Avid collector opens his homeBy Betty Shimabukuro
to the public, sharing a Christmas
wonderland he's created
with his finds
NOTE to Webster: Proposing a new compound word for your next dictionary -- "eclectic-collector." The definition: Irvin Johnson. Used in a sentence: "I am an eclectic-collector. I collect anything and everything."
Irvin Johnson is a 50-year-old man with the heart of a child and a house in Waipahu that is packed with stuff. Mostly little stuff, some of it old, some of it new, some of it valuable, some of it not-so. The point is, he loves it all and he's willing to share it with anyone who'd like to come and have a look.
For the holiday season, Johnson has decked out the large downstairs family room in his home with three Christmas trees, a 17-room handmade dollhouse, several train sets, a gigantic Christmas village and 60 -- that's SIXTY -- "zoo boxes."
Zoo box, another new one for Webster. That would be a shadow box/diorama packed with animals in the form of ceramic pieces, paper cutouts, hand-made papier-mache sculpture, etc. It could be a few inches square or a few feet square, large enough to hold a small child, except that there'd be no room for the child amid all the tiny creatures.
Where: Home of Irvin Johnson, 94-968 Awanani St., Waipahu
When: 7 p.m.- 10:30 p.m. nightly through Dec. 26.
It is impossible to describe the scene in words. As Johnson says, "You have to see it for yourself." For several years he's put up this display for himself, but last year he opened it up to the neighborhood, playing host to 250 visitors. This year he's willing to accommodate even more. He asks no donations, only that visitors not touch anything -- items tend to topple over in a chain reaction that can bring down the better part of a display.
It took him three weeks to complete the decorating. That's on top of the 39 years it took him to collect everything, beginning with the tiny wooden chair given him by his mother. Her father had carved it for her when she was just 6.
So began a lifelong love of miniatures. All manner of objects have come his way, by personal acquisition or as gifts. "I never turn anything down." Not even a pink plastic mailbox that he says, "one of my friends found floating in the Ala Wai."
What you'll see if you visit Johnson this holiday season is an incredible display that defies numerical measurement.
For starters, take the dollhouse, built over eight years as a home for the tiny furniture, sculptures, figurines, china pieces and knickknacks of his collection. Each room holds 75 to 100 items, divided loosely by international themes. There's a French room, an Asian room, a Greco-Roman statue garden, a wedding party room, an Egyptian room -- full of statuary and a handmade sarcophagus that Johnson covered in gold-foil candy wrappers.
He has an eye for finding extraordinary uses for ordinary things. Such as the Clairol hair-coloring boxes that became wall paneling in one room, the silver embossed Chivas Regal box that became the background tapestry in another, the old shirt that provided wallpaper for a third. Pictures from cologne packages are now ceiling murals; flowers cut off tissues boxes adorn a staircase.
Johnson is also a fair craftsman, and many individual items, in a more pristine setting, would make an artistic display in their own right. He built an intricate mosaic into the floor of one room out of shell beads from a necklace. The Egyptian room walls are covered with a hand-drawn mural, obviously done with painstaking patience. Palm trees, shrubs and tiny flowers are crafted of paper.
All his skills are self-taught and Johnson makes no claims to the authenticity of his arrangements. "Put together it resembles something, but it's not precise." He has pink elephants and a green rhinoceros in one of his "zoos" and a child last year pointed that he had an Indian elephant in a setting that should have had an African elephant.
These things bother him not. He has put things he loves into settings that he enjoys, and that's enough.
When does it end? "Eventually you gotta stop," he says. "I'm getting old, I need to stop."
But first there's the Medieval luncheon room he hopes to add to his dollhouse, and the meat market. And, oh yes, the castle ruins ...
When you're eclectic, the collecting is endless.
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