Master of the Craftsmen

       

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Newspaper Articles About Frank James
And His Unique Craftsmanship Talents

No small feat

THE HOUSE THAT FRANK BUILT

  "If the models aren't for others to see, what good are they?"
 The models show meticulous detail. For the "House of Democracy," James fashioned broom handles into the telephone poles. He made a working water fountain with the bottoms of orange juice cans. The house also has a working hot tub and swimming pool. Barbells in a weight-lifting room were made with coat buttons. A picket fence was built with pop-sickle sticks. Electrically powered street light fixtures were made from toothbrush cases.
  The "Temple of Truth" includes

By Richard Howland
Staff Writer
Press-Telegram --life/style
Wednesday, March 12, 1986

 Frank James owns a house that he says is worth $250,000, but he doesn't live in it because it's too small for him.
  The cramped mansion is a scale model that fits on a tabletop in the dining room of his modest real home on Baltic Avenue in West Long Beach.
  He said insurance appraisers have placed the miniature house's replacement value at $250,000, based on the 5,900 hours it took James to build it during a two-year period. The house was completed in 1982.
  He christened the miniature structure the "House of Democracy." The surface supporting the house includes four streets named Freedom, Faith, Peace and United. The interior walls are decorated with portraits of his heroes: Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Anwar Sadat.
  In a spare bedroom, James keeps his latest model, depicting a church called the "Universal Temple of Truth," which took him four years to build.
  James, 38, has earned a living as a carpenter, construction engineer and furniture maker. He said his art work is motivated by a desire to help poor people. He occasionally exhibits his models, donating admission fees to charities His favorite cause is local food banks.
  "We should all get together and do something for the hungry kids in America," he said.
  His models were designed to be moved easily for display at exhibitions. The house can be taken down to five portable sections, and the church has 11 sections.
  Neighbors and passersby often are treated to free tours of James' home, after they spot the models through his windows.

 tiny, electric candles at the altar. A switch turns on recorded hymns. In the basement, there is a table setting to represent the Last Supper. It took James three days just to make each of 14 stained glass windows. He formed tiny "bricks" of wood filler, painted them red and put them in place one by one to build a "masonry" wall around the church.
   He said he spent $7,000 on materials for the church.
  "You buy so much, and use so little," he lamented.
  For example, he bought an entire grandfather clock in order to obtain chimes for the bell in the church steeple. For the roof, he used real slate, which had to be cut and shaved into fragile fragments. Of every 10 pieces he cut, only two or three could be used because the others broke.
  His main tools are an ordinary carving knife, a hacksaw, a blow torch and a hammer. He makes other tools himself to accomplish special tasks.
  Another example of his painstaking craftsmanship is a spectacular, full-sized waterbed, whose elaborate headboard features a wet bar, television and aquarium. A wooden staircase leads to the bed, but James said he doesn't sleep in it.
  The bed is located in the living room of his modest, three-bedroom home. With three rooms devoted to the storage of his large artworks, his actual living space is confined to his kitchen, one bedroom and a den.
  "I don't know what I'll build next," he said. I'd rather exhibit what I already have."

Details are a big part of small projects

  Frank James describes the details of his projects: The bathroom fixtures and the corner mailbox were hand-carved from two-by-fours. He executed the minute paintings himself, and used one of his hobbies -- reading -- to learn the skill of macramé just to complete the two tiny hanging planters on the balcony.
  Reading also helped him solve his biggest problem with the project: getting the fountain to work properly. The fountain itself is made from the top half of a plastic orange juice bottle and two plastic champagne corks, so the 60-gallon-per-minute pump Frank had to operate it was a bit of overkill. With a little brush-up n his electrical skills at the library, he was able to convert it to pump half a gallon per minute.
  Skill and technical wizardry aside, perhaps the most intriguing thing about Democracy House is its theme. "I've been interested in politics since my stepfather went into it," explains Frank, "and working on the house gave me a lot of tie to think. About a quarter of the way into the project I began thinking, "What will be the name?" I started getting interested in the meaning of such things as democracy, communism, and so on. I went to the library and did a tremendous amount of research and went to college campuses to talk to people about their ideas." The results is a perfectly beautiful miniature house situated on a square block bordered by United Drive, Faith Avenue, and Peace and Freedom Streets. The real estate sign out front doesn't say "For Sale," explains Frank, "because you can't sell democracy."
  His newest project, begun in January, is even more ambitious, and yet he hopes to complete it by the end of the year. "I keep strict track of my time," says the soft-spoken miniaturist." If I don't put in 15 hours a day I make it up on the weekend or by staying up all night. I put the car in the garage, lock it up and just work. I figure I'll have put in 80-hour weeks between now and the end of the year to get it done. I would hate to think that this is my second piece and the first is better. I think you should get better each time."
  Over Frank's mantle is a hand-lettered sign that reads: "A Master Craftsman Am I. It takes Patience, Sacrifice, Determination & God. Frank M. James." True to his spiritual bent he called the new project -- which he's trading in his car for a more economical model to finance -- The Universal Truth Church of God. Why a church? "I'm very talented," maintains Frank without a trace of ego, "and that talent came from one source: God. I felt I should do a church for him"
  Already taking shape nicely, the imposing white structure is being built without the aid of a blueprint. "Designing is my favorite part," says Frank. "I design it in my head and keep it there I don't use a blueprint because things change too much. I can always visualize the finished product. Things change, but I work toward that direction."
  Frank does know about clock repair, however, and in his first trip to a thrift shop bought a grandfather clock whose chimes will go into the steeple. He will glass in the top portion so it will be possible o view the working chimes .The inside of the church will be thoroughly outfitted with wood floors and hand-carved pews and the basement will house a library and a replica of "The Last Supper." The roof will be of slate and the fence surrounding the whole is being painstakingly made of model airplane parts and welding rods that take five to six hours each to grind to a point and weld in place.

 

  Like Democracy House, Frank's church will have a top-notch sound system built into it. This one, of course, will play hymns. Frank has high hopes for the project once it's completed: "I hope that when people see it they will want to get down to scale size and go to church."  "In keeping with his philosophy of not wanting to copy the same piece twice, Frank's tentatively scheduled third project will be a complete departure from his first two. He's currently negotiating the rights to reproduce Dodger Stadium in miniature, a project he has already thoroughly researched. The planned display will measure approximately six feet by six feet and will be manned by Frank's favorite Dodgers pitted against another all-star team. "I've been  hand-carving for years," says the avid sports fan, "and that's when I'll go into making dolls." He'll probably start with such favorites as Reggie Jackson, Don Newcomb and Pee Wee Reese.
  To finance his passion for miniatures, Frank builds beautiful handcrafted furniture and trouble-shoots for other miniaturists. He's traveled as far afield as San Francisco, Denver and New York to consult, and says, "That's my main business now. I'll travel anywhere to help people with their miniatures." If Frank gets too swamped with calls, it's shouldn't be long before he has expert help. There's good reason to believe his son, Frank James, Jr., now 10, will follow his talented father's footsteps. "I think he takes after me," explains Frank, Sr. "He's always playing around with electrical and mechanical things...and he wants to be an artist."


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