper clips, little sewing kits and coins. Others use them as ashtrays, miniature survival kits and first aid kits.

Typical Altoids survival kit.

And then there are the people who think up wild and woolly ways of using Altoids tins. Even the most rudimentary online search for "Altoids tin" turns up inventive uses such as working amplifiers, flashlights, speakers, a thumb piano, a crystal radio, a barbecue grill, and even a projector.

Altoids tin projector, made by Leonidas Tolias.

Altoids tins are also a favourite plaything for artists. Shrines, dioramas, shadowboxes, zen gardens, coin purses, mouse houses and picture frames are just a few of the uses I've seen.

Elaborate altered Altoids tin by Laura Carson, 2011.

Although I'm a sucker for any kind of tin container, I only have two actual Altoid tins: one really small tin, and a regular-sized one. I had no idea what I was going to make for today's elephant, but I thought the larger tin might be more practical.

At first, I wasn't sure what kind of thing to produce. I'm by no means an electronic genius, or I would have tried to figure out how to make something that trumpeted like an elephant when the tin was opened. Or that lit up. Or that featured a little dancing elephant. I thought about making a little stuffed elephant tucked up in bed, but I didn't feel like sewing today. I felt like drawing and cutting things out, so I decided I would do some kind of elephant diorama, since I'm quite taken with mixed-media art created inside Altoid tins.

I determined at the outset that I didn't want to paint or otherwise alter the exterior of the tin. This wasn't laziness on my part, as much as a desire to preserve the original look of the tin. So I turned my attention to the insides.

A couple of days ago, a friend suggested that when I finish this yearlong adventure I should go bond with some elephants in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater. Just in case I can't afford it right away, I thought I'd try and make a mini-diorama of a similar scene to tide me over.

I traced out two shapes from artist-quality bristol board to fit into the upper and lower lids of the tin. Because I needed a backdrop for my scene, I then looked online for photographs of the landscape in the Ngorongoro Crater. This is what I came up with, although I won't put in quite so many trees.

Elephant in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.
Photo: © Blake Harrington III

I drew everything first. For the upper lid, I drew a sort of postcard scene, with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. Having never been to Tanzania, I'm not sure you can actually see Kilimanjaro from inside the crater, so I may be taking a bit of artistic license here. There are photos online that suggest that Kilimanjaro is visible from Ngorongoro, but you can't believe every caption you read.

For the lower section, I didn't draw anything, since I planned to paint the background freehand, along with a framing strip to go around the inside of the wall of the tin.

Next, I tried to figure out how many little figures I should insert into the scene. I wanted to stagger their placement in foreground and background, but it's a very shallow space, so I didn't go overboard. I drew the figures onto the same bristol board.

I heat-set all the drawings with a hairdryer, then painted everything. In the process, I added narrow tabs at the bottom of the little figures, so that they would stand up when affixed to the tin.

When everything was dry, I started by glueing the Kilimanjaro scene into the upper lid with double-sided tape. I did the same with the backdrop in the lower section, and added the framing strip all the way around. I had goofed a bit on one side of the framing strip, in terms of where the sky met the ground, but it wasn't horrendous.

After this, I cut out all the little bits, pre-folding the lower tabs against a metal ruler. I then glued each of the tabs with a glue stick, and placed them in what I thought was a pleasing arrangement on the lower part of the framing strip. I laid them flat to apply them, then folded each piece forward and creased it sharply.

It took me a while to make all of this, but it wasn't particularly difficult. And I didn't really mind, because it was the kind of thing I felt like doing today.

Although I wasn't sure when I started how well this would turn out, I'm happy with the final piece. In fact, I may just have to go out and buy some more Altoids, just to get the tins.

Elephant Lore of the Day
When she arrived at the Bristol Zoological Gardens in 1868, Zebi was the largest Asian elephant in captivity. Standing three metres (ten feet) in height, Zebi had been sent as a gift to the Zoo by the Maharaja of Mysore.

Zebi was a highly popular attraction at the time, particularly for her antics. She was no respecter of persons or their possessions, and appeared to take great delight in removing and eating whatever took her fancy. She had a particular taste for the straw hats popular among both men and women at the time. If she discovered a straw hat within reach of her trunk, Zebi would blithely pluck it from the wearer's head and eat it.

She also had an interest in wooden objects. Her most famous acquisition was a cricket bat carried by a young boy. Snatching the bat from the child, Zebi quickly reduced it to splinters, then ate it.

Although later elephants acquired by the Bristol Zoo gave rides to children, it doesn't appear as though Zebi ever allowed riders on her back. Sadly, following six months of ill health, Zebi was euthanized in 1910.

Zebi and her keeper Jim Rawlings, ca. 1901.
Photo: © PA

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